Commentary

Drafting by strength of schedule: Easier said than done

Updated: June 19, 2008, 12:09 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Flash back to last season, if you will. There you were during your fantasy draft, lists in hand, as the final few rounds crept closer. All the top names on your cheat sheet had been crossed out since the Calvin Coolidge administration, and it was time to make your reach picks. Any selection at this point of the draft is a roll of the dice, but you look down at your options and decide to go with Dwayne Jarrett of Carolina over Justin Gage of Tennessee since, according to the strength of schedule, the Panthers were projected to have a far easier schedule than the Titans. How'd that work out for you?

Many people stand by the premise that when selecting between two relatively equal selections for their backup, it makes sense to look ahead to what their NFL schedule looks like for Weeks 14, 15 and 16. Since those weeks are when most leagues hold their fantasy playoffs, the reasoning goes that you'd be better served by at least having the ability to start Tarvaris Jackson, who could emerge and will be going up against a weak Falcons defense in Week 16, over a stud like Tony Romo, likely to be playing only a quarter or two against a far tougher Ravens squad. And in theory, this makes a whole lot of sense. Unfortunately, putting this strategy into practice might prove more harm than good.

First of all, how are you going to determine which team has the easiest schedule? You can't rely on any of those preseason lists, which are based entirely on the win-loss records of the past season. Look at last year's "predicted" toughest and easiest schedules, based on the completely erroneous presumption that all good teams will remain good and all bad teams will remain bad.

2007 Toughest schedules: Predicted

1. (tie) Raiders: .539 opponents' winning percentage (2006)
1. (tie) Bills: .539
3. Patriots: .535
4. Titans: .520
5. (tie) Colts: .516
5. (tie) Chiefs: .516
5. (tie) Jets: .516

2007 Easiest schedules: Predicted

1 (tie). Cardinals: .461 opponents' winning percentage (2006)
2. Bears: .465
3. 49ers: .469
4. (tie) Bucs: .475
4. (tie) Rams: .473
4. (tie) Falcons: .473
7. Panthers: .477

Compare that with what ended up being the actual toughest and easiest schedules, based on the win-loss records of each team's opponents after the season played itself out:

2007 Toughest schedules: Actual

1. Eagles: .563 opponents' winning percentage (2007)
2. Redskins: .555
3. (tie) Bears: .543
3. (tie) Lions: .543
5. Dolphins: .539
6. (tie) Jets: .523
6. (tie) Panthers: .523

2007 Easiest schedules: Actual

1. Seahawks: .414 opponents' winning percentage (2007)
2. Browns: .430
3. Cardinals: .434
4. Steelers: .453
5. Bengals: .461
6. 49ers: .465

Those lists bear very little resemblance to each other. In fact, the Patriots, who just avoided making the "easiest" list with a .469 opponents' winning percentage, might have been avoided by owners based on the expected difficult schedule. (Of course, their regular season dominance -- they added a loss to each team they faced -- contributed to that.) Looking ahead to 2008, all people can talk about is the Patriots having the "easiest" schedule. How different that assessment could be at the end of the year if opponents like the Dolphins, whose 1-15 record factors into the equation twice, improves to even 4-12.

But even if we were to base our strength of schedule on more of a fantasy perspective and use opponents' total yardage allowed rather than records, that wouldn't necessarily help much. For one, the best defenses in one season aren't always the best in the next, at least not statistically. For instance, only three of the top 10 defenses from 2006 (Baltimore, New England and Pittsburgh) remained there in 2007, while the two worst defenses in 2006 (Tennessee and Washington) skyrocketed into the top 10 last season. The NFL is so volatile that teams can go from worst to first and back again without much rhyme or reason. All it takes is one or two key free-agent signings, or one or two season-ending injuries to turn a squad's fate 180 degrees on a dime.

