Shedding light on strength of schedules


Wow. I'm a Seahawks fan, but I'm also a football fan. And whichever team's fans end up happier after Sunday night, how can anyone NOT get excited about the game itself? Two rookie quarterbacks, each with a compelling backstory, and each with character and work-ethic to spare. Two teams with smash-mouth running games who, at the same time, are running innovative offenses -- or "college stuff," to their detractors -- that could change the face of pro football forever. Add in two fan communities who are both intelligent and civilized (much more than the fans of certain other NFL sites I could mention, cough, cough), and what's not to like?

I'm writing, though, about the "strength of schedule" argument. Basically, Seahawk fans think they've played a much tougher schedule than the Redskins have, and want credit for it. Skins fans, in turn, either dispute the premise (how can a team from the former NFC Worst claim a tougher schedule?), or deny that the schedule matters very much. I don't think I can resolve that argument here -- indeed, as you'll see below, I don't have any answer at all to the question of how much a stronger schedule matters. Instead, my only purpose here is to describe what that difference in schedule actually is, and to explain why the Seahawks' schedule looks at least somewhat stronger, at least to those of us whose favorite colors are blue and green.

Let me start with the defenses the two teams have faced this year -- and I'll do it separately for run defenses and pass defenses, since teams that are great at one aren't necessarily great at the other. Without further ado, here are the four best pass defenses the Redskins have faced this year, using Football Outsiders' final DVOA ranking of each team's defense (shown here in parentheses) as a guide:

Washington's top pass defenses faced:

St Louis (8)
Cincinnati (9)
Atlanta (11)
Carolina (12)

I don't insist that the Football Outsider measures are the only way to rate a defense; but they're not bad, and they have the advantage of (a) ranking pass and run defenses separately, and (b) being freely available on the web. Still, you can use some other metric, if you like -- er, as long as you don't use something like passing or rushing yards per game, which is a horrible way to rate a defense. In any case, by just about any respectable measure, these are all good pass defenses (St Louis', in particular is underappreciated). Clearly, then, the Redskins have plenty of experience against teams that are tough to throw on.

However. Here's the analogous list for Seattle this year, showing the top four pass defenses the Seahawks have faced:

Seattle's top pass defenses faced:

Chicago (1)
Arizona (2)
San Francisco (6)
Green Bay (7)

Arizona's rank as #2 on this list might come as a surprise to some, given the Cardinals' collapse after their 4-and-0 start. However, Arizona's defense was the only unit that performed at a high level (ask New England fans about that), so it shouldn't be tainted by the collapse of the rest of the franchise, at quarterback and offensive line and elsewhere.

In any case, even if we (unjustifiably) take the Arizona pass defense off of this list, the next-toughest pass defense the Seahawks faced was St Louis (8) ... which, you'll recall, was the best of the pass defenses the Redskins faced this year. In other words, the Seahawks this year faced four or five pass defenses who were all better than or equal to any of the pass defenses that the Redskins faced. That's what you'd call a difference in the strength of schedule.

Oh, and does anybody want to know how the Seahawks and Redskins actually did against the top pass defenses on their respective schedules? The Redskins lost all four of their games (some of them narrowly) against St Louis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Carolina. Against their own, tougher slate, the Seahawks went 4-and-[edit:2], losing only the first of their two games against [edit: Arizona and] San Francisco.

I'll spend less time introducing the remaining tables, since they're all constructed the same way. Let's start with the run defenses each team has faced, which might arguably be more important than pass defense, given how the Redskins and Seahawks both emphasize the run. (Yeah, I know; the run sets up the play-action, etc, etc.) Anyway, here are the best run defenses each team has faced this year.

Washington's best run defenses faced:

Tampa Bay (3)
Minnesota (7)
Pittsburgh (8)
St Louis (10)

Seattle's best run defenses faced:

Chicago (1)
San Francisco (2)
New England (6)
Minnesota (7)

It's a little more even here, with both teams facing some good defenses, though the numerical edge again goes to the Seahawks. The Seahawks also had better success against their own top opponents, though again only slightly so. Specifically, the Hawks finished 4-and [edit:2]] against the top four run defenses on their own schedule, while the Skins finished 2-and-2 against their own, slightly easier slate of run defenses.

Now, on to the best offenses each team has played against, again treating pass offenses and run offenses separately.

Washington's best run offenses faced:

New York Giants (5)
Minnesota (6)
Baltimore (7)
Carolina (8)

Seattle's best run offenses faced:

San Francisco (3)
New England (4)
Minnesota (6)
Carolina (8)

The difference here, though still slightly in Seattle's favor, isn't very pronounced. In their respective games against these teams, the Redskins again went 3-2; the Seahawks went 4-1.

Washington's best pass offenses faced:

Dallas (7)
New Orleans (8)
Atlanta (10)
New York Giants (11)

Seattle's best pass offenses faced:

New England (1)
Green Bay (3)
San Francisco (5)
Dallas (7)

Here, Seattle has definitely faced a tougher slate. In their respective games against the teams on these lists, the Redskins again won three [edit:four] and lost two, while the Seahawks again went 4-and-1.

So what does all this prove? Well, nothing, of course; not if you're expecting some kind of syllogistic or mathematical proof. I think it does show that the Seahawks have been tested over a rougher schedule than the Redskins have, with the Skins' toughest opponents usually featuring units who ranked from, say, the top six to the top twelve (which is still very good), while the Seahawks have faced more units who rank somewhere between the top one or two to the top six (which is outstanding). That difference in turn could suggest that, say, a 64% completion rate, or a rushing average of 5.0 yards per carry against the Seahawks' tougher schedule is more like the equivalent of a higher completion rate (64% + X) or a higher rushing average (5.0 + Y yards per carry) against a slightly less dominating schedule like the one the Redskins have played.

What this doesn't tell us, though, is how big X and Y are. In other words, how much credit should the Seahawks get for having played a slightly tougher schedule? Is it enough, say, to outweigh whatever home-field advantage the Seahawks lose from having to play this game on the road (and how much is that advantage worth in numbers, anyway)? Or would it be enough to outweigh whatever the Seahawks would lose if, say, Russell Wilson (the gods forbid!) were knocked out with an injury in the first quarter? I don't know how to quantify any of those things ... so I now return you to your regularly-scheduled argument.

Looking forward to a great game,


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