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Strength Of Schedule: 2003

As most fantasy football participants (and NFL fans in general) are aware, the NFL does an admirable job of maintaining parity among the teams in the league, partly by awarding "soft" schedules to teams that are struggling. However, between free agency (which allows franchises to shoot from worst to first-or vice versa-in a single season) and the league's 8-division structure (which results in 14 out of 16 match-ups being identical for all the teams in any division), soft schedules are no longer as easy to come by as they used to be.

Based on our projections (which have taken personnel changes into account), it is clear to us here at that several of last year's least successful teams have ended up with much more challenging schedules in 2003 than many playoff teams. For instance, we rank the Cowboys (who finished 2002 at 5-11) as having the 8th-hardest schedule in 2003, whereas the AFC Champion Raiders (who finished the regular season with the inverse record of 11-5) will have this year's 6th-easiest schedule.

Because so many defenses were shaken up around the league during the offseason, only four defenses are generally considered close to being "sure things" in 2003: the Buccaneers, Dolphins, Eagles, and Panthers. Because Dallas plays Philadelphia twice and each of the other teams once, the beleaguered Cowboy offense is in the untenable position of having to play five of the top four defenses in the league-not to mention such up-and-coming units as Buffalo and the New York Jets. The Raiders, on the other hand, will not face a single one of the top four defenses in the NFL; instead, Oakland returns from a trip to the Super Bowl to face four of the league's worst five defenses (Minnesota, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Detroit) in addition to two games each against the underachieving Chargers and Broncos. We probably do not have to persuade you that Charlie Garner is a more talented running back than Troy Hambrick, but our data indicate that conditions are right for Garner to outperform himself and for Hambrick to come up shy of even modest expectations.

As I hope the examples of Dallas and Oakland make clear, it is extremely important to consider strength of schedule when it comes to projecting player performances over the year, and we have made such projections in nine categories: 1) total yardage, 2) total points, 3) rushing yards, 4) rushing points, 5) passing yards, 6) passing points, 7) kicking points, 8) sacks, and 9) turnovers. As I explained in last season's article concerning strength of schedule, these projections have already been factored into our player rankings. We currently rank Garner 13th partly because of his soft schedule, so if you move him even higher because of Oakland's schedule, you will be factoring the same information into the equation twice. The full version of this article is far too long to post here, but it is available at our website (; this abbreviated version deals only with the first four categories.

For the following tables, we have focused not on what offenses are expected to do, but on what the defenses around the league have done in the past and are capable of doing in 2003. Of course, we do not assume that the team with the most favorable schedule will be the one to win the most games. To return to the example of Garner and Hambrick, we would not expect a simple swapping of the two teams' schedules to result in the Cowboy outperforming the Raider. But these tables do give us valuable insight when it comes to those players who could easily go either way. Is Detroit's James Stewart poised to have a better-than-average or a worse-than-average year? Will poor David Carr (of the Texans) have to face teams that are particularly effective at registering sacks? If these questions interest you, you will want to review these projections.

Total Yardage Yielded By Opponnents
1 St. Louis 5728.5
2 Seattle 5707.3
3 Chicago 5705.7
4 Green Bay 5674.6
5 Denver 5673.8
6 Oakland 5666.6
7 Minnesota 5660.1
8 Pittsburgh 5632
9 Cleveland 5599.6
10 San Francisco 5590.2
11 Baltimore 5585
12 Arizona 5581.7
13 Cincinnati 5576.2
14 Detroit 5564.3
15 Kansas City 5555.8
16 San Deigo 5517.6
17 Carolina 5471.2
18 Tampa Bay 5428.5
19 Houston 5359.6
20 Miami 5355.6
21 Jacksonville 5321.1
22 Tennessee 5310.9
23 Indianapolis 5304.7
24 Atlanta 5300.5
25 Dallas 5287.9
26 Buffalo 5287.7
27 New Orleans 5256.7
28 Washington 5235.4
29 NY Giants 5216
30 Philadelphia 5211.8
31 New England 5201.2
32 NY Jets 5169.8

One point that this chart makes dramatically plain is that the most challenging schedules have gone overwhelmingly to the teams of the NFC East, with all four teams from that division ranked in the bottom ten. Three of the four teams of the AFC East also made their way into the bottom ten (with Miami being the lone exception because, of course, Miami does not have to play Miami).

At the other end of the spectrum, we see that in the NFC West, only Arizona failed to make the top ten (though the Cardinals did rank a promising 12th). Although it is true that there are no stellar defenses in the NFC West, the high rankings for these teams have more to do with extra-divisional opponents, as the NFC West is matched up this year against both the NFC North (with three of the bottom ten defenses in the league: the Vikings, Lions, and Bears) and the AFC North (with two of the bottom ten defenses in the league: the Bengals and Browns). Weak defenses in the AFC and NFC North and mediocre-to-poor competition within the NFC West give St. Louis, Seattle, and San Francisco very bright prospects indeed.

Those of you in scoring-only leagues will want to consult the following chart (which has to do with points-rather than yardage-yielded by opponents), but the results are extremely similar to those obtained in the yardage chart (and for almost identical reasons).

