At NFL headquarters, four men and 40 computers work for 70 days, sifting through a half-million possibilities. The MMQB pulls back the curtain on the process, the roadblocks they had to navigate and why Seattle dodged a road swing from hell
From now until the opening of training camps, The MMQB will run a series of our Greatest Hits from the site’s first year. From April, Peter King gets an exclusive look at how the NFL schedule makers get the job done...
NEW YORK — On the fifth floor of the NFL’s Park Avenue offices in Manhattan, there is a small, rectangular room with frosted glass. You cannot see inside with the stainless-steel VAL PINCHBECK ROOM sign on the outside, and you cannot enter without a keycard. With good reason: This is where four men assigned to sift through more than 500,000 schedule possibilities worked almost every day (including from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Easter Sunday) for the past 10 weeks until completing the 2014 NFL schedule Tuesday night. No one without permission enters but them.
Not even the cleaning people at night. Three hours before the schedule was announced Wednesday, there was a garbage can in one corner of the room overflowing with Vitamin Water bottles, Pepsi cans and Starbucks cups. Across the room: an industrial-strength shredder with the remnants of the schedules that didn’t make the cut. The NFL offices are white-glove tidy, but this place … not so much. As the four men of the schedule did their post-mortem, and shared it with The MMQB, it was a little gamey in the room. That’s what happens when four men and 40 computers work for 70 days to invent what they hope will be a 256-game masterpiece—but which they know will bring charges of favoritism and cronyism from teams, TV networks and stadium operators.
This year, NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz and his team had the following roadblocks to the schedule you’ve bitched and moaned about since last night: a combined 17 games in non-traditional slots—Thursday CBS/NFL Network games, Saturday NFL Network games, and a Sunday morning FOX game (Detroit-Atlanta, from London)—as well as six One Direction concerts at NFL venues in the fall, New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks playing at Soldier Field on Saturday of Week 9 (the NFL won’t risk a bad-weather rugby game ruining an already-iffy field for a Bears game the next day), and baseball. The joke in the room late Wednesday was the NFL would have to root against the Phillies all summer, because the Eagles are home on potential baseball playoff weekends on Oct. 5 and 12. Lord help the league if the Pirates get hot in October—because the Steelers are home Oct. 20 and 26. And it’s not neighborly to fool with the World Series.
The rubric this year is even a crazier quilt than normal because of San Francisco and Minnesota. The Niners are a marquee team, but the NFL cannot play non-holiday weeknight games in Santa Clara, site of the 49ers’ new stadium, because the team and local authorities want to have a year to figure out how to accommodate weeknight traffic flow at the stadium. “We could not play the 49ers on a Monday or Thursday at home, with the exception of Thanksgiving,” said Katz. That’s how the Seahawks-at-Niners turkey day game got made. After years of freely scheduling the Vikings, now the restrictions in Minnesota are major because they’re playing on campus at the University of Minnesota while the new Vikings stadium gets built. So no home games Monday. No home games Thursday. No home games on Gopher football weekends.
After plugging in restriction after restriction, the magic schedule emerged from one of those 40 computers April 16, at precisely 4:20 p.m. In the six days that followed, 175 other schedules were analyzed as competitors, and 24 emerged as serious contenders, but none could beat the April 16 winner.
The late Pinchbeck used to make the schedule by hand, by filling in first the national TV games and all the others around it. Today, NFL senior director of broadcasting Michael North, the computer geek of the crew and the only one with a direct link to Pinchbeck (who died in 2004), plugged in 4,400 “seed schedules” to the 40 computers, with different permutations for all 46 national TV games, and he let the computers spit out tens of thousands of schedules.
“We threw away probably 175 schedules that we’d have played without batting an eye five years ago,” Katz said.
Said North: “Any one of these 4,400 seeds might be the one that leads you to the finished schedule. Any one might be a dead end. You’ve got to play all of them out. But on April 16, this finished schedule popped out, and we couldn’t find one after that to beat it.”
There almost was one. Before I tell you about the schedule that won the beauty contest, let me tell you about the schedule that finished in second place. If that one had won, the Seattle Seahawks would have been steamed.
The runner-up schedule had two major Seattle glitches that NFL hates to hand teams: a three-game road trip, and a road game after a Monday night road game. And they would have happened in the same three-game stretch. In mid-season, Seattle would have played at St. Louis on a Sunday, at Washington on a Monday night, and at Kansas City on a Sunday.
"You fix one team," Katz said, "and 12 more problems come up."
Anyplace east of Spokane is far from Seattle, obviously. But this schedule would have been a killer. First a 1,787-mile flight to St. Louis, and back after the game. Then a 2,311-mile flight to Baltimore-Washington Airport, and back after the game. Then a 1,407-mile flight to Kansas City, and back after the game. That’s 11,010 air miles in 15 days … unless, of course, the Seahawks spent a week in the Midwest or East to minimize one of the back-and-forths. Commissioner Roger Goodell is the final approver-in-chief of the schedule, and I wondered whether he’d have approved one that had the Super Bowl champion with such a brutal 15-day stretch.