So if we went strictly "by the numbers" and avoided Jacksonville Jaguars players last season because they had what we expected to be a tough draw come playoff time, we'd have missed a golden opportunity for success:

Jaguars fantasy playoff weeks (2007)
Week Opponent 2006 Defense Rank 2007 Defense Rank Points Scored by Jaguars
14 Carolina 7 16 37
15 Pittsburgh 9 1 29
16 Oakland 3 22 49

Conversely, the Browns might have looked as if they were sitting pretty come Week 14, given their opponents. However, even though those teams collectively exceeded our expectations of ineptitude, Cleveland still couldn't muster up a lot of fantasy playoff goodness.

Browns fantasy playoff weeks (2007)
Week Opponent 2006 Defense Rank 2007 Defense Rank Points Scored by Browns
14 Jets 20 18 24
15 Buffalo 18 31 8
16 Cincinnati 30 27 14

It's a hard enough task trying to figure out whether an individual player is going to suddenly have a breakout season, rebound from a disastrous 2007 or repeat a record-breaking performance from last year, and nobody is going to be right 100 percent of the time. But to extend our reach by trying to judge an entire 11-man unit and how good they'll be more than three months into the 2008 season? Don't overthink things. Just go with your gut and draft the player you think is better.

Now that's not to say we can't take anything away from a glance at the upcoming season's slate of games. There are certain truths that remain self-evident, regardless of the eventual performances of the teams involved. Let's see what variables might have some influence on which team's players might be a bit more favorable to own come crunch time.

Variable No. 1: There's no place like home.

Certainly playing at home is no guarantee of success, and the Super Bowl champion New York Giants would be the first to admit that you can be successful on an extended trip. But as a general rule of thumb, there's a reason teams play so hard during the regular season to get that home-field advantage in the playoffs. In the 2007 regular season, only 11 of the 32 NFL teams had losing records at home, and six of those teams were 3-5. Compare that with the 23 teams who were .500 or worse on the road, and you can clearly see the edge a team can get by without having to travel. Here are some teams with 3-1 home/road splits over Weeks 14 through 17:

Staying at home: Chicago (lone road game -- Week 17), Indianapolis (Week 16), Arizona (Week 16), Baltimore (Week 16).
On the road again: Cleveland (lone home game -- Week 16), Miami (Week 15), New England (Week 16), Washington (Week 16)

Variable No. 2: There's no place like dome.

Weather can wreak havoc with your stats. Of course, just because there's a snowstorm doesn't mean Tom Brady can't throw for 312 yards. But I'd certainly prefer the guarantee of a weatherproof domed stadium, or the sunshiny goodness of a Florida field in December over the tundras of the Northeast or in Green Bay or Cleveland. After all, having Derek Anderson in my fantasy playoffs and watching him struggle his way through a wintry 9-for-24, 137-yard Week 15 performance isn't exactly going to get me to the championship game. Let's see which teams will be stuck wearing parkas on the sidelines and which ones will be drowning in sunscreen:

Element-free: Atlanta, St. Louis, Minnesota (four dome games), Indianapolis (three dome games and at Jacksonville), San Diego (three warm-weather sites and at Kansas City, which is usually pretty mild).
Element-freeze: Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington (four cold-weather sites); New England, New York Jets (three cold-weather sites plus a game in the Bay Area, which can have very tricky winds in December).

Variable No. 3: Familiarity breeds contempt, and contempt causes you to "bring it."

Rivalries in football are real, and the one thing you can count on is an underperforming team showing up with their "A game" to face a hated divisional rival, regardless of whether the game has any playoff implications. If they've already been eliminated from the postseason, would Philadelphia show up in Week 16 against Houston? Maybe, maybe not. But what about a game against Dallas? They'll come to play, all right. Perhaps the schedule-makers have done the following teams a favor by lighting a late-season fire under them, or perhaps not. After all, the knife can cut both ways.

Facing all three divisional foes in the last four weeks: Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Diego.
Facing two divisional foes, with both games being on the road: Tennessee, Miami, Seattle, Tampa Bay

AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

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