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How is Washington’s 2021 schedule affected by travel and rest?

adding analytics to the schedule discussion

Strength of Schedule

I think a lot of fans have figured out that simply looking at last year’s win-loss records for this year’s opponents isn’t really a good way to evaluate this year’s strength of schedule. Lots of people have tried to create better ways to evaluate strength of schedule. Some people, for example, look at betting trends in Las Vegas to evaluate the strength of opponents for the upcoming season. Some number crunchers rely on statistical algorithms to project changes from last season in terms of opponent strength.

In the end, with retirements, cuts, injuries, free agency and the draft, teams change so much from one season to the next that it’s very difficult to paint an accurate Strength of Schedule (SoS) picture.

That means that a lot of the schedule analysis that you hear on TV or sports radio where “analysts” remind you how good the Patriots have played in Foxboro for the past twenty years simply doesn’t matter. They were tough with Tom Brady, but he took his act to Tampa Bay, where he promptly won his 7th super bowl ring.

There are factors in schedule analysis that transcend rosters and focus on competitive advantage or disadvantage created by the schedule itself. Today, I’d like to look at two key ideas expressed in four key metrics, and highlight what they mean for the Washington Football Team in 2021.

Brian Burke

Brian Burke was one of the first people to apply analytics to the NFL; ESPN’s QBR (quarterback rating) calculation, for example, was built on the foundation of his early work. Here are some select points from his biography on the ESPN website.

Brian Burke, founder of the popular website AdvancedFootballAnalytics and one of the leading voices in NFL Analytics, joined ESPN as a senior analytics specialist in June 2015. [H]e also previously worked as an analytics consultant for multiple NFL teams and supplied statistics and analytics insights to NBC Sports and ESPN The Magazine. Originally from Baltimore, Md., Burke graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with the Class of 1993. He resides with his family in Reston, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.

As you can see, Burke is a DMV local; he grew up in the area, was educated here, and lives here now. In the wake of the schedule release, he published a lot of statistical data designed to cast the 2021 NFL schedule into a slightly different analytical light. Instead of focusing on the nearly impossible to measure impact of roster and coaching changes, or a flawed strength of schedule formula, Burke published a number of data sets that allow for some apples-to-apples comparison of aspects of scheduling that very few people talk about.

While his analysis is wide-ranging, I’d like to highlight just two areas illustrated with four metrics. The first is net rest differential.

Net Rest Differential

Burke says that this metric is predictive. Here’s what he said about it ahead of the 2019 season (two years ago):

Rest differential is a meaningful predictor. This season NE has the worst net rest difference compared to their opponents at -13 days. They’re followed by MIA & PHI at -11, and GB and SF at -10. Another way to look at rest differential is how many weeks does a team have less rest than its opponent. GB, SF, NYJ, MIA have 5 weeks. MIN, PIT, SEA, CLE, BAL, and NYG have 4 weeks.

The correlation seems to be common sense. Teams with more rest should have a competitive advantage against those with less rest.

What does Burke say about the 2021 season, and specifically, about the Washington Football Team?

Brian Burke - ESPN Analytics

You can see that, like 2019, the Patriots again have the worst net rest differential in the league — this season at -15. Washington has the 3rd worst situation according to Burke, at -13.

The Eagles happen to have the 3rd best situation according to this metric, at +11. The Giants and Cowboys are in the middle of the pack.

The NFL calls this “rest disparity”, and it is something that schedule-makers take into account when evaluating the quality of a proposed season schedule. It first became an issue in 2017 when the Giants were unhappy with their rest disparity from the previous season. It turned out that, when you added up the total difference between the extra days of rest the G-men had and those of their opponents, the deficit was 22 days! Following a complaint from the Giants franchise, the league mandated that this rest disparity be minimized to the extent possible when constructing the schedule.

Based on this single metric, it appears as if the Washington Football team is at a disadvantage.

One of the factors that feeds into this rest disparity arises when a team plays an opponent coming off of a bye week.

Brian Burke - ESPN analytics

You’ll see that the Patriots are once again the most disadvantaged, and that Washington is one of a group of several teams tied for 2nd-most disadvantaged.

But rest isn’t the only factor that matters in evaluating a schedule.

Travel Miles

A second factor to be considered is travel miles — basically, how much distance the team has to travel to compete in its road games. This season, for the first time, with the addition of a 17th game in which the AFC teams are all at home and the NFC teams are all visitors, it seems intuitive to think that the AFC teams would dominate the metric of least travel miles.

In fact, the top-5 teams on the chart are AFC teams, but there are a number of NFC teams, notably from the NFC East and North — two divisions where the cities in the division are (mostly) pretty closely packed. You’ll notice the relative lack of west coast teams on this list.

Brian Burke - ESPN Analytics

Washington looks pretty good here, coming in at 9th on the list. This reflects the nearness of our division rivals, but also the fact that the NFC East plays the NFC South this season. Further, the Chargers, Chiefs and Seahawks are all making long trips to FedEx Field this season, which is three long trips the Football Team doesn’t have to make. Meanwhile, our 17th game is against Buffalo, which is just a short flight away, and in the same time zone.

time zones
Time zone changes aren’t one of the metrics that Burke published this week, but it’s one that I pay attention to every year when I evaluate Washington’s schedule. We all know that football teams are creatures of rhythm and habit. The ability to run each week of the season on the normal schedule is considered an advantage, and Washington teams have always seemed to play their best at 1:00 pm Eastern Time on Sundays.

Washington has a two 4:00 road games — in Las Vegas and Denver — and its annual trip to Dallas will be televised on Sunday Night Football this year. The Football Team plays a Monday night game prior to that trip to Las Vegas, which is unfortunate, but the only Thursday game of the season comes in Week 2, at home against the Giants — all in all, probably as good as we could ask for the required Thursday game.

But let’s remember that we’re considering travel miles in order to assess competitive advantage, so the metric that’s more important than total travel miles is net travel miles. This represents the difference between the miles traveled by the WFT and those traveled in aggregate by Washington’s opponents.

Brian Burke - ESPN Analytics

You’ll see that the Raiders, despite traveling a lot of miles themselves, have the best ratio for net travel miles, coming in at about -6,000. In other words, even though the Raiders travel a lot, their opponents are traveling a whole lot more.

While teams like the Raiders and Texans look much different with the change from total travel miles to net, this metric doesn’t really change the picture for the Football Team, as it ranks 10th, at around -3,900 miles, but it does confirm that Washington holds an advantage here in both total miles and net differential.

Bottom line

On the one hand, the schedule makers have given Washington’s opponents more time to rest, game plan, and prepare, but those same opponents will, in aggregate, spend more time on airplanes, and will, for the most part, be playing on the east coast at 1pm.

There’s not much in the Football Team’s schedule to complain about, aside from the fact that they don’t play their second NFC East division game until Week 14, and the final five weeks of the season are all divisional games. I’m not really sure that that’s a bad thing — in fact, it could well be an easy way to finish out the schedule. If Washington is 6-6 heading into Week 14, the team could emerge either as division champs, or with a top-10 pick in the draft. In those five weeks, Washington will play Dallas twice, Philly twice, and the Giants once. That means that the team’s playoff situation won’t be resolved until somewhere between Weeks 16 and 18.

At least it will be interesting.