How much does an NFL bye matter? Not very much

Bucs defensive tackle Chris Baker said asking a team to play 16 games in a row is "crazy." [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Bucs defensive tackle Chris Baker said asking a team to play 16 games in a row is "crazy." [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times]
Published Sept. 8, 2017

The postponement of the Bucs' season opener from Sunday to Nov. 19 due to Hurricane Irma means Tampa Bay and Miami will take their bye this week, then play 16 games in a row.

It's a challenge that has been met by concern from players and coaches. Dirk Koetter said "nobody wants that," and defensive tackle Chris Baker said that asking a team to play 16 games in a row is "crazy." Losing a bye during the season takes away not only the break — resting an overtaxed body from even practice for four straight days — but the psychological benefit of knowing there's eventually a week's relief from the grind.

Having a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on the Miami site of the game changes priorities, however, and though the NFL considered moving the game to earlier this week in Miami as well as playing at a neutral site out of harm's way, the league and the teams opted to move the game to Week 11.

That brings up this question: How much does a bye week really help a team?

When the NFL moved to a 16-game schedule in 1978, it played 16 games in 16 weeks. It added the bye week in 1990, with minor tweaks since. Bye weeks have generally been between Weeks 4 and 10, which puts the rest at a time when tired players can appreciate it. To have a bye earlier or later than that is unusual. The Bucs' Week 11 bye this year would have been their latest in the past 20 years.

You can find an example to support nearly every theory about how a bye week affects a team. Think it can kill a hot team's momentum? The 2005 Bucs were 5-1 before their bye and went 6-4 the rest of the way. Think it can wake a bad team out of a slump? The 2009 Bucs were 0-7 before their bye, then went 3-6 to close out the year.

Think an early bye is wasted? The 2001 Bucs opened 1-0, had a Week 2 bye, then went 8-7 and made the playoffs. The 1993 Bucs had two byes in the first seven weeks, were 1-6 in their first nine weeks, then went 4-5 playing their last nine games in a row.

How about a really late bye? If you want gloom and doom from this postponement, you'll point to the 1990 Bucs, who didn't get their bye until Week 14. They opened 4-2 but lost their next six games, finishing 6-10.

The Bucs have had their bye between Weeks 4 and 8 every year for the past eight, and they haven't had a winning record going into the bye since 2011, when they were 4-3. After that week to rest, they lost their remaining nine games to finish 4-12.

Look at the Bucs' win percentages before and after the bye over the past 20 seasons and you can see how little difference there is between pre-bye results and post-bye results. Before their bye, the Bucs are 52-59, a winning percentage of 46.85; after the bye, they're 98-111, a winning percentage of 46.89.

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The difference between the two is 0.043 of a percentage point, which works out to an extra win for every 2,320 games played. The Bucs have played 644 games in their 41 years, so about 100 years from now, they'll have played enough games to show a one-win difference in that pre-bye/post-bye disparity.

Before losing their bye week, the Bucs already had a crush of a final six weeks this year. They have the Falcons twice and a trip to Green Bay in the four weeks after the Dolphins game, so if they go from, say, 7-3 before Miami to a 3-3 finish, it's not necessarily just because of Hurricane Irma three months earlier.

Read whatever you want into the significance of the postponement. Losing the bye week is an obstacle the Bucs will have to negotiate over the final two months of the season, but it's also not necessarily the season killer some are making it out to be.

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