“Would you have played that schedule?” I asked Katz.
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “We didn’t want to. We were hopeful that we’d find a better one. I think we would have, and we did. If we had to play it, I think we would have had an interesting discussion with Roger about it. We had many interesting discussions in this room about it—whether it was a fatal flaw or not. I didn’t deem it fatal, but we were hoping we could find a way out of it.”
North chimed in then. “So it turns into a robbing Peter to pay Paul scenario,” he said. “If you want to fix this Seattle problem, who do you want to break in exchange? This was a schedule that we gave serious consideration to—look at this start for Kansas City.”
North put a schedule on the monitor in the room with a dreadful opening for Kansas City: five road games in the first seven weeks. “Would we have played a schedule, if everything else was good, with five of Kansas City’s first seven on the road, including a three-game road trip—left coast, right coast, left coast?” North said.
“The answer was no,” Katz said.
“That schedule fixed Seattle, but it broke Kansas City worse than what we were doing with Seattle,” North said.
“You fix one team,” said Katz, “and 12 more problems come up.”
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What else the group of four—Katz, North, vice president of broadcasting Onnie Bose and senior manager of broadcasting Jonathan Payne—had to contend with:
A different Thanksgiving. Three games, six NFC teams, three rivalries: Chicago at Detroit, Philadelphia at Dallas and, in the nightcap from California, Seattle at San Francisco. “We decided to make a statement on Thanksgiving,” Katz said. “It sounds corny, but it’s our most traditional national holiday. Let’s play great traditional rivalries game on Thanksgiving. So we took Chicago-Detroit and made that our CBS game.” Which leads us to …
A new NFL word: “crossflexing.” If you’re an NFL TV nerd, you know Chicago and Detroit, as NFC teams, should be on FOX if the game’s not a prime-time Thursday, Sunday or Monday game. But the new NFL TV contract calls for the league to be able to move up to seven FOX games to CBS annually, and up to seven games from CBS to FOX for the good of the overall Sunday schedule as the season goes on. One proviso: There must be an equal number of games flexed from one network to the other. Right now, four FOX games are going to CBS, and only two are slated to go from CBS to FOX. So Katz must come up with at least two more to migrate away from CBS.
Here’s how it helped this year’s slate: Look at Week 4. CBS was weak in the early 1 p.m. Eastern Time slot with Buffalo-Houston, Tennessee-Indianapolis and Miami-Oakland. Meanwhile, FOX had a gangbuster early schedule: Green Bay-Chicago, Detroit-New York Jets, Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh and Carolina-Baltimore. “We looked at it and said wait a second,” Katz said. “FOX has Green Bay-Chicago at 1, and they could take that game to a lot of places. That’s a huge game. They had two other good games. Then Carolina-Baltimore … Steve Smith playing his old team, a big storyline there. What kind of distribution will Carolina-Baltimore get if it stayed on FOX?” Katz estimated 15 to 18 percent of the country would see that game. “So we crossflexed,” he said. On CBS, Katz believes 40 percent of the country will see Carolina and Baltimore. “That’s better for our fans,” he said. Obviously, the NFC is the stronger conference now, with more attractive teams. It helps the NFL to have more attractive games move from FOX to CBS.
Here’s another one: Washington-San Francisco will be the CBS doubleheader game (the late Sunday afternoon national game on CBS) in Week 12. Why? FOX already has a slew of strong games, including Green Bay-Minnesota and Detroit-New England, and the late game would be seen only in home markets because it’s not a FOX doubleheader week. The Washington-San Francisco game might be seen by 70 percent of the country now, instead of 20 percent.
A better Thursday schedule. There was pressure on Katz’s crew to make Thursday a strong night for football, with CBS showing eight Thursday night games starting in Week 2. The league didn’t want a bottom-feeder stinker, as sometimes happened in the past on NFL Network. The CBS package is strong, starting with Steelers-Ravens on Sept. 15, the Giants at Washington in Week 4 (the week when the CBS fall season kicks off, an important slot for CBS), Jets-Pats in Week 7, Saints-Panthers in Week 9.
The league obviously thought a Denver-Seattle opener was risky—based on the outcome of the Super Bowl. Those are my words, not theirs. “We thought there were three likely possibilities for the opener: San Francisco, Denver and Green Bay,” Katz said. “I guess we could’ve played Dallas, but we really liked Dallas for the FOX doubleheader for Week 1. Dallas also had Texas Rangers conflicts the first month of the season. Putting them on the road in Week 1 might have doomed them for four or five road games in the first few weeks. I thought we had a better place to use the San Francisco-Seattle game, because it has become such an incredibly great rivalry game. It seemed to us that saving that game for later in the season on NBC was probably a smarter move. Green Bay felt right.” The move also left Peyton Manning to kick off the Sunday night season with the Broncos. Against Andrew Luck and his old friends, the Colts
A conscious effort to play more division games late. For the past two seasons the league has played all 16 games on the final regular-season Sunday within the division. This year, the last three weeks will be heavy on division games—33 out of 48 played, up from 26 in the final three weeks last year. “A heavy dose of division games late in the season usually leads to great things,” Katz said. Five of Seattle’s final six games are within the NFC West—including both Niners games (Week 13 and 15).
