Last year the NFL had to work around a papal trip to Philadelphia, causing the Eagles to play on the road three of the first four weeks of the season. This year the four NFL scheduling mavens, led by league broadcasting czar Howard Katz, had Beyonce and Guns N’ Roses shows in several markets to work around, but nothing requiring Vatican intervention.
“No Pope this year,” Katz said late Thursday. That was an omen—a good one. The NFL found the schedule it loved on April 5, the 43,066th its computers spit out over 13 weeks of work. The schedule was announced Thursday night, eight days earlier than last year, when Pope Francis threw a monkey wrench into the process.
There are some interesting twists to the 256-game slate. I learned about them from discussions with Katz and his team of schedule-makers—senior director of broadcasting Michael North, vice president of broadcasting Onnie Bose and senior manager of broadcasting Jonathan Payne—inside the NFL’s frosted-window scheduling bunker (so no one can see inside, where iterations of the schedule have been worked since early January). Here we go:
• Game one was no big mystery. Katz loved the Super Bowl rematch, Carolina at Denver, the first time the NFL has played a Week 1 rematch of the big game since 1970, when the NFL scheduled Kansas City and Minnesota to play in Week 1 after the Chiefs’ 23-7 Super Bowl IV win over the Vikings. (Good Carolina Omen of the Week: The follow-up nine months later saw the Vikes avenge the Super Bowl loss with a 27-10 win over the Chiefs.) “We looked at a lot of possibilities for that opener—Indianapolis, Houston and New England—but we loved Carolina-Denver from the start,” Katz said. “Carolina’s a young team with a dynamic leader in Cam Newton, and for us it was a great option.” It is great, but honestly, Cam Newton vs. Mark Sanchez or Colin Kaepernick or Connor Cook is a far cry from Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning.
• On purpose, the NFL has more late-season division games than ever. “One of the things we’ve found is that playing lots of division games at the end of the season makes for great football and meaningful games,” Katz said. The NFL has been playing all division games in the last week of the season since 2010. But this year the league put an emphasis on more division games in Weeks 15 and 16. To wit: The NFL played two division matchups in Week 15 last year and seven in Week 16. This year it will play six division games in Week 15 and 11 in Week 16. Prime example of what the league is trying to do in emphasizing division play: Miami finished 2015 with New England at home, and will do the same in 2016. But last year the Dolphins had the Chargers in Week 15 and Colts in Week 16—both non-division foes. This year, Miami will be at the Jets in Week 15 and at the Bills in Week 16. Theoretically, if the Dolphins are in contention for the division late, the end of the season will be great. If not, late season will stink. Seven of the league’s 32 teams will finish the season with division games in the each of the last three weeks.
• This is the first time a team didn’t get a bye after a London game. Actually, Indianapolis chose not to have the bye. The NFL has made a habit of teams that play in London getting the next week off. But this year the league asked the teams playing in England (Indianapolis-Jacksonville in Week 4, Giants-Rams in Week 7, Washington-Cincinnati in Week 8) if they wanted the bye the following week, seeing that the games were being played at 9:30 a.m. Eastern, meaning that teams could get back to their city’s airports, for the most part, by 2 a.m. Monday local time. The Colts said they’d like to defer their bye from Week 5 (Oct. 9) to Week 10 (Nov. 13). So Indianapolis will play in London on Oct. 2, then at home with the Bears on Oct. 9. “The Jets got home earlier last year from London than they did from a West Coast game,” said Katz. “The teams playing one of the earlier games in London had the option to move their bye back, and the Colts took it.” Seems sensible; most players would rather have a bye in midseason than in early October.
• For the seventh straight year, the Bengals open on the road. I have never sensed a rage inside the Bengals over this, but the NFL has done a poor job with Cincinnati in this regard. This year it’s the Bengals at the Jets on 9/11 … and then Cincinnati at Pittsburgh in Week 2 as well. Some years you can blame this on the Reds being at home on the week the NFL season opens. But not this year. The Reds are away on Sept. 11—and the NFL still put the Bengals on the road. Prediction: If the Reds are away Week 1 in 2017, the NFL will put the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium for the opener.
• The Vikings got what they wanted—and then some. The league honors requests when it can, and Minnesota wanted badly to be home for its first game on a Sunday night. So the NFL put the Vikes in their new downtown stadium in Week 2. “Minnesota really wanted to open its building in prime time on Sunday night football,” said Katz. “It was important to them.” The added bonus: It’ll be archrival Green Bay opening the new stadium Sept. 18.
• Katrina Bowl II. Ten years after the refurbished Superdome opened in 2006 with a historic game that launched the rebirth of the Saints on a Monday night in Week 3, Atlanta visits New Orleans in Week 3 on a Monday night. I hope Steve Gleason, who had the blocked punt heard ’round Louisiana in 2006, is on hand for the rematch, a decade later.
