When NFL fans analyze their favorite teams’ schedules, they typically worry about opponents’ talent levels, but disregard travel lengths. They might fret about playing teams on the road, but not too many people are calculating the total flight miles that will be racked up during the season. But Grantland’s deputy NFL-stats whiz, Bill Barnwell, did just that. And the results were somewhat surprising.
“What really stood out after crunching the numbers, more than anything, is how dramatic the difference in travel can be between sets of teams. Take 2008, for example, when the Seahawks had to traverse more than five times as much ground on their road trips as the Steelers did.”
The Seahawks traveled a whopping 29,912 miles in 2008, as opposed to just 5,682 for the Steelers. And if you were wondering, the Steelers won the Super Bowl while the Seahawks had their first bad year in a while, finishing 4-12. But obviously, this one example proves nothing.
Still, it is clear that the teams getting screwed are similar every year.:
“The Steelers also benefit by playing in a division with three opponents who each reside within 260 miles or so of Pittsburgh. Seattle, meanwhile, plays in a “West” division that places its teams in three different time zones. Pittsburgh accrues about 1,122 miles in traveling to and from its divisional rivals, while Seattle’s round-trips to their NFC West brethren clock in at a whopping 7,024 miles…
As you might suspect, the NFC West gets royally jobbed by their travel requirements every year.”
But Barnwell’s initial analysis did not prove that distance traveled had any relationship to team success. The correlation coefficient between the two was “essentially zero.” He went a bit further and split up travel distances into three categories, and that did actually show some relationship. Road teams that traveled fewer than 1,000 miles (for a single game) won about four-percent more games than those traveling more than 1,000, but his quick study wasn’t enough to prove anything. It’s worth looking into, but the difference is likely small, if it even exists. As of now, the NFL still holds its titles of the fairest professional league, and the one with the most parity.
So while you might think the NFC West’s recent status as an NFL fan’s go-to punchline is due to unfair scheduling, until further research is done, you should probably just blame it on the fact that Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers aside, the division just kind of sucks.