GamePlan: How TV Network Desires and the NFL's 18th Week Affected the 2021 Schedule

Last-minute Aaron Rodgers rumors made for a hectic end to the process, but an extra 16 games led to more flexibility this year. Plus, notes on international games, rookie quarterbacks, upcoming offseason milestones and more.
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Normally, the hay would be in the barn for NFL’s broadcast brain trust by the time the draft rolled around—and there was some comfort in knowing that they’d done the best they could, regardless of what that April weekend might bring. Then, last year, thanks in large part to the pandemic, the timeline got pushed back into May. It worked out for everyone, and now looks like the change will be permanent.

That really is the full background on what was a brief nightmare for Howard Katz, Onnie Bose, Mike North, Charlotte Carey, Blake Jones and Nick Cooney just a couple weeks ago.

With some of that team on the ground at the draft in Cleveland, the Aaron Rodgers news cycle powder keg that had been simmering the whole offseason combusted. First, it was a trade offer the Niners made. Then, it was Rodgers’s level of content. And by that afternoon, there were legitimate questions around the quarterback’s future in Green Bay—his immediate future there—circulating.

At that point, the NFL people assigned to the schedule had been working on it for nearly four months, and the finish line was clearly in sight. And with the Packers looming large in the process, set to play on big stages and in prominent broadcast windows, they suddenly had to reckon with the idea of Jordan Love, rather than Rodgers, being on national TV.

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“Right up until last season, we put the schedule out before the draft. And that was kind of a firm thing,” said Bose, the NFL’s VP of broadcasting. “So in some ways, it gave us an opportunity to react and think through. Look, I will tell you that just given some of the comments and the signals Aaron’s given over the last few months, it, at least, had entered our mind to consider what it would mean if that were the case. So we weren’t caught flat-footed.

“But at the same time, those [reports], it certainly made us think very heavily. We were in Cleveland, the scheduling team, we were all on site for the draft, but we were on the Zooms with Howard Katz Thursday, Friday, really thinking through. And what does that mean? How do we react to this?”

Thankfully, for the sake of the sanity of the half dozen schedule-makers, Rodgers remains a Packer now, with the schedule out.

But the whole circumstance really illuminated the challenges for Bose, Katz, North and their team. On one hand, thanks to even more possible game combinations, with the schedule going from 17 weeks to 18, and 256 games to 272, and some shifts in broadcast rights, the group had more flexibility than ever before. On another, in part because of circumstances like Rodgers’s, this year was more complicated than any other.

And the result of all of it was what you saw released on Wednesday night. A day later, we’ll tell you how they got there.


Not jinxing it, but it does feel like, finally, we’ve gotten to the actual “offseason” portion of the 2021 offseason. So we’re going to spend some time this week laying out what’s ahead. In the GamePlan, you’ll get …

• A ranking of when each of the rookie QBs will actually hit the field.

• A look at the big mile-markers between now and Week 1.

• Full reasoning on why the NFL is going back to the U.K., but not Mexico, in 2021.

But we’re starting with the schedule, and how it came to be.


In the end, there was no hedging for the NFL on Rodgers and the Packers: Green Bay is one of 10 teams set to make a league-high five primetime appearances. And if you were believing the draft night rumors, it’s probably also worth noting that the Broncos only wound up with one.

Why? Well, because for the schedule makers, maybe the Rodgers fire drill wasn’t routine, but it also wasn’t the first time the alarm got pulled this offseason. Matthew Stafford was traded to the Rams at the end of January. Carson Wentz was dealt to the Colts in February. Sam Darnold became a Panther in April. Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson’s situation were draped, really throughout, in varying levels of uncertainty (Watson’s case obviously including not just his trade demands but allegations of sexual harassment and assault against him).

To a degree, they’ve been desensitized to all the quarterback movement and discontent. They’re also ready for the idea that all the uncertainty among starting QBs might just wind up being their new normal, in building schedules out in future years.

“It’s something that we’re going to have to wrap our heads around,” Bose said. “Looking at the core of your question, it’s kind of how we put games on the board and schedule. And we know that certain teams have strong fan bases, obviously teams that are performing well. And you’ll see in the schedule teams like Cleveland and Buffalo will get a good share of national TV because of the performances over the past year.

“And then, it’s a star-driven league and it’s quarterbacks. And whether that’s Drew Brees or Peyton Manning in the past, obviously Tom Brady ongoing, Aaron Rodgers, we think about that a lot. And we think about the impact on the teams, if they were to change teams and how does that change the dynamic? And we started this process back right after the Super Bowl, and really back in January, just thinking about it.”

