NEW YORK — As with most things in the National Football League, “news” is a word to be taken very lightly. Take the annual release of the NFL schedule, which happens in a lull period before the NFL draft, designed to give some breathless coverage for the programming-hungry NFL Network. The channel was running a countdown clock in the corner of the screen on its Thursday TV shows, showing how many hours, minutes and seconds were left before the release of the schedule Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.
“Really, the process couldn’t be more boring,” the schedule czar, NFL vice president Howard Katz, said late Thursday inside the small, rectangular scheduling den, The Val Pinchbeck Room, on the fifth floor of the NFL offices on Park Avenue. “But there’s such an incredible fascination with the end result.”
Katz (above left, with his team Blake Jones, Mike North and Charlotte Carey) spent work days for the last four months in this room, poring over 59,031 possible schedules and picking the 58,911th, which was spit out of a computer Tuesday around 10:31 a.m. Usually, we have some fun, feisty or silly news (like the Pope’s visit to Philly in 2015 discombobulating the Eagles’ schedule) with the release of the NFL schedule, but this year it’s pretty sane, and pretty efficient. Last year, NFL teams had seven three-game road trips (which are hated); this year, only New Orleans, Baltimore and the Rams have three-gamers, and every one of those trips is less than 1,000 miles. In 2017, five Monday night road teams went on the road the following week. This year, none do.
The big edge for the league, and the reason this year’s schedule was so easy: Five of the recently bad teams got good by the end of 2017. Jacksonville made the AFC title game after years of stinking. The Rams got good, finally. The Niners ended the season red-hot, with an even hotter quarterback. Buffalo and Tennessee made the playoffs. All of a sudden, Katz and Co. didn’t have to lean on the Patriots and Steelers and Packers—and their marquee quarterbacks—to carry the league.
“The fact that we had some new playoff teams from last year,” said North, rolling back and forth on a stability ball while poring over schedule data, “the fact that we had some teams playing well at the end of the year—teams like San Francisco—means when we go into the scheduling process, we don’t necessarily have to rely only on the traditional brands. Yes the Cowboys and the Patriots, and the Steelers and the Packers, and the Super Bowl champions are going to be on national television plenty. But knowing that, San Francisco is going to be a really interesting story, early in the season. The Oakland Raiders didn’t make the playoffs last year, but you know, we’re hopeful that they can bounce back.”
With Jon Gruden, who is raring to go.
“The new coach, of course, is kind of interesting. That’s at least a story early in the season. You know, the Minnesota Vikings, some of these quarterback moves, as the carousel spun, and we see where these guys have landed. A lot of these quarterbacks coming back from injury. How’s Deshaun Watson going to be Week 1? What’s Andrew Luck going to be like when he gets back? When’s Carson Wentz going to return? Those are all compelling stories, and being able to tell those stories, without having to rely only on the traditional brands that we’re used to, certainly gave Howard more options as he evaluated the potential television windows.”
Speaking of television windows, I can say with assurance that we’ve never seen a TV schedule on Thursday as potentially good as this one. Good reason for that. FOX blew out of the water its competition (which was losing money on the Thursday games, multiple reports said) to sign a three-year deal for the package. No doubt the NFL wanted to make the Thursday package stronger to boost FOX and to prove the $660-million-a-year deal is worth it. NBC and CBS thought that was excessive. We shall see.
But the league did FOX a major favor. Its 11 games look markedly better than the JV slate the NFL used to put on Thursdays. The matchups: Vikings at Rams, Colts at Patriots, Eagles at Giants, Broncos at Cards, Dolphins at Texans, Raiders at Niners, Panthers at Steelers, Packers at Seahawks, Saints at Cowboys, Jags at Titans, Chargers at Chiefs.
Think of just the quarterback matchups in a few of them. Cousins at Goff, Luck at Brady, Wentz/Foles at Manning, Carr at Garoppolo (and Gruden at Kyle Shanahan in one sidebar matchup, and the last Bay Area pro football match, possibly, in history), Cam Newton at Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers at Russell Wilson, Drew Brees at Dak Prescott. Incredible for a non-Sunday-night slate.
Said Katz: “FOX asked to take some of their quality Sunday afternoon games, doubleheader games, and put them on Thursday night. So here was the trick for us as a group: Could we populate the Thursday night FOX schedule with at least a handful of games that would otherwise be FOX doubleheader games? And still leave FOX with enough quality doubleheader games? And still be able to take a handful of FOX games and put them on CBS?”
That happened. FOX had to be popping champagne Tuesday night.
