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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers’ Brutal Schedule: Breaking Down the Unfair Rest Disparity Controversy

Chris Wilson
May 24, 2024 at 8:33 AM

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The NFL, unsure whether rest or preparation impacts performance, gives the 49ers the most "unfair" back-to-back schedules ever.

Simply stated, the National Football League has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. The latest fire in line to be extinguished surrounds the NFL's scheduling process, with many arguing that the league's ever-changing methodology does not produce the fairest outcomes for all teams. To make their case, critics need to look no further than the 2024 San Francisco 49ers, who find themselves on the wrong end of the most lopsided schedule in modern NFL history.

The 49ers play eight games this season at a rest disadvantage compared to their respective opponent. The negative rest disparity across these eight games totals 32 days – or more than an extra month of pre-game preparation for these eight teams San Francisco faces this season.

Factoring in the two games when the Niners have a preparation advantage, San Francisco's net rest differential in 2024 is a staggering -21 days, which ranks amongst the worst in NFL history.

The team with the most advantageous schedule this season – the similarly talented Baltimore Ravens – boasts a net rest differential of +16 days across seven games. The 37-day difference between the two teams – within a four-month season – headlines the most imbalanced schedule in the history of the league:

Ok, but how much does this really matter?

Although the total sample size is understandably limited by the number of games played, a 2018 study on rest disparity published in the Journal of Sports Economics concluded that a team suffering through a single day of rest disparity allows roughly 4.5 more points and is 25 percent less likely to win that game.

Other researchers using smaller sample sizes also found the impact statistically significant, including a 14-percentage-point difference during a single-season sample and a roughly 44-percent winning percentage for the less-rested team over a five-year stretch. While the specific level of impact is unclear, the fact that a negative impact exists is undeniable. As one researcher stated, "It's significant enough that I'm sure Las Vegas would want to know about it."

The aforementioned 2018 study on the topic concluded the impact of a single day of rest disparity was so significant that to mitigate the decrease in win probability, the NFL should "consider placing a team's bye week in the week right after a team takes part in a Monday Night Football game."

Clearly, the NFL scheduling landscape has changed over the past handful of years.

49ers' Bye Week Problems

No longer a potential solution, bye weeks are now a primary source of the NFL's disparity problem. The Niners have a six-game stretch this season when they face the Kansas City Chiefs, the Dallas Cowboys, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Buffalo Bills – as each team comes off their bye week – with two cross-country away games against playoff teams sprinkled in between.

Four games against teams following their bye week? Isn't that a lot?

Four such games are the most an NFL team has been forced to endure in a single season. All 32 bye weeks occur during just eight weeks of the NFL schedule, and – from a team's perspective – one of those weeks is your bye week. So, you play a maximum of seven games when you could potentially face a team coming off their bye, and a portion of those would be negated because you share the same bye week as your opponent.

Purely as a baseline, every team should face one opponent in the game following that opponent's bye week. Being forced to play against four teams with extended rest out of seven possible weeks is extremely "unlucky" – to put it mildly. Unsurprisingly, the 49ers' four games against well-rested opponents "leads" the league in 2024.

Well, at least this is unlikely to happen to San Francisco ever again. Right?

And there lies the bigger problem: The NFL dealt the 49ers a nearly identical hand last season. Over the past two years, the 49ers have been forced to face eight teams following their opponent's bye week, while four NFL teams have faced none:

This has led to a monumental preparation disparity between the Niners and every other team in the National Football League. The 49ers' 41 days of negative net rest disparity over the past two seasons is double that of any other team.

Aside from Week 18, when they rested their starters, San Francisco lost four regular-season games last season. Half of those losses came at the hands of teams that were coming off their bye week. The Niners were favored in both games by a combined 14 points. Anecdotal? Perhaps, but not compared to the NFL's rationalizations outlined below.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Ravens average nearly a full day of extra rest per game in 2024. Their 25 days of extra preparation over the last two years, when compared to San Francisco, totals over half an NFL season of extra time for the Ravens to rest, prepare, and recover from injury:

Creating the NFL Schedule

Fans have become familiar with the NFL's rotational scheduling system, which ensures every team plays each of their divisional opponents twice a season, every team in their conference at least once every three years, and every team outside their conference once every four years. The NFL also considers the previous season outcomes when determining the final opponents for each team.

This system is rooted in standardization and generally produces results that receive little pushback since each team's opponents are predetermined according to how well they played the previous season. While some schedules will initially appear to be more or less difficult than others, mostly based on the relative strength of the specific divisions, this will change over the course of the offseason, and more so once football is actually played.

By the end of the following season, a team's final strength of schedule may look similar or vastly different from how it appeared when it was first calculated a year prior. Some teams will be "penalized" for playing in a difficult division, and some seemingly less-deserving teams may sneak into the playoffs during the closing minutes of the final games of the regular season.

Such is life for a division-based sports league. Although a conversation surrounding reseeding for the playoffs isn't an outlandish concept, implementing a "dynamic" scheduling system for the sake of "fairness" would be a logistical nightmare, which also appears to be much more trouble than it's worth.

Although these studies are interesting, I would caution some of the more aggressive researchers to, perhaps, "slow their roll," as we must first focus on learning how to walk before we can run.

Competitive Equity and the NFL's Priorities

While the league has little say regarding who each team will play, the NFL has full control over determining when each team will play. Recent advances in technology have enabled the league to fine-tune the schedule in less time and with greater precision than ever before. So, why is the NFL's theoretical level playing field about to capsize?