1 Seattle 387.3
2 St. Louis 380.4
3 Chicago 373
4 Pittsburgh 369.3
5 Arizona 366.8
6 Cleveland 365.8
7 San Francisco 365.2
8 Green Bay 364.5
9 Oakland 363.2
10 Denver 362.5
11 Baltimore 362.4
12 Minnesota 360.7
13 Detroit 358.5
14 Cincinnati 356.2
15 Kansas City 356.1
16 San Deigo 350.7
17 Carolina 336.4
18 Tampa Bay 333
19 Miami 326.9
20 Houston 325.5
21 Atlanta 323.1
22 Buffalo 322.7
23 Jacksonville 320.5
24 Indianapolis 320.3
25 Dallas 318.2
26 Philadelphia 317.2
27 Tennessee 316.3
28 NY Giants 315.7
29 New Orleans 315
30 New England 311.9
31 NY Jets 311.7
32 Washington 304.6

Perhaps the most important difference between yardage and points concerns the Cardinals, who vault from 12th-most-desirable-schedule in yardage to 5th-most-desirable-schedule in points, giving the skill players of the NFC West (whose teams are ranked 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 7th) the most favorable schedules this season, hands down. Unfortunately, shifting the focus from yardage to points does nothing to improve the prospects for skill players in the NFC East, whose teams still rank in the bottom ten in terms of facing the most difficult defensive squads in the league.

The Running Game
For many reasons, 2003 does not appear to be the year of the running back. Chicago's Anthony Thomas suffered a sophomore slump last season; the years have taken their toll on the Jets' Curtis Martin, the Bengals' Corey Dillon, and the Titans' Eddie George; the perennial Emmitt Smith is now behind an unfamiliar o-line in Arizona; Duce Staley's training camp holdout has the Philadelphia front office considering a one-two punch of Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook; "Fragile" Fred Taylor is nursing a bone bruise; Marshall Faulk and Ahman Green both fell back to earth in 2002; Edgerrin James has yet to prove that he is back to 100%; Cleveland's William Green still needs to convince most of us that he can start this year the way finished last year; etc., etc. With tested, durable running backs in short supply, it is imperative to weigh strength of schedule along with such factors as injury-risk and surrounding cast. To that end, please consult the following two tables (the first concerning yardage and the second concerning points).

Rank Team RYYO   Rank Team RPYO
1 St. Louis 1937.1   1 Seattle 92.8
2 Minnesota 1922.9   2 Cleveland 92.3
3 Seattle 1914.4   3 Pittsburgh 90.6
4 Chicago 1904   4 St. Louis 90.4
5 Denver 1886.3   5 Chicago 90.1
6 Pittsburgh 1885.1   6 Cincinnati 89.6
7 San Francisco 1883.3   7 Oakland 89.3
8 Detroit 1873   8 Denver 89.2
9 Green Bay 1869.9   9 Minnesota 88.7
10 Arizona 1854.2   10 Baltimore 88.1
11 Carolina 1853.6   11 Kansas City 87.5
12 Oakland 1850.9   12 Arizona 87.1
13 Tampa Bay 1843.5   13 San Deigo 86.6
14 Cleveland 1841.1   14 San Francisco 85.7
15 Baltimore 1840.5   15 Green Bay 85.4
16 Cincinnati 1836.6   16 Detroit 84.8
17 Miami 1836.1   17 Miami 80.9
18 San Deigo 1832.7   18 Tampa Bay 80.3
19 Buffalo 1821.6   19 Houston 80.2
20 Kansas City 1820.2   20 Carolina 80.1
21 Houston 1815.9   21 Tennessee 79
22 Tennessee 1806.4   22 Jacksonville 78.1
23 Indianapolis 1802.5   23 Indianapolis 77.7
24 Jacksonville 1785   24 Buffalo 76.4
25 Dallas 1784.5   25 Atlanta 75.2
26 New Orleans 1774.4   26 NY Jets 74.8
27 Washington 1772.5   27 Philadelphia 74.5
28 Philadelphia 1768.6   28 New England 74.5
29 New England 1764.4   29 Dallas 73.9
30 NY Giants 1754.4   30 New Orleans 72.1
31 NY Jets 1751.9   31 NY Giants 71.6
32 Atlanta 1750.9   32 Washington 70.9

According to these charts, the Browns face a much more favorable schedule for rushing scores (2nd) than for rushing yardage (14th). Whether William Green will take advantage of opposing defenses who yield points on the ground or not remains to be seen, but if the sophomore back fails to deliver on points, the explanation will have to be Butch Davis' offense or Green's own lack of talent-not the quality of his opposition. On the other hand, if Green is limited to mediocre in terms of yardage, then he could very easily point to the opposing defenses and say that they are the kind of defenses that only allow mediocre success.

Backs whose schedules set them up for success in both categories (yardage and scoring) are Marshall Faulk, Shaun Alexander, and Clinton Portis. Faulk and Alexander should do particularly well, as the Rams and Seahawks face only one defense (Pittsburgh) likely to hold opponents to less than 100 yards. Between Michael Bennett's injury in Minnesota and rumors of the Chicago Bears' interest in acquiring Duce Staley, it is difficult to say who will emerge as the most consistent ball carrier for the Vikings and Bears, but what is certain is that both teams face very favorable schedules in terms of rushing games. If Duce Staley were to be traded to Chicago, then he would go from facing the fifth-hardest schedule in the league (in terms of rushing yardage) to the fourth-easiest. This difference would presumably go a long way toward mitigating the fall-off that we might expect in his receiving game.

Other points worth considering: 1) Buffalo's Travis Henry should have an easier time taking advantage of opponents in terms of yardage than in terms of scores; 2) Curtis Martin does not face a favorable schedule for a comeback year; and 3) Tiki Barber's productivity is almost certain to fall off because of personnel changes in the Giants' o-line-and even more certain to falter because of his schedule.