Which underscores how lengthy this process, one we detailed in a column two years ago, really is: This year, it really got going two days after the regular season ended, before the Bucs went from wild card to champion, before Rodgers started chirping, and while Stafford was a Lion, Wentz was an Eagle, Darnold was a Jet, Jared Goff was a Ram and Drew Brees was an active player.

So much had changed by draft day, and likewise the schedule makers were way down the road by then. Normally, the computers would initially spit out a number of schedules with 20 zeros on it. This year, with the league going from 256 games to 272, that number bulged to carry 40 zeroes. From there, the NFL culled the number down to around 80,000, by implementing “rules,” then down to about 500 slates on which to perform deep dives.

The draft started two weeks before the schedule release, and at that point, the group was into the final part of the process, where it selects a schedule, terms it the “leader,” then tries to beat it with other schedules. As Bose recalls it, the league was on “Leader 10” as Roger Goodell took the stage in Cleveland.

It was one, he says, “we liked quite a bit and we were fully prepared to play, that survived a lot of challenges from other schedules.”

A week later, Bose, Katz and North were to meet with the commissioner. That Thursday morning, they were on Leader 12. By that afternoon, they had Leader 13, which they brought to Goodell. They then committed to finalizing it, through more challenges, by Saturday night, which would allow for everyone to celebrate Mother’s Day on Sunday, then come back and meet with Goodell again on Monday.

Leader 13, indeed, wound up being the winner.

“We’re pretty proud of this schedule,” Bose said. “We feel really good about the kind of process we were able to go through without really putting teams in a bad spot. People have grumbles. I think everybody looks at their schedule critically. But procedurally, there’s nothing that stands out in that way.”

Here’s some more on how they got there …

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The 17th game wound up being an asset. Yes, it made for more combinations to work through. But the games were treated as broadcast “free agents,” meaning no network had the right to them—which gave the schedule makers valuable pieces of capital, some of them very valuable (i.e. Chiefs vs. Packers) with which to balance the scales with the league’s broadcast partners.

“We always looked at what the biggest games of the season are, and some of them are obvious,” Bose said. “Tom Brady going back to New England is going to be Game 1 or 2 on every network’s list. That game belongs to Fox because it’s a Buccaneers road game. Green Bay–Kansas City, given Aaron Rodgers is in Green Bay, and even perhaps if he’s not, that’s going to be Game 2, if it’s not one on most lists. That game is one of these free-agent games.

“All of a sudden, that game doesn’t belong to any network. And we’ve got another kind of high-star-power game involving the Chiefs, involving the Packers.”

And while Bose didn’t consider this one-for-one horse-trading, you can look at the schedule and see that Fox wound up losing Patriots-Bucs to NBC in Week 4, but then ended up landing Chiefs-Packers in Week 9, which is during November sweeps. Bottom line, it allowed the league to more easily ensure everyone got theirs.

“Dallas–New England was one of those games, where a year or two ago that game was top of the list for all networks,” said Bose. “That was a Fox game two years ago. That was a free-agent game. And that game ended up on CBS. And CBS gets an incremental Dallas game. … So I think it helped us move out around the edges with high-quality games across all the networks.”

Speaking of that, the NFL folks were working on the assumption the 17-game season was coming. They, of course, didn’t have full assurances of it until the owners voted it through in March, so they had to be prepared to roll out a 16-game schedule. But the easiest thing for the group to do was to dive into the 17-game model in January, rather than split time between the two.

“Obviously, the work had been going on about the 17th game, having that ability to do that in the CBA and working through with ownership and media deals and all the things that were part of that,” Bose said. “We started the process not knowing for sure, and we took the approach, let’s try to build a 17-game schedule, because if it peels back to only a 16-game schedule, that’s something we’ve been doing for a long time and we knew how to do.

“So we spent time and resources and mental energy trying to understand the implications of the 17-game schedule. And obviously it came to fruition. And if it hadn’t, we would have just peeled back.”

There were contenders other than Dallas for the opener, thanks to a very strong home schedule for the Bucs. But in the end, the lure of putting the league’s best, most consistent audience-drawing team on that Thursday stage against the reigning champion was too enticing to pass on.

“If you look at the Tampa Bay home schedule, I think they’ve got Chicago, they’ve got the Giants, they’ve got New Orleans,” Bose said. “You consider all your options. You consider what to do with those games. And the reaction that we’ve seen after NBC announced that [Thursday] morning—probably nothing stronger than starting with the Cowboys. And it’s a great way to just build excitement to the season, start the season off on a strong foot.”