Each work day since Jan. 2—two days after the regular season ended—the team fed data from a complex series of factors into computers in the Cloud. And when the team would come in the next day, Carey would be responsible for collecting the schedules, and figuring which ones were the most attractive, and might pass muster with Katz, the veteran final gatekeeper. He’s the heir to the late Pinchbeck, who used to make the schedule by hand. Pinchbeck’s ancient corkboard is on the far wall (an homage to the legendary NFL broadcast/schedule czar in the Rozelle era) behind Carey’s desk. It’s hard to move in this tight room, maybe eight-feet-by-18-feet, with the shades permanently drawn for four months over the big window to the hall outside. Privacy’s the watchword here. The only league employee who can walk in without an invitation? Roger Goodell.
This year, Carey instituted another quality check to the schedule: “rest disparity.” Last year, I heard the Giants were not pleased with their schedule because they felt they were too often playing teams more rested than they were. In consecutive October weeks, they played teams coming off byes, for instance. The NFL calculated a figure for every team based on the number of combined days of rest for their foes or for the team, calculating, for instance, in those two weeks, the Giants were a minus-14 (minus-seven for each of the foes, Seattle and Denver, coming off byes). In all, by my math, the Giants were a league-worst minus-22 in “rest disparity.” So Carey factored that into every schedule this year … and this year, no team was worse than minus-11. (The Giants, by my count, are minus-seven in 2018.)
Carey would put each schedule into a program the NFL has called the analyzer, measuring for key games (all prime-time games, and network doubleheader games), rest disparity, three-game road trips, being home Sunday after Monday night road games, and smaller factors like making sure more doubleheader games made it into the Los Angeles and New York markets. There were other permanent stadium-block X factors, including mega-concerts like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, and Jay Z/Beyonce running into the fall. (The Cowboys stadium, for instance, has dates for all three.) Then she’d print out the best schedules and give them, in order, to Katz at the start of his day.
The group was pleasantly surprised at how smooth the process was this year—again, in some part because of traditionally weak teams getting stronger in 2017. On March 22, the first schedule Katz deemed “playable” was produced from one computer. “We had a lot more playable schedules this year than in the past,” Katz said.
Some years, the Katz team doesn’t find a playable schedule till a week before the slate is announced. This year, the team found 14.
One of the 13 playable schedules that was turned down by Katz failed in only one regard: It had the Steelers on the West Coast on Dec. 9, a Sunday night game at Oakland, followed by another road game the following Sunday. No good, Katz said. It’d be unfair for the Steelers to play on the West Coast on a Sunday night, get back to Pittsburgh at 7 a.m. or thereabouts on Monday, and then have to prepare to travel Saturday for a Sunday game. That’s what nixed that schedule. In this iteration—the winner schedule—Pittsburgh still plays at Oakland Dec. 9. But the Steelers are home the next Sunday. Thank heaven for small favors. The Steelers do get the late Sunday afternoon game. But it’s against the Patriots.
Four other things that caught my eye, and why the NFL did them:
• The NFL will play two Saturday games in Week 16—but they haven’t been announced yet. The league has told eight teams playing four games in Week 16 that two of those games could switch to Saturday. The four games: Jacksonville at Miami, New York Giants at Indianapolis, Washington at Tennessee, and Baltimore at the Los Angeles Chargers. The NFL will designate after Week 8, on or about Oct. 30, for two of those four games to be played at 4:30 p.m. ET and 8:20 p.m. ET on Saturday, Dec. 22. Why? Katz: “We want to try to avoid putting games in national windows with no playoff implication. This give us a better chance.”
• The Katz team wouldn’t say, but I’d be shocked if the Sunday night game on Dec. 2—San Francisco at Seattle—would have been on the schedule had Richard Sherman not flown south to the Niners in free agency. Notice, too, that the matchup is the one scheduled for Seattle, not Santa Clara. The NFL, and NBC, wants to take advantage of the emotion sure to be there when Sherman walks onto CenturyLink Field.
• Katz said the NFL gave consideration to six possible foes—Carolina, Atlanta, Minnesota, Washington, Dallas and the Giants—for the Eagles’ season-opener before settling on Atlanta. Sounded like he wanted to keep a Minnesota/Kirk Cousins appearance in his hip pocket for another prime-time game.
• Two compelling matchups for Monday night games: Jimmy Garoppolo in prime time at Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers on Oct. 15, and the Marcus Peters Revenge Bowl live from Mexico City on Nov. 19—with his new team, the Rams, against his old team, Kansas City. Both should be fun.
So not the compelling, weird storylines of some past Aprils. But I got the sense Thursday evening, after four months in these close quarters, Katz and his team were glad for a good schedule and little rancor.
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