The making of the NFL schedule is an imperfect science. And on Thursday morning, Michael North, the NFL’s senior director of broadcast planning and scheduling, was being reminded of just how imperfect it is, as he made calls to the teams to talk about their slates.
“It’s rare that you get to disappoint 32 billionaires and five television networks on the same day,” he said.
This year, the scheduling department churned through more “leaders” — schedules they thought might be the winner — than ever before. The one that was finally settled on emerged late in the process, and final approval only came in the last 48 hours.
As always, there were the requests not to play in Florida in September, or in Green Bay in December, and concerns about the shared parking lots with baseball teams, but at least there was no Pope or Queen (Bey) to contend with this year. Still, the World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo in late December explain why the Bills close with consecutive road games. Marathons in Detroit and Chicago, where the start and finish lines are in the parking lots of the football stadiums, had to be factored in, as did NASCAR races in Chicago, Charlotte, Phoenix and Kansas City. And three stadiums share with Major League Soccer teams — another element to plan around. The most unusual situation arises in California, where the Rams (the Coliseum at USC) and Chargers (the StubHub Center at Cal State-Dominguez Hills) play home games on college campuses, making Monday night and Thursday night games at home a no-no when classes are in session.
There almost certainly will be an extra dose of attention paid to this lineup, after the ratings dip that accompanied the presidential election last year. The politicking for marquee games among network executives is nothing new, but ESPN executive Burke Magnus said at the CAA World Congress of Sports this week that ESPN has been as engaged with the schedule makers as it has ever been, in hopes of swaying the choices for “Monday Night Football.”
There are only so many Cowboys, Patriots, Steelers, Giants and Packers games to go around, though. In the meantime, the league was able to accommodate two unusual requests:
1) The Bengals are celebrating their 50th anniversary season this year. To kick off the festivities, they get to open at home against division-rival Baltimore and they host the first “Thursday Night Football” game of the season against Houston.
2) It was brought to the attention of the scheduling department — perhaps pointedly — that of the last 13 times the Ravens have appeared on “Monday Night Football” in the last 10 years, 12 of those games were on the road. Voila! On Nov. 27, the Ravens will host the Texans on Monday night.
“Everybody is going to have to take a little bit of pain in the schedule,” North said. “Hopefully no team takes too much.”
With that, some observations on 2017:
1) The Kickoff Game …
… is not another Super Bowl rematch. Instead, it is the AFC West champion Chiefs against the Patriots on Sept. 7 in Foxborough. Why not the Falcons, who are also on the Patriots’ home slate this year? Last year, the NFL opted to open the season with Carolina at Denver, a rematch of the Super Bowl 50. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera made his displeasure known and he thought having to spend so much of the offseason revisiting a crushing loss colored the entire 2016 season. But the primary reason the Falcons are not in the opener is the league wanted to showcase the Falcons’ new stadium on Sunday night in Week 2, meaning they wouldn’t put the Falcons in prime time on NBC in consecutive weeks to start the season. (The Falcons visit the Patriots Oct. 22 instead.)
There was another team on the radar for the Patriots’ opener, though. It was the AFC South champion Houston Texans. And just like everybody else, the scheduling department was watching Tony Romo’s movements closely.
“Had Tony Romo signed with Houston, we might have taken a different look at Houston at New England,” North said.
Likewise, had Romo signed with the Broncos, the Cowboys at Broncos game, now slated for the late Sunday afternoon window of Week 2, might have been moved to prime time.
2) No jet lag
When the NFL added regular-season games in London to its schedule beginning in 2007, it offered the lure of a bye week immediately after the trip to assuage teams’ concerns about the toll of midseason, long-distance travel and multiple time-zone changes. But in 2016, the Indianapolis Colts declined the bye immediately after their game in London, electing to take it later in the season, when coaches — and players — often prefer it to refresh for the stretch run. When the Colts beat the Bears at home seven days after the London game, a trend might have been born. This season, the Dolphins, Ravens and Jaguars — three of the four teams that will play in London in the 9:30 a.m. ET slot (the Saints are the fourth) — elected to play a game the week after playing in London. The increased comfort level with some of the international games is a potentially important development as the NFL continues to look abroad for growth.
