The Pope, the Problems and the 2015 Schedule
Assigning dates to the 256 NFL games is a complex process. And that’s before a plea on behalf of the pontiff. Here’s how four men and 136 computers navigated approximately 50 ‘must-have’ conditions to nail down this fall’s football slate
NEW YORK — There were obstacles to making an NFL schedule this year that were, shall we say, unusual. One, which locked the Eagles into a very tough early schedule, involved a personal appeal to Roger Goodell from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Another roadblock, quite literally, came because of the December implosion of an 82-year-old bridge providing key access to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Three Taylor Swift concerts factored in, as did baseball teams in Kansas City, Oakland and Pittsburgh that used to stink but now make October planning a nightmare for the NFL. Or shall we say, for the NFL’s 136 computers.
But late last week, one of those 136 computers the NFL used to divine potential 2015 season schedules—this one in the basement of the league’s Park Avenue offices, though others in New Jersey, North Carolina and California were in 24/7 use too, communicating with the league office via its cloud—deposited a proposed slate of the 256 regular-season games on the screens of the four men who annually work for four months to solve the intricate puzzle.
This iteration of the schedule was promising.
This one, No. 37,793 that this one busy computer produced since being assigned the task of finding the perfect NFL schedule (or the least objectionable one, because no team thinks its schedule is perfect) immediately caught the attention of the team on the fifth floor of NFL offices, inside the rectangular room with a keycard entry system surrounded by frosted glass so no one can see inside. Ten days earlier, the team of four, led by NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz, had been at an impasse. “Too many weak TV weeks we had to fix,” Katz said inside the scheduling den. “We had some schedules that were close, but each had something we considered a fatal flaw. I was very frustrated. I was thinking we’d be lucky to find a workable schedule before the [April 30] draft.”
Katz and his group decided to dictate approximately 50 “must-haves” to the 136 computers, and then ask the computers to spit out schedules including all 50 of those conditions, such as:
• Philadelphia to open as the lead Monday night game. Katz understands it’s been the Offseason of Chip. The Eagles couldn’t conflict with a Phillies home weekend, so a Monday night game at Atlanta was the seed the group planted here.
• Tom Brady at Peyton Manning on Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend. Three national TV games on Thanksgiving. College games on Friday and Saturday. A slate of NFL games Sunday during the day. Katz thought there had to be a marquee attraction for the last game of the four-day Thanksgiving break. He glued in New England-at-Denver.
• Bears at Packers, Thanksgiving night. “Some games just feel right,” Katz said. “The more we looked at it, the more we loved this game in this space.”
• Rex back in New Jersey in Week 10. Remember the “cross-flex” rules that debuted last year? When the league could put some FOX games on CBS, and vice versa? Well, Dallas plays on Thanksgiving at home. This year it was due to be a CBS game, with an AFC road team at Dallas. There are only two AFC road teams at Dallas this year—the Jets and Patriots. CBS desperately wanted New England-Dallas as a Sunday afternoon doubleheader game. And the NFL preferred not to use the Jets here because ratings for a New York-Dallas game would be huge and wouldn’t need the Thanksgiving bump … and for another important reason. Teams can play but one short-week Thursday night game. The league wanted Bills-Jets for a Thursday-nighter. So Carolina-Dallas became the cross-flex compromise for CBS, and the NFL could save a Jets national TV exposure for a Thursday night—and the return of Rex Ryan to the Meadowlands on Nov. 12.
• Chicago-Seattle as a cross-flex game in Week 3. In most of the schedule iterations that looked promising, CBS needed a strong national game for Week 3. This was cross-flexed and stood the test of time.
• Indianapolis and the Jets playing in Week 2. The NFL wants to emphasize Super Bowl history this year, the season of the 50th Super Bowl. What better memory than Super Bowl III, Colts-Jets, to kick off the history lesson—even though the Baltimore part of the equation is long gone, and Maryland hates the Colts now. The first of 19 Super Bowl rematches on the schedule to be nationally televised will be played Monday night in Week 2, and I have a feeling Joe Willie Namath will find his way to Lucas Oil Stadium that night. (Miami-Washington, the first Super Bowl rematch of the season, is a regional game in Week 1.)
