Opponent Preview: Bye Week
Last week during their lead-up to the Browns game Tunch Ilkin declared on Steelers Live that “Bye” is everyone’s favorite opponent, as no one ever loses that week.
This is one of those truisms which seems obvious on the surface, but is it correct? Or to phrase this differently, surely “winning” your bye means returning to practice refreshed and beating your next opponent. Is there any evidence that this is usually the case?
There is no question everyone in the NFL can use a week to heal up. I’m guessing even the guys on the scout team have some “bumps and bruises-type things,” as Mike Tomlin would say. The training staff are probably in some danger. Whoever had to wrap Landry Jones’ ankle last Sunday probably has a Repetitive Stress Injury. It was one heck of a wrapping job!
Obviously I’m having some fun here, but a serious question underlies it. Consider this quote:
If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it—Ignacy (Jan) Paderewski
I’ve seen numerous variations of this quote, attributed to numerous famous musicians. But it is a reality, at least for musicians. When you take time off, you have to painfully pull yourself back to the place you abandoned when you stopped practicing. How far away it is depends on how many days, months, or years it has been since the last time. I’m guessing there is a similar affect for football players. After all, like musicians, it’s all about muscle memory and keeping at the top of your technique.
But there’s another aspect for football players—plain old pain.
Back in 2012 the New York Times published a fantastic series of articles in which they followed then-Yankees catcher Russell Martin throughout the season. One of the things they emphasized was the toll catching takes on the body:
The price paid, as much as anything, is one of plain, penetrating exhaustion, both mental and physical. It is about enduring a grinding, dirty routine, where, in St. Louis or Arlington, Tex., in August, a catcher can shed 10 pounds in a game. In 2007, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Martin started 143 games behind the plate.
Three times this season, Martin has caught at least six games in six days. From May 11 to 17, he caught seven consecutive games, and once, from June 5 to 13, he caught nine in a row.
“When you’re going through it, you don’t notice it,” Martin said of the grind. “It’s when you stop for a day or two and then the aches from the foul tips and the fatigue kind of bubble to the surface and you’re like ‘Whoa, did I get hit by a train?’
“Sometimes I’d rather just plow through and keep playing, just soldier on, because it almost feels harder when you’ve been off for a day and you come back.”
Although I’m sure they are better for it, I wonder if the pain from less-obvious but perhaps more serious injuries finally makes it through the filter. It must be really hard to go back that first day, knowing you now feel better and very shortly you aren’t going to feel better again. All players are playing injured to some extent by this point in the season, except perhaps the rare cases of someone signed off the couch.
The determination to go back out and face it again must be rather like the catcher who lowers the mask and gets into the crouch. You know it’s going to feel horrible, and you realize something bad could happen Martin once had his Adam’s apple crushed by an errant foul tip. He said “for a moment you’re scared for your life.” But you have to do it.
I wondered if there is any correlation to the bye week and playing better (or worse.) The difficulty in making such a determination is, the sample size is pretty small, and the variables are really large. But here’s what I found:
Walter Football gives the record of quite a few coaches, including ones not still in the league. They don’t specify how far back they go, but Tony Dungy is one of the coaches included. This gives a pretty good sample size—345 games.
The record is 183-162, meaning teams won their post-bye game 53% of the time. I suppose I really should figure out the entire overall win/loss record during that time so we can decide whether this is better or worse than the overall record, but I haven’t got the energy.
[n.b.—When I began looking up the data year by year I discovered Walter Football had incorrectly given Mike Tomlin’s record as 5-3, so caveat scrutator.]
Clearly, every team had a better record post-bye than their overall record—dramatically so in the case of the Browns. To see what this means, if anything, in terms of the Steelers, I decided to compare the overall record each year with how they did after the bye, and to evaluate, as far as possible, the strength of opponent and how they otherwise did against similar opponents.
The first thing I found was the Steelers only twice played a team after the bye who didn’t have a losing record at the end of the season. In both cases they were wins—2009 was at Denver, who finished with an 8-8 record, and in 2013 they played the Jets in New York (or New Jersey, or wherever it is they play). The Jets also finished with an 8-8 record that season. Curiously, those were two of the Steelers’ worst seasons under Mike Tomlin—in 2009 they went 9-7, and in 2013 they went 8-8.
The worst team they played was Philadelphia in 2012. The Eagles finished 4-12. This was also a win. The Steelers finished 8-8.
Furthermore, the Steelers have never, under Mike Tomlin, played a team right after their bye week which ended up with a better record than the Steelers. Typically it has not been a division opponent. (In only two of the eight years did the Steelers have an AFC North game after the bye.) Once, in 2013, the Steelers played an “equal” opponent. (Both ended the season 8-8.) This was also a win.
Home or away doesn’t seem to make a difference. Five of the eight games were away games. Four of the five were wins. One of the three home games was a loss. I guess the only thing I would ask is, why are such a large percentage of the post-bye games away games? Is this standard scheduling? Because counting this season, the Steelers will have played six out of their nine post-bye games at the opponent’s home field.
It was interesting to look at what the strength of schedule was through the past eight years, at least as indicated by the average win percentage each year for the teams they played. Only once—in 2008—did the average win percentage for all Steelers opponents top .500—the win percentage for the opponents was .520. Strangely, the two years in which the schedule would appear to have been weakest—2007 and 2014—are the only two years the Steelers lost their post-bye week game. (In both cases the average win percentage was .450.)
Nor does the point in the season seem to have an effect. The 2007 loss was after a Week 6 bye; the 2014 loss was after a Week 12 bye.
The result of the game the one year they had a bye in Week 11 was a miserable game in Kansas City which they won 13-9. At the time, Kansas City was 4-6 and had just lost 34-3 to the Patriots. The game featured a Troy Polamalu concussion as one of the highlights. (As you can tell from the score, there weren’t a lot of them.) The other Steelers highlights were: an Ike Taylor interception, a Mewelde Moore fumble on the threshold of the end zone, a Ryan Mundy interception, a Weslye Saunders touchdown catch, [the sole touchdown of the game for either team,] and in the final seconds, a Keenan Lewis interception. Tyler Palko was the quarterback for Kansas City. It might be called The Revenge of the Unknowns.
So can we extrapolate at all for this year’s game? At the moment the Seahawks are 4-5. The team doesn’t seem as if it should have a losing record, just looking at the personnel. But they do. The question is, can they overcome the dysfunction or whatever it is causing the difficulties by next week? Or are the Steelers going to continue the fine tradition of post-bye wins?
The majority opinion at the moment seems to be, a Steelers loss is in the offing. Seattle’s point differential is certainly excellent for a team with a losing record—they are a +20. The largest loss they have is a 10-point loss (27-17) to Green Bay in Week 2. They have a 26-0 win over the Bears and a 20-3 win over the 49ers.
But the Seahawks are certainly giving up some points—most recently 39 of them to Arizona. The most they have put up are 32, in the same game. They have only exceeded 30 points twice. It’s going to be an interesting test. If the Steelers offense can finally start running on (almost) all cylinders and the defense can continue to give up yards but not points, they might figure out how to quiet the “12th man” down. It would be a great start to the remainder of the season.
So let’s hope Tunch is right, and the Steelers “win” their bye week and head to Seattle ready to create some mayhem.
Here are all the figures I compiled, in case one of you wants to do fancy stuff with the data, like calculate win probabilities vs. actual results. I’m on my bye week.