• Tom Brady was not a factor in the schedule, apparently. Unless you think the league didn’t want to play any of New England megagames in the first four weeks—when Tom Brady may be suspended, dating back to the Deflategate sanctions—the New England schedule seems pretty vanilla in the first month: at Arizona in Week 1, then Miami, Houston and Buffalo at home the next three weeks. “We were aware of it,” said Katz, “but it really didn’t play a role in it.” Games with Pittsburgh, Seattle, Baltimore and Denver all come in the last 12 weeks.
• Week 1 does not include a big game with the Rams in Los Angeles. The Rams will play at the Coliseum in Los Angeles in years one, two and three of their return to Southern California, while their permanent palace is being built. USC has requested that as much as possible the Rams do not play at home when the Trojans are at home on the same weekend. So in Week 1, with USC hosting Utah on Sept. 10, the Rams will play away on Sept. 12, a Monday nighter at San Francisco. There will be only one week that the Rams will be home after USC is home—Week 9, hosting Carolina.
• Changes in the holiday schedule. Normally when the NFL schedule conflicts with a Christmas on Sunday, the leagues plays one game. This year there are 12 Saturday games on Christmas weekend, one on Monday, and two on Sunday. Cincinnati-Houston (the wild-card classic) is on NFL Network on Christmas Eve, and then two good games are played on the holiday—Baltimore-Pittsburgh on NFL Network at 4:30 p.m. ET on Christmas day, followed by Denver-Kansas City on NBC on Christmas night. The Detroit-Dallas game is the Monday nighter in Week 16, on Dec. 26.
• Opening weekend is interesting but not a killer. Carolina-Denver to open the season on Thursday, then Giants-Cowboys as the FOX doubleheader game Sunday, then a really interesting rarity (Belichick at Arians, Brady, possibly, at Palmer) with New England at Arizona on Sunday night on NBC. The Monday games look meh to open the season: Pittsburgh at Washington (7:10 p.m. ET), Los Angeles at San Francisco (10:20 p.m. ET).
• The 1 p.m. games are dwindling. The 1 p.m. ET Sunday games took a dive, in part because of the Rams’ move to L.A. “Last year the Rams had seven 1 p.m. homes games,” said Katz. “This year they have zero. So it was a real challenge to keep the 1 p.m. inventory strong.” (The Rams do have four 1 p.m. ET road games.) In 2015, there were 151 games at 1 ET. This year: 140. “It’s stretching the inventory thinner and thinner,” said Katz. The risk for the league, other than the obvious negative of giving CBS and FOX fewer games in the traditional meaty early afternoon slot, is lessening the impact and excitement of one of the best things it has going on Sundays—the Red Zone channel. But that's going to happen with an additional team on the West Coast (Rams) and the league’s emphasis on making Thursday night another strong NFL night (up two games this year).
• Thanksgiving looks fun. Minnesota-Detroit early on CBS (a cross-flexed game, taking a normal FOX game and moving it to CBS because, in part, of the weak CBS slate), Washington-Dallas on FOX, and Pittsburgh-Indianapolis at night on NBC. It’s pretty good to have Kirk Cousins (a rising star), Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck as the quarterbacks in the two games after America has eaten its turkey.
• Niblets and quickie items: The Patriots requested that two of their three long trips be paired, so that they didn’t have to travel back east more than twice. No dice. They’re at Arizona in Week 1, at San Francisco in Week 11, at Denver in Week 15 … More and more, teams from the West Coast are requesting to NOT play 1 p.m. Eastern Time games back east … Brock Osweiler at Denver in Week 7, on a Monday night … Baltimore better have a healthy lead in the division before the final four games: at Pats, vs. Eagles, at Steelers, at Bengals.
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The NFL is getting better at the scheduling game. Last year, the league announced the schedule April 22; in 2014, it was April 23. But this year, it’s April 14. And as in so many walks of life, technology is the reason why.
This season, the four-man schedule crew found the slate it adopted on April 5, about a week earlier than usual. For the next eight days they looked at more schedules (332 of them) that they hoped could be better. The way it works is this: Early in the offseason, the crew asks teams for their preferences for the 2016 schedule. For instance, a record number of teams asked, like New England, that the league pair their games out west this year. “And what used to be a trip to St. Louis now is a trip out west,” said North. “So we wrote rules for our software. If we couldn’t pair a trip out west with another team out west, we told the computers: Spread out those trips.’’ That’s a big reason why the computers spit out more sensible schedules quicker than in the past: the requests simply got more sophisticated, more specific.
When Katz met with commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday, he explained the schedule, and all the permutations. Katz said Goodell told him, “If you haven’t found a better one in the eight days, who’s to say you’re going to find a better one in next five to six days?” So the schedule we’re seeing today became the chosen one.
The drama of past seasons isn’t there. But for the NFL, that’s a good thing. The computers are reading the people better than Tom Brady reads a Rex Ryan blitz. The one thing the computers can’t do? Make the NFL better at serving so many masters on Thursday night and Sunday and Monday night. Barring a schedule expansion to 17 or 18 regular-season games, all teams and networks will walk away either a little or a lot unhappy.
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