Are the 49ers being targeted by the league? Is the NFL unaware of these scheduling discrepancies? Hardly. Members of the NFL's scheduling team know what they're doing and are well aware of potential scheduling issues before they decide on a final schedule.

Simply put, this aspect of "competitive fairness" just isn't the priority it once was.

Each season, the final NFL schedule is a product of a league balancing "competing objectives." And when the going rate for the rights to broadcast an NFL game is roughly $75 million to $100 million, "competitive equity" hardly stands a chance.

The NFL attempts to make the schedule as fair as possible, but only within the league's self-imposed constraints. During the creation process, the schedule-makers use a "negative-based scoring system" where every potential schedule is assigned a negative score each time it fails to meet one of the NFL's objectives.

Or, more simply, stated by a member of the scheduling team, "We [penalize] the things we don't want to see." In addition, the penalty is more severe if the broken "rule" adversely impacts a specific team in consecutive seasons, making San Francisco's 2024 schedule that much more troubling.

As explained by Michael North, Vice President of NFL Broadcast Planning and Scheduling, "If you're really disappointed about something in this year's schedule, you're probably not going to see it in next year's schedule, and you probably didn't see it in last year's schedule." North added, "Hopefully, the pain and the bad luck…spreads itself around…so [what] you were really mad at me for last year won't be something you're mad at me for next year."

The NFL schedules for 2023 and 2024 seemingly contradict this vision since the 49ers and their fans have good reason to be "mad" at North for the same problematic and preventable issue in consecutive seasons. Even the NFL Operations website claims, "The schedule makers consider bye weeks and travel to maintain competitive equity." So, how do we make sense of all these inconsistencies?

While the NFL isn't overly forthcoming about their scheduling priorities – which is understandable from a public relations standpoint – their claims aren't necessarily inaccurate. The schedule-makers do consider bye weeks during the scheduling process – to some extent.

The NFL has numerous "rules" regarding bye weeks within their set of scheduling constraints. But the NFL has tens-of-thousands of scheduling constraints, and many of these constraints are simply more important to the league than this aspect of competitive equity.

As the importance of "fairness" has continued its decline, NFL schedules have become more and more lopsided. Coincidently, this has also coincided with Commissioner Roger Goodell's recent increased involvement in the league's scheduling process.

Fans must come to terms with the fact that – right or wrong – "fairness" is not the NFL's top priority, nor is it anywhere close. North makes this clear during his "fireside chats" and "webinars" with the NFL's scheduling partner Gurobi Optimization, and his numerous appearances on various programs each year to explain the "extreme complexity of the league's scheduling process."

The NFL could create a "competitively equitable" schedule if they wanted to. However, the primary goal of the schedule-makers is "fairness" in the eyes of the league's broadcast partners, not the league's teams or fans. "It's a lot of mouths to feed...You really gotta make sure everybody gets something, nobody gets everything," North recently explained regarding the need for the league to keep their broadcast partners content.

North states their job is to "Maximize fan interest, maximize viewership, maximize ratings. And kind of minimize, if you can, any kind of competitive inequities." The NFL expects teams to have problematic schedules. A successful schedule limits and then disperses the problems equally among all teams, resulting in a manageable number of team complaints.

North's public comments during a segment on NFL Network provide an easy opportunity to read between the lines and quickly discern the NFL scheduling team's priorities:

"You can't make a perfect television schedule that just destroys all competitive fairness in every team's schedule."

"If every team [had a perfectly fair schedule] the teams would be happy, but that's not a good television schedule."

"You might be willing to take a schedule that's a little bit worse for the teams if it's a little bit better for television."

Rest Disparity in NFL Scheduling

Regarding rest disparity specifically, North was asked about the subject during his recent NFL Network interview with Rich Eisen. He stated, "We have been spending a lot more time lately, looking at…rest disparity." Although he was unable to recall specifics, North responded, "I think the Rams and the Niners both had pretty big total negative rest disparity numbers last season. They both made the playoffs."

"The Kansas City Chiefs had, I think, a run of five or six games in a row where they were at a negative rest. They made the playoffs; won the Super Bowl. Like, I'm not sure negative rest disparity is a…competitive inequity. We've got an analytics team here," and hopefully, North will consult with said team prior to his next interview on the subject.

But he continued, stating the analytics team would have to answer questions like, "Is this really unfair? How do you even prove that it's unfair?" North was not asked and did not comment on why an analytics team was required to answer such a common-sense question.

Additionally, this is not the first time this issue has been brought to the NFL's attention. In 2013, the Bills publicly complained about similar, but less egregious, rest-disparity issues within the league's scheduling process. Two years later, researchers from the University of Buffalo submitted a paper revealing a high level of systematic disparity and long-term inequities suffered by the Bills, who were forced to play 19 teams coming off their bye week over a 13-year period. Of note, at the 49ers' current pace, San Francisco would face 52 such teams over the same time period.

After submitting their paper to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the researchers met with North. Before long, the researchers were working with North, via a three-year research grant from the NFL for year-round method development and schedule testing. It's unclear whether any of the group's ideas were implemented, but rest disparity is far from a foreign concept to the Vice President of NFL Broadcast Planning and Scheduling.

Still, he continued, "What truly is onerous to a club? [If] you ask 32 teams, you might get 32 different answers…what's the worst thing you could do to a club and are you doing it over and over…to the same team in the same way? Bad luck just kind of has a way of moving around and hopefully it's not landing on the same teams in the same way over and over again."

"Team," Mr. North. "The same team."
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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