One other interesting nugget on that: Given the chance to commit to the Super Bowl champion getting the opener annually, and the Packers-Bears game of two years ago being a one-time, 100th-anniversary thing, Bose balked.

“We are open-minded to different options around that,” Bose said. “That game in Chicago for the 100th season made a lot of sense. And if there are things that make sense to start the season, we’d be open-minded to it. Obviously, the last two years, we went back to Kansas City after the 2020 season, and Tampa Bay this year. That’s always a strong way to open the season. And I think there’s no kind of formula that it always has to be that or we’re always going to go to that.”

The league’s idea in moving the schedule release after the draft is to give time to adjust for draft-day developments, but this year the draft itself didn’t affect much. Maybe it’s because it was a fair assumption that the Jaguars and Jets were going to take Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, and they did; or that the other three first-round quarterbacks are uncertain to see the field in Year 1. Regardless of the reasoning, once the dust settled on Rodgers, nothing else that happened two weekends ago led to any sort of shake up.

“I don’t think that there were significant moves necessarily that come out of the draft that did happen, but it gave us the ability to be prepared if something major did, whether it was Aaron Rodgers and the speculation right around the draft or maybe back when we first started and before things were happening with other quarterbacks,” Bose said. “It gave us the ability to react. And do it just on the margins, on story lines and things like that.

“Whether it’s these games and sometimes it’s by design, Carolina, in Week 1 and there’s that [Sam] Darnold–Zach Wilson story; or did the Eagles become a little more interesting with the Jalen Hurts–DeVonta Smith college teammates, same thing with the Bengals, the Dolphins, things like that. So I think it’s things that maybe are not exactly certain but you get to see how it played out.”

Complaints this year were minimal, per Bose. On the network side, that shows up in how the games with marquee teams like the Bucs, Packers and Chiefs were distributed—Tampa, for example, has key doubleheader games on Fox, but also two on CBS, with its New England game going to NBC, and its Giants game on Fox. On the team side, what’s interesting is the odd number actually helped the league dole out strings of road games.

How? Well, with all NFC teams having nine road games this year, those teams were more accepting of having spells of away games, knowing it’ll swing back around next year.

“You start to see some patterns where you may be a little heavier on home games than you might expect,” Bose said. “If you're an AFC team, for a stretch, just because you have an extra game, might you be lighter on the road? Or more road games in a stretch because you’re in the NFC? We found that balanced out.”

And the next step here, as Bose sees it, will be working out how the byes play with teams over the 18-week schedule. This year, they were able to configure it so Week 6 is the first one with byes, but that meant having byes into Week 14 (the Colts, Patriots, Eagles and Dolphins have theirs then, two weeks before Christmas).

“It’s a little bit of uncharted territory where not long ago all the byes used to come before Thanksgiving,” said Bose. “We've seen a few in Week 13, subsequently. Now we're going to Week 14. This particular schedule doesn't have any byes until Week 6, which I think we feel good about. Nobody wants to have too early of a bye. But there are some Week 13 and 14 byes and it'll be interesting to see how teams feel about that.

“The reactions when we talked to teams was kind of, ‘Let's see.’ Certain teams may prefer that late a bye, if you’re a veteran team in the playoff hunt, maybe that's not a bad thing. But I think it's something we're going to learn as we get into the 17-game schedule.”


More changes are coming down the pike, too, with the new TV deals on the horizon, which will add a lot more flexibility to scheduling. So in a way, what the schedule makers did this year with the 17th games represents a sort of dry run for balancing network needs when we get to 2023.

“In two years, no game will belong to the Fox or CBS package,” Bose said. “Fox is still the NFC network and CBS is still the AFC network. And there will be minimum appearances. They will get a set minimum of appearances by the AFC teams or the NFC teams. But the games aren't preassigned based on the road team, as they have been for probably 50 years now. And so every game will technically be a free agent as long as we deliver the number of games we're obligated to deliver.

“And so we learned a lot this year. That flexibility, like I talked about, gives us the flexibility for scheduling. So we're always going to be thinking ahead and anticipating what’s that going to be like.”

On top of just the TV deals, as was reinforced this year, that means being prepared for any and all things unexpected or unpredictable. And besides, as wild as things may have seemed there on the night of the draft, with the Rodgers buzz jamming up the NFL’s information highway, all of this pales in comparison to last year, and the task of scheduling a season that would take on a form different than any before it.

It’s fair to say that any of the schedule makers would take managing 16 extra games over working out contingencies for a global pandemic—and thankfully, Bose said, COVID-19 was mostly a nonfactor this time around.