“If you are going to play in London in the early window, you get back to your home stadium by midnight on Sunday night,” North said. “To know you’re forced into Week 4 bye as opposed to, We’ll be home by midnight? Teams seem to have figured out how to handle London.”
3) Don’t unpack
One of the reasons this schedule was the winner was there is no Week 4 bye. That’s the good news. The bad: Eight teams will have three-game road trips, if you include the Dolphins, who play twice on the road before hosting what is technically a home game in London. There were only two such road trips in last season’s schedule, which is part of what made that one so attractive. Few things make teams more irate than the extended road trips. So, what happened? The ever-increasing complexity of the schedule is to blame.
“All these stadium things, then you layer in international travel, four London games and a Mexico game, that’s 10 teams playing international games, not just where are they the week of the international game, but where are they the week before and week after. We don’t look at the total number of three-game road trips. Technically, you could have 20 three-game road trips, as long as no team has more than one and each of the 20 was justifiable.”
Thankfully, there aren’t 20. But bon voyage to the Vikings, Eagles, Falcons, 49ers, Patriots, Bengals, Broncos and Dolphins.
4) Telling stretches
Trying to divine the strength of schedule now seems ridiculous, when we don’t even know some of the starting quarterbacks. But consider this: Both the Broncos and Chargers will play a total of eight games against 2016 playoff teams. That’s the most in the NFL and a rough slate for two teams that will be heading into 2017 with rookie head coaches and, in the case of the Chargers, a new home field. (The Chiefs also play eight games against playoff teams, but at least this isn’t Andy Reid’s first rodeo.) The Broncos and Chargers play each other in Denver on the first Monday night of the season.
After that, the Broncos, whose opponents had a .578 winning percentage (the toughest mark in the league), face one of the season’s most intriguing stretches: home versus the Giants Oct. 15, then at the Chargers, at the Chiefs on Monday night, at the Eagles on the short week and then home versus the Patriots.
For the Patriots, that game in Denver starts their own critical run: at Denver, at Oakland (in Mexico City), home versus Miami, at Buffalo, at Miami on Monday night and then at Pittsburgh on the short week.
Finally, if the Cowboys are to return to the playoffs, the pass defense that ranked 26th last season, better improve in a hurry. They face the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals and Packers in the first five weeks, have the Redskins, Chiefs, Falcons and Eagles in a row at midseason, and close with the Redskins, Giants, Raiders, Seahawks and Eagles.
5) Binge viewing
The schedule makers didn’t take offseason surgeries for Cam Newton or Andrew Luck into consideration. But we did. Here are a few games to circle on your calendar:
» Giants at Cowboys (Week 1): It’s the third straight year these rivals open against each other. Last year saw the debuts of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and the Giants’ revamped defense.
» Seahawks at Packers (Week 1): This is the fourth straight year they meet. Last year’s 38-10 Packers showcase was the signal that the Aaron Rodgers’ offense was back on track. Will Richard Sherman be with the Seahawks to try to get Green Bay off track again?
» Colts at Rams and Panthers at 49ers (Week 1): To what extent will offseason shoulder surgeries impact the start of the season for Andrew Luck and Cam Newton?
» Falcons at Patriots (Week 7): Just how much psychological damage did that Super Bowl collapse inflict anyway?
» Patriots at Raiders in Mexico City (Week 11): With Marshawn Lynch looming on the roster horizon for the Raiders, this game should provide a good measuring stick for how close the Raiders are to the top of the AFC mountain.
» Patriots at Steelers (Week 15): If this is the AFC Championship Game preview, nobody would be surprised.