Don’t cry for ESPN. Even with more quality games siphoned off to CBS on Thursday, the Monday slate doesn’t look bad at all. Check out the quarterbacks in the first five Monday games: Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Luck, Jay Cutler, Tom Brady—and in the sixth, it’s a Russell Wilson-Robert Griffin III matchup.
More flexing for NBC, though it’s a long shot to be used. The new TV deal allows the league to flex out of no more than two Sunday night games in six additional weeks, Weeks 5 through 10. This, basically, is insurance against a huge injury to a quarterback. Hard to imagine the NFL and NBC not wanting any of the slated games, with Brady (Week 5), Giants-Eagles (6), Niners-Broncos (7), Aaron Rodgers-Drew Brees (8), Ravens-Steelers (9) and Bears-Packers (10). It’d likely take a stunning reversal by one of the teams, or a quarterback going down, to flex in those weeks.
A very strange Thursday daily double. Have two teams ever played back-to-back Thursday games? This year, Chicago and Dallas will. Each plays on Thanksgiving, and the NFL has matched them against each other at Soldier Field the following week, on Dec. 4. “We have a rule that says each team can only play one short-week Thursday game,” Katz said. “It’s about player health and safety. Week one doesn’t count. So if you take three games on Thanksgiving, we can play 13 other Thursdays. That’s 16 Thursday games; with 32 teams, everyone plays one. In this new package, we had to figure out how to create one more. So we took two of the six teams playing on Thanksgiving and playing them against each other the following Thursday. They’re playing on full rest, and then 10 days after that.’’ Turns out it’s not the first time, as Pro Football Talk reported today: Green Bay and Dallas faced off the Thursday after they both played on Thanksgiving in 2007.
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There are problems. The world champs have only one prime-time home game and it’s the enforced one that kicks off the season; that rankles the Pacific Northwest. The Bears went 8-8 last year, but they’re being treated like the ’85 Bears, with the maximum five prime-time games, plus the Thanksgiving matinee at Detroit. Chicago had better be good—really good. Oakland flies to New Jersey, New England and London, all in September. FOX wanted its annual doubleheader leading into its Sunday night World Series game in October, but that weekend, for many reasons, had to be a CBS doubleheader weekend.
But no schedule makes 32 teams and the TV networks universally happy. The computerization of the process makes sure Katz’ crew at least sees every possibility. About a month ago, before one of the computers spit out the magic schedule, North saw a schedule he liked during a sleep-deprived night. He was home. It was about 3 a.m. He screen-grabbed the slate and fired off an email to Katz with the schedule. Just one problem: One version of it included a three-game road trip for the Giants, including one to Seattle; another version of it included a three-game road trip for the Giants, all against division foes. Weird, playing all three division roadies in a row.
“Howard,” North wrote in an email, “what do you think?”
He thought Katz would be asleep. Katz wasn’t.
“Call my cell,” Katz wrote back.
They chatted for a few minutes and Katz eliminated the option, including the Seattle trip; too many other good schedules out there. But he said he’d consider the one with three straight road division games. Luckily, they found better schedules. They went to bed that night knowing they could do better.
At the end of the process Wednesday evening, an hour before the schedule was unveiled on NFL Network, the four men looked tired. Pleased with their work, but tired.
“This schedule,” said Katz, “has the best television without putting really any unfair burden on any club.”
One more thing. Rugby in Chicago. At one point, the schedulemeisters called the Bears and said they might have to move or call off the rugby match, because they had a very good schedule that called for Chicago to be home on Sunday, Nov. 2, the day after the game.
“Really cool, right?” said North. “The U.S. rugby team playing the New Zealand All Blacks. It’s on a Saturday. What happens if it pours rain on Saturday and these huge men playing rugby tear up Soldier Field, and we’ve got a Bears game scheduled for Sunday? That would have been a problem. Then you look at the Bears schedule—they’ve got a rugby game in week nine, the city has a marathon in week six—where the start-finish line is in the parking lot [of Soldier Field]—and in week two they have a NASCAR race, and I believe also a PGA golf tournament. So there’s three weekends in the first nine that the Bears can’t be home. So what’s the net result? Even if you use the bye strategically to cover up something, that’s still a lot of road games early in the season.”
Rugby will happen Nov. 1. The Bears will be on their bye Nov. 2. Crisis averted by computer, like so many others.