Running the Numbers: How Tough Is Dallas 2013 Schedule?

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Every year, fans and writers scrutinize NFL schedules ad nauseam. For the most part, all of the analysis is pretty much a waste of time. That's because most people focus on teams' win-loss records from the prior year – a really, really weak indication of team strength. If we're using the Colts' 11-5 record from last year as a predictor of their 2013 record, we're probably not going to be able to make very many accurate predictions. After all, Indianapolis was actually outscored by 30 points last season.

We can also assess the strength of particular units – pass defense, for example – but that also has its faults. For one, looking at total yards can be really misleading since those ranks are often the result of a team already being good or bad as opposed to a cause of it. Losing teams often rank low in run defense, for example, because they get run on late in games. That's why, while there's almost no correlation between interceptions or overall pass defense from one year to the next, there's a pretty strong correlation between season-to-season run defense.

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But since run defense rank is often a result of a team's fate and not a cause of it, it's not really something we can use to project strength of schedule. Plus, defensive strength tends to even out over the course of a 16-game season.

We can't really use overall offensive or defensive ranks as an indicator of schedule strength since they're explanatory stats, meant to explain past events but not predict future ones. So we really should be searching for the most predictive stats, the ones that can really do a good job of determining a team's actual ability.


Well, the most predictive stat out there is adjusted net yards per attempt.

Adjusted Net YPA (ANYPA)

ANYPA is a unique stat that has proven again and again to accurately predict team success. It's the best individual stat that us geeks have, and we use it all the time. The formula to calculate ANYPA is as follows:

(Passing Yards - Sack Yards 20 * Passing Yards - 45 * Interceptions)/(Attempts Times Sacked)

So it's basically an individual stat that penalizes quarterbacks for taking sacks and throwing interceptions. You might argue that neither of those acts fall solely at the feet of quarterbacks; the offensive line helps determine sacks, for example. While that's true, both sacks and interceptions have proven to be far more dependent on the quarterback than the offensive line. Just take a look at Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. There's a reason their offensive lines always seems to be the best in the NFL. Last year, those two both got the ball out in 2.5 seconds or less on their average throw, the two lowest marks in the league.

On top of that, for the purposes of projecting the strength of a schedule, it doesn't really matter who's at fault on a particular play. We just want to use numbers to predict something in the future. If the numbers can do that accurately and consistently, then they have pragmatic value.

ANYPA for Cowboys' Opponents

Below, I listed the opposing quarterbacks for the Cowboys this year, along with their 2012 ANYPA.

Week

Opponent

QB

Adjusted Net YPA

1

Giants

Eli Manning

6.59

2

at Chiefs

Alex Smith

6.76

3

Rams

Sam Bradford

5.64

4

at Chargers

Philip Rivers

5.45

5

Broncos

Peyton Manning

7.89

6

Redskins

Robert Griffin III

7.47

7

at Eagles

Michael Vick

5.27

8

at Lions

Matthew Stafford

5.81

9

Vikings

Christian Ponder

4.99

10

at Saints

Drew Brees

7.17

11

BYE

12

at Giants

Eli Manning

6.59

13

Raiders

Matt Flynn

7.56

14

at Bears

Jay Cutler

5.37

15

Packers

Aaron Rodgers

7.33

16

at Redskins

Robert Griffin III

7.47

17

Eagles

Michael Vick

5.27

Average

6.41

You can see that the Cowboys' opponents averaged 6.41 ANYPA in 2012. That's actually significantly more than the league average of 5.89. Even if we take the top 32 quarterbacks in 2012, the mean is still only 6.15. So in regards to the most predictive stat in football, the one that can best predict overall team success, the Cowboys' schedule is much harder than average.

On top of that, don't forget that ANYPA actually doesn't account for quarterback rushing. With one-quarter of their games against RGIII and Vick, the Cowboys' road to the playoffs might be even more difficult than the numbers suggest.

In the Division

Having said that, I think strength of schedule matters more when comparing teams in different divisions than for those in the same division. The reason is that division rivals effectively have only two games different from one another; they play 12 of the same opponents, they play each other twice, and they play two different opponents within the conference.

Overall, most strength of schedule rankings have little value because they explain the previous season but don't appropriately predict the future one. That can change if we analyze ANYPA, but the results tend to even out when looking at teams in the same division. That means the path to an NFC East crown is basically the same for Dallas as it is for Philly, New York, and Washington.

If the Cowboys are indeed the best team in the division, that's good news. But based on the quality of the quarterbacks Dallas will face this year, their most likely track to the postseason is probably winning the division, since their rivals play nearly the same schedule, as opposed to grabbing a wild card spot.

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