“We certainly stay in touch with all parts of our organization and take the guidance from the commissioner, from Dr. [Allan] Sills and others,” Bose said. “But in the way that we accommodated a bunch of things last year, we looked at it, we talked about it this morning through the day, certainly the plan is to aim for fans back in our stadiums at capacity. We had a really great partnership with the players union, our medical side, and were able to play 256 games and all the playoffs through the Super Bowl last year.

“Building on that foundation, we really went in like, ‘Alright, let's just schedule for the best for our teams, for television.’ And we feel like we've got a good plan on how to handle that.”

And Bose and his group called it a blessing afterward that the biggest pandemic-driven effects this year were fewer non-NFL events booking up stadiums (a plus!), more Zooms (“this was done 100% remote,” Bose said), and the lack of an ability to work problems out on the white-board walls of his office.

Based on where we all were a year ago? That’s a win, and Bose is pretty confident the schedule will prove to be one, too.


Trevor Lawrence portrait for Sports Illustrated

POWER RANKINGS

Last year around this time, we gave you a ranking of when the rookie quarterbacks would get their first starts. I don’t want to brag, but here was my list, in order: Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and then Jordan Love. And I really thought I nailed it, until I realized that Ben DiNucci, a seventh-round pick of the Cowboys, started a game before Hurts and (obviously) Love did. So … I was close. Here, then, is my ranking of when this year’s rookie class will get their first starts.

T1) Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars: Let’s call this a tie …

T1) Zach Wilson, Jets: … because, health permitting, both Lawrence and Wilson will be Week 1 starters for their teams.

3) Justin Fields, Bears: Picking the third one was difficult this year. But Fields makes sense, because Andy Dalton’s less entrenched in Chicago than Jimmy Garoppolo is in San Francisco or Cam Newton is in New England.

4) Davis Mills, Texans: Curveball! I think it’s unlikely that Deshaun Watson will start for Houston at the start of the year (and we’ll see if he’s even still on the roster then), and that only adds to the idea this will be a season for the team to swallow its cap issues and start with a clean slate in 2022. And that means at some point they’ll want to see what they have in Mills.

5) Mac Jones, Patriots: I’m very torn on this one. New England draws three very strong defenses in the first quarter of the season, which should help Bill Belichick get clarity on where Cam Newton stands. And if the Patriots survive it? Good chance then, I’d say, that Jones gets a redshirt year.

And as you’ll see, I don’t have Trey Lance on the list. That’s not an indictment on him. It’s more about how high I am on the Niners, and feel like they won’t need to go to the third pick if Jimmy Garoppolo plays as he should and stays healthy. So there you have it. We’ll see if I do as well this time around as I did last time. (Damn you, DiNucci!)


THE BIG QUESTION

So what’s next?

Draft season’s over. But don’t worry! There’s plenty left for everyone to tweet/argue/fight about through the 11 or so weeks we have left until training camp. And now’s as good a time as any to lay out what’s head on the calendar.

May 17: Offseason program, Phase II. Traditionally, a lot of older veterans have stayed home for Phase I of the offseason program, mostly because the work done then, mainly lifting and running, can be done effectively anywhere. So the attendance numbers thus far, which we detailed in last week’s column, aren’t exactly 100% real, because the voluntary-but-not-really part of the program doesn’t actually start until coaches are allowed on the field. Monday, things will change, with coaches getting on the field and running walkthroughs, and light-ish on-field drills. So players not showing up next week would mean a little more than players not showing up this week.

May 24: Offseason program, Phase III. OTAs begin, and that really means football practice (albeit without pads) starts. And that’s when players’ not showing up becomes more notable for a couple of reasons. One, not having a starter out there could be viewed as a hindrance to the team getting its work done. Two, players not showing up can lose ground on guys who do—coaches have to say this doesn’t really happen (it’s “voluntary”), but the reality is that it does.

June 7 to 10, June 15 to 17: Mandatory veteran minicamps. Six teams (Falcons, Cowboys, Lions, Giants, Eagles, Buccaneers) have their camps during the second week of June; the other 26 will hold theirs the week after. Missing the three-day camp will cost a player $95,877 in fines. So I don’t think many guys are going to miss it just to miss it, like you’ll see with OTAs. But this definitely merits watching with guys like Aaron Rodgers, who aren’t in a good place with their teams. Also, franchised players who haven’t signed their tenders are free to skip out on this, which is usually the way that goes. Speaking of …

July 15: Franchise tag deadline. This year’s interesting in that every tagged player has signed … something. Dak Prescott, Justin Simmons and Leonard Williams did extensions. Chris Godwin, Marcus Maye, Taylor Moton, Allen Robinson, Cam Robinson, Brandon Scherff and Marcus Williams have signed their tenders. So the latter seven probably won’t skip out on any of the mandatory stuff, and almost certainly won’t carry holdouts into the summer. That said, July 15 is still an important day, in particular for Scherff, because he was tagged for a second time, and that means he’ll make it to free agency in March 2022 if he doesn’t do a deal in Washington.

