As far as an industry goes, there is a lot for the National Football League to be proud of. Massive global appeal, groundbreaking television offerings surrounding both the games themselves as well as the happenings behind the scenes, competitive balance -- all reasons it's the most successful sport in the world. But one of their most underrated accomplishments has been their ability to maintain relevance throughout the entire calendar year in a way that no other sport does.
The viewer/fan friendliness of the NFL Draft is a big part of why the league manages to stay in our consciousness year round. The combine in February, pro days throughout March, and the culmination of the process -- the Draft itself in April -- have something for everyone. Only interested in where the big names are going? Cool, just tune in the first night of the draft. For the first time, the draft is in prime time and round one gets its own night! Love the minutiae of your future backup tackles and corners? Watch the combine into the wee hours of the evening, and watch rounds four through seven all day Saturday.
It's almost like the league is at a point where if they slap a start time on virtually anything and throw it on the NFL Network, fans everywhere will plan their day around it. "Commissioner Goodell, leaving the parking garage of league headquarters, TONIGHT at 6:00 on the NFL NETWORK!!"
The league has even managed to take the release of next season's schedule and turn it into an event that sends all of us diehard fans and media folks into "Navin Johnson getting the new phone book" mode....
...this set of 16 games is the kind of spontaneous publicity that makes people!
That said, it's doubtful the 16 games that the Texans had handed to them on Tuesday sent them into a wild, Navin-esque celebration. Granted, we already knew who the opponents would be, but there's something about seeing actual dates and times next to the games, seeing a logical progression to the season, that makes it all much more real.
Here are those sixteen games:
Sun, Sept 12 vs INDIANAPOLIS (12:00) Sun, Sept 19 @ Washington (3:15) Sun, Sept 26 vs DALLAS (12:00) Sun, Oct 3 @ Oakland (3:05) Sun, Oct 10 vs NY GIANTS (12:00) Sun, Oct 17 vs KANSAS CITY (12:00) Sun, Oct 24 BYE Mon, Nov 1 @ Indianapolis (7:30) Sun, Nov 7 vs SAN DIEGO (12:00) Sun, Nov 14 @ Jacksonville (12:00) Sun, Nov 21 @ NY Jets (12:00) Sun, Nov 28 vs TENNESSEE (12:00) Thur, Dec 2 @ Philadelphia (7:20) Mon, Dec 13 vs BALTIMORE (7:30) Sun, Dec 19 @ Tennessee (12:00) Sun, Dec 26 @ Denver (3:05) Sun, Jan 2 vs JACKSONVILLE (12:00)
COOL THINGS ABOUT THIS SCHEDULE...
1.) Multiple prime time appearances! What is second nature for cities like Dallas, New York, and Indianapolis still feels kind of new here. Two Monday night games (one home, one away) and a Thursday night game in Philly highlight this year's slate.
2.) Both Colts games will be played after ample rest and time to prepare with the first coming in the opening weekend (and presumably on the heels of the starters playing hardly at all in the preseason finale) and the second coming on a Monday night after the bye week.
3.) On top of that, the non-Colts division games are mostly back-loaded toward the end of the season. Over the last three years, the Texans have a record of 4-14 in division games and 12-6 in games after Thanksgiving. This year, three of their six division games are after Thanksgiving. Something's gotta give!
4.) Texans season ticket holders are getting their money's worth. When I was in college (Notre Dame, 1987-1991), it was always fun to have a home schedule full of big games with marquee opponents. It made everything more fun -- the build up to the season, the tailgating, everything. Even numbered years were the best -- Michigan, Miami, and Penn State! Well, if you're into having big time opponents, this is a "Notre Dame even numbered year back in the day" schedule -- Indianapolis, Dallas, New York Giants, San Diego, Tennessee, Baltimore, Jacksonville. That's as good as it gets. (Kansas City is the homecoming game, I guess.)
5.) At Denver on December 26 -- let the jokes about the Broncos' and Texans' front offices sitting around a Christmas tree in Dove Valley exchanging players as Christmas gifts begin!
SCARY THINGS ABOUT THIS SCHEDULE...
1.) The Texans could play four games where weather might be a factor (New York Jets, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Denver). The only game they've really played in the last couple years where weather has played a role is in Green Bay when it was the fifth coldest game in Lambeau history (the good news is the Texans won that game).
2.) We'll find out quickly if the secondary is up to snuff -- both Mannings, McNabb, and Romo all before the bye week. Might want to take the "Over" in games in the first month of the season.
