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Mystique of the NFL bye week looms larger than its impact on wins, losses

The value of rest and recuperation for football players during a long NFL season is hardly a new idea.

Marv Levy was a leading proponent of the concept during his great run as Buffalo Bills coach, and it wasn't a new idea for Levy back then. He started to embrace the philosophy in the 1950s, when he used to travel the country attending football clinics run by legendary Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson.

"Starting way back with Bud Wilkinson, he stressed you don't have to prove over and over and over and over in practice how tough you are," Levy said from his Chicago home this week. "Too many coaches used to say we've got to keep them tough, we don't want them to miss the rhythm. I don't agree with that approach at all."

Levy didn't work his team very hard during the NFL's bye week, which was instituted in the league in 1990.

Levy's Bills teams went 8-1 after a week of rest during the bye.

"When you have that bye week, it is a good chance to rest the players and get them refreshed," Levy said. "The players have been going for quite a while now, starting with training camp and the offseason work. The bye week should be a plus to allow you to refresh, to give you more time to prepare and to heal from some bang-ups that guys have."

Rest for players is one benefit of the bye week that virtually everyone agrees upon these days.

Is it an advantage that makes a difference in winning and losing?

The bye week stats

Over the past 15 years, teams coming off a bye in the regular season are 259-218-3, a winning percentage of .539.

That's an uptick, but it is hardly empirical evidence that the bye makes a difference in winning, especially since it's hard to separate it from so many other factors. Home teams win at a 58 percent rate in the NFL over the long haul – since 1990.

"You would think it should be higher than 54 percent because you have that extra week of rest," said Joel Staniszewski, a Las Vegas handicapper, former oddsmaker and native of Sloan.

In fact, it is hard to make any conclusions about the effect of the bye based on winning-and-losing evidence.

The mystique about the effect of the bye week is larger than reality.

Do teams coming off the bye outperform expectations, meaning the point spread?

No. Over the past 10 years, teams coming off the bye cover the spread 52.3 percent.

"If you win 52.3 percent of games you bet, you're basically breaking even," Staniszewski said.

How about the timing of byes?

The Bills are on an early bye this week. There's a general perception it's better to have a bye later in the season, in mid-November, to refresh for the stretch run to the playoffs.

No evidence supports this. Since 2002, both Super Bowl winners and losers have had byes stretching from Week 3 to Week 12 and everything in between. Ditto for playoff qualifiers. (This season the bye weeks stretch from Week Five to Week 11.)

Do teams that have a late bye do better the final month of the season? Nope. A study by ESPN analyst Bill Barnwell a few years showed no correlation.

Do some teams get cheated by the NFL schedule-maker by having to play too many teams coming off a bye? This has been a complaint among Bills fans in the past. Again, as the 54-percent win total suggests, it's hard to make a case.

The Bills are 7-8 (.466) coming off the bye the past 15 years, which is better than their overall win percentage (.421) since 2002. They're 4-3 in games against opponents that had the previous week off the past five years.

The Bye Week Swami

Kansas City coach Andy Reid is 16-2 in his regular-season career with the Eagles and Chiefs coming off a bye week. That's tied with Levy for the best percentage (.889) of any coach. Obviously, Reid's record is more impressive because he has coached twice as many post-bye games as Levy.

One would expect Reid to have a good post-bye record. He coaches good teams. His career winning percentage is .696.

“When we have good players and good coaches,” Reid said last year, “good things happen. I’ve been lucky enough to be in those situations.”

Yet Reid outperforms expectations. Reid's teams are 11-1 as favorites after the bye and 5-1 as underdogs. It's not like he's facing doormat teams, either. Of those 18 games, 11 were against teams that finished .500 or better.

Since Reid took over in Philadelphia in 1999, he has given his players the entire bye week off from practice. That was a departure from most coaches back then, but more NFL coaches have copied the practice over the years. Reid sticks to his full-week-off policy even when he earns a bye week for the playoffs, which most coaches don't do. Reid is 3-1 after the bye in the postseason.

"Sometimes I think it’s good to step away whether you’re doing well or not doing well," Reid has said. "Coming off a win or a loss . . . sometimes it’s good to get away and get recharged.”

Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy copies Reid by giving his players the full week off. McCarthy is 9-2 after the bye. But the Packers have been favored in seven of those wins, five of them by a touchdown or more.

Buffalo's Sean McDermott coached under Reid in Philadelphia from 1999 to 2010. He has followed suit this week by giving the Bills the full week off after some meetings on Monday.

Did McDermott learn some valuable bye-week lessons from Reid?

"I’ve taken some notes over the years, yeah," McDermott said Monday.

Yet Reid's proteges don't automatically win after the bye.

John Murphy Show: Sean McDermott on the Bye Week - "We have to use this week to educate us on what we did wrong."

McDermott worked with former Reid aide Ron Rivera at Carolina the past six years. The Panthers were 2-4 after the bye. In all four defeats, the Panthers either were underdogs or lost to a winning team.

New England's Bill Belichick is 14-9 after the bye, counting his tenure in Cleveland. He's 12-4 (.750) after the bye since his great Patriots run began in 2001. No surprise there. Belichick's overall win percentage since 2001 is .762.

Belichick usually does not give his team the whole week off. The Patriots usually meet on Monday, have a full practice Wednesday, then are off through Sunday.


The week off gives coaches extra time to study the next opponent.

However, comments from Reid and other coaches suggest that there is at least as much benefit, if not more, from the self-evaluation that coaches can do during the week off.

"What you’re able to do is take that time and go back and look at every inch of it on tape and you come out with some things," Reid told the Kansas City Star in 2014. "You come out and say ‘Hey listen, we can do better right here. Maybe we need to run this a little bit more,’ whether it’s offensively or defensively. It’s that type of evaluation you go through."

McCarthy famously switched star defender Clay Matthews from outside to inside linebacker in 2014 at the bye. The defense performed much better on the way to a 7-1 post-bye record.

“This game is about trying to improve continuously, and staying true to fundamentals is something that we do each and every day,” McCarthy told reporters before his bye two years ago. “I guarantee you as I stand here today, we get together as a staff, it's going to go back to fundamentals. We're going to spend more time on fundamentals next week with the extra day getting ready for the Broncos."

Coaches aren't magicians. McDermott can't turn receiver Kaelin Clay into Sammy Watkins before the next game against Tampa Bay. But one can be sure the Bills coaches are taking a harder look at the players' strengths and weaknesses.

Said McDermott of team's self-assessment: "I think that’s huge. As I mentioned earlier ... the self-awareness as to what we’re doing well, and there’s a lot of things, and what we’re not doing well enough.

"This will be a big week to put in our work, a lot of it being off the field," McDermott said, "but it starts by being humble, being honest with ourselves, and saying ‘Hey, what can I do better? What can we do better?’ "

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