Late July: Start of training camp. Because the season’s starting a little later this year (Sept. 12 is the first Sunday of the season), some teams may actually kick off camp in early August, or at least that’s how it’s worked traditionally. Either way, the first preseason game, between the Cowboys and Steelers, is set for Aug. 5, with the other 30 teams having their first exhibitions the weekend after that.

So, yes, there’s stuff to look forward to. And most of all, I think we can all be hopeful for, and excited about, a more normal NFL summer than we had last year.


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WHAT NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT

The International Series.

It does feel to me like the NFL’s scaled-back slate of games outside the U.S. hasn’t drawn the attention that other parts of the schedule have. So I thought it’d be worth examining that, and it very much starts with the obvious: COVID-19 has led the NFL to pull back on the number of teams and games it’s exporting. The league had five international games in 2017, four in 2018 and five in 2019, before the pandemic wiped them off the slate last year.

This year, the count is two—which will fulfill the league’s contractual obligation at the stadium in Tottenham (home the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur) that it helped build, with a significant monetary investment (about $13 million) that led to the soccer club’s allowing for it to be built with specifications for both sports.

Those two games will take place on back-to-back weeks, in mid-afternoon London time.

• Oct. 10: Jets “at” Falcons, 9:30 a.m. ET

• Oct. 17: Dolphins “at” Jaguars, 9:30 a.m. ET

So why are there fewer games? The obvious answer is the correct one. The NFL needs to maintain the flexibility to pull games back if necessary (because it’s not outside the realm of possibility that COVID-19 conditions worsen here or there between now and then), and it’s easier to do that with fewer games. Satisfying the contract, of course, is a part of it too, and being able to put the games in the same venue in back-to-back weeks should make it easy to duplicate working protocols.

And as we said, nothing is for-certain certain, but there are reasons why the league feels good about where things stand right now.

The basis for that optimism is where things are trending right now in the U.K. This Saturday, Wembley Stadium will host the FA Cup final, and 21,000 fans will be in attendance for it. Premier League teams, likewise, are eyeing an August start to their seasons and expect to be able to fill their stadiums to capacity then. On top of that, current COVID-19 rates in the U.K. have NFL officials thinking they might be able to hold the ancillary events they normally would around an International Series game in October.

Along the same lines, Mexico is seen as not nearly as ready, which is why the NFL’s not putting a game there this year, as it did from 2016 to ’19. While things could get better, right now, the case number in the U.K. is much smaller and the vaccination rate is pacing way ahead of Mexico (as of Monday, 52.4% of the U.K. was vaccinated, while that number lingered at 11.0% in Mexico).

And beyond those two countries, where the NFL has been annually, this simply wasn’t the year to go exploring new places.

The good news here is that the league is hopeful it can start to regain momentum with the International Series in 2022, with plans to go back to Mexico City and perhaps into Germany then. For now? Well, considering where we were a year ago, my sense the league sees the fact that it can do anything internationally at this point as a win.


THE FINAL WORD

My favorite detail of the schedule? I’ll go with the layup: Brady having a shot to break Brees’s all-time passing record in Week 4 in Foxboro. The Buccaneers QB is 1,154 yards shy, meaning he’ll have to average 288.5 yards per game through four weeks to break it in his old home stadium (he averaged 289.56 last year).

I’ll be fascinated to see how the Patriots handle that moment, if it comes to pass, especially since getting the mark there would be a really cool way for him to play his final game in Gillette Stadium (probably, since the Bucs don’t go back there until 2029, when Brady will be 52 … though I guess we shouldn’t rule anything out).

Also of interest—as we said earlier, NBC has that game. Brees now works for NBC. So it’d be pretty easy, if the network wants to make it happen and the current record-holder agrees, to work Brees into that moment too.

More NFL Coverage:

Orr: Which Rookie Quarterback Will Succeed Most in 2021?
Brandt: Rodgers and Packers Still in Fight for Control
Breer: Inside the Lions' Offseason Overhaul
Breer: Ron Rivera's Expectations for Year 2 in Washington