3.) On a schedule almost completely devoid of easy wins (currently, I'd say the Texans are more than a touchdown favorite against the Chiefs and that's it), Washington was a fairly certain victory until they acquired Donovan McNabb. Winning in D.C. just got much harder.
And now the important part --
WHAT YOU WILL HEAR FOR THE NEXT FOUR MONTHS... According to the previous season's won-loss records, the Texans schedule is tied with the Titans for the most difficult in the league at 140-116, .547 winning percentage. You will hear this roughly a thousand times between now and September. Get used to it, this will be the crutch on which those who pick the Texans to finish at or below .500 will most often lean on.
REASONS WHY THIS WHOLE "TOUGHEST SCHEDULE IN THE LEAGUE" THING IS QUITE FLAWED, STATISTICALLY AND SUBJECTIVELY...
Now, if I may interject a few items to cushion the blow of this "death notice"-style news. First, as records for "most difficult compilation of opponents" goes, 140-116 is not that daunting. Consider that heading into 2009, the most difficult schedule belonged to Miami at 152-104 (.594 winning percentage). In fact, 140-116 would have ranked ninth in 2009. Ninth is still pretty sporty, but my point is as "most difficult schedules" go, the Texans' schedule isn't bad. It's not the All-Madden level that it initially sounds like.
Second, consider the toughest 2010 schedule in the league by 2009 won-loss record has a cumulative winning percentage of .540, which is essentially like playing a 9-7 team every week; the easiest 2010 schedule (Arizona, for the record) has a cumulative 2009 won-loss percentage of .445, which is essentially like playing a 7-9 team every week. So it's about a two game overall record swing for the average opponents between the best and worst schedules. With that in mind, check out the number of teams whose won-loss records have had significant fluctuation (2 or more games, 3 or more games) year-to-year over the last two seasons:
2+ games 3+ games 2008 to 2009 20 11 2007 to 2008 21 14 2006 to 2007 27 18 2005 to 2006 28 20
So on average over the last four seasons (call it the Kubiak Era), each season has seen 75% of the teams in the league have at least a two game swing either up or down in won-loss record from the previous year. Expand that to a three game (or more) swing from the previous season and the number is still a robust 50%. The point is if you see a strength of schedule stat where the team with the toughest road plays a schedule that averages 9-7 (actually slightly worse) and the team with the easiest road plays a schedule that averages 7-9 (actually slightly better) and you BELIEVE in that stat, just know that 75% of the league sees their record vary by at least that much (2 games) per year. In other words, PREVIOUS year's records are a very, very minor true indicator of schedule strength. VERY minor.
Third, the best team on the Texans' schedule is the Indianapolis Colts. The Texans proved last season (when they took the Colts to the final seconds in Indianapolis and then coughed up a second half lead here in Houston) that they can hang with the Colts. So if you're establishing a bar for "Ok, our toughest game will be [fill in team here]" then you plug in "Colts at Indy" and know that you were a Kris Brown field goal away from going to overtime there last year. Point being the Texans shouldn't be a big underdog in any of these games, and there aren't any on this schedule where you pencil in "LOSS" in April (this has not been the case in the past).
Fourth, I'm a big proponent that now more than ever, it is a quarterback's league. The Texans are fortunate to have one of the better quarterbacks in the league in Matt Schaub. Taking into account where each game is being played and who the starting quarterbacks are for each team heading into the season, I would give the Texans the edge at the quarterback position in all EXCEPT these games:
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Sun, Sept 12 vs INDIANAPOLIS (12:00) Sun, Sept 19 @ Washington (3:15) Mon, Nov 1 @ Indianapolis (7:30) Sun, Nov 7 vs SAN DIEGO (12:00)
And that's with having to really think about the Redskins game (McNabb's playing at home is the tiebreaker) and the Chargers game (Rivers has enough of a body of work to get the benefit of the doubt, but trust me, I don't think it's a no brainer). The bottom line is Peyton Manning is the only quarterback on the Texans schedule where you say he is unequivocally better than Matt Schaub. Of course, it's up to the Texans' defense to make the other teams' quarterbacks look worse than Schaub, too. Easier said than done. At the very least, we know the Texans are equipped to hang in a shootout.
After my first glance at this schedule, I said 9-7 with the arrow pointing up toward 10-6. Let's see what everyone does this week in the draft. I'm sure I'll have at least twenty more knee jerk reactions between now and September.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7PM on the "Sean & John Show", and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.