• Philadelphia couldn’t be home in Weeks 1, 3 or 4. Phillies conflicts in Weeks 1 and 4, and a letter from Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput to commissioner Roger Goodell (the archbishop spelled it “Rodger”) last July 8 respectfully requested the NFL not play in Philadelphia on the Sunday of Week 3, the day Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a mass for an estimated 2 million people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway outside the Philadelphia Art Museum. In October, Katz wrote the archbishop to say the Eagles would be out of town that weekend … 93 miles up the New Jersey Turnpike to play the Jets on that afternoon, Sept. 27.
“Yes,” Katz said, finally able to relax Tuesday evening in his scheduling den. “The pope did influence the NFL schedule. My name may be Katz, but I wasn’t taking any chances.”
It took a little over a week, but Version 37,793 finally got the job done.
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The schedule release, for some reason, has become appointment TV, and appointment all-other-media too. NFL Network had 18 hosts/reporters working the schedule release show Tuesday night. Inside the Val Pinchbeck Room at the NFL offices Tuesday evening—Pinchbeck used to make the schedule by hand for a generation—Katz and teammates Michael North, Onnie Bose and Jonathan Payne collectively shook their heads at two TV channels doing a collective five hours of special programming over the simple task of assigning dates to the previously arranged 256 regular-season games.
“The schedule is a problem with an infinite number of solutions,” Bose said in the Pinchbeck Room, with the results ready to be telecast nationally Tuesday night.
The computers spit out about 5.4 million possible schedules, some 200 of which the group of four examined closely. Version 37,793 was approved by Roger Goodell at 11 a.m. Monday.
Katz said he heard from several teams wondering why they hadn't seen any first draft of the schedule after it was reported that the league sent out a test schedule to some owners to judge its efficacy. Katz denied that anyone in the league did that. “Nothing like that ever happened,” he said Tuesday evening. “Nobody got the schedule. There wasn’t a single owner who had a schedule before today.”
We’ll talk about the opening game first, then get to some of the most interesting permutations of what happened. New England had to open the season at home on Thursday, Sept. 10, by virtue of winning the Super Bowl. That pushed a One Direction concert scheduled for Gillette Stadium that night to Sept. 12. And now the league had to figure which opponent to play in Foxboro on opening night. The Steelers seemed most logical, although the Eagles (with crazy Chip Kelly), the Bills (with crazy Rex Ryan) and the Jets (with the crazy Jets-Patriots rivalry) were contenders. It seems logical to put Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger against the Patriots for competitive reasons, seeing that the Eagles, Bills and Jets all have questionable quarterback situations.
“We knew Pittsburgh was a great opener,” said Katz. “But we spent a lot of time looking at Philly as the opener. We really did. We didn’t go away from that path because we were worried about the Eagles quarterback. We really went away from it because we came to the conclusion that we needed that Philadelphia-New England game on FOX as a doubleheader game later in the season. We had a sort of finished puzzle, but part of that puzzle was going to be Philly-New England game as a FOX doubleheader.”
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I thought it would be interesting to note something about all 32 teams’ schedules. Some of these are inside stories from the creation of the slates; some are observations I had after a quick run-through of every team’s schedule. (Click team name to view schedule.)
Arizona. The Cardinals, with four Eastern Time Zone games, asked the league to try to combo-platter two of them so they could stay East for a week between them. What happened has to be pretty cool for former Steelers assistant and Pennsylvania native Bruce Arians. The Cards go to Detroit and Pittsburgh in Weeks 5 and 6, setting up a couple of Iron City nights for him and his staff.
Atlanta. Dan Quinn Break Dept.: Falcons will face the easiest schedule in the league, based on 2014 records of opponents (104-150-2, .409) … The NFL hates putting teams on the road three weeks in a row, and the Falcons are one of four teams to get a three-game roadie this year. But a Deep South trifecta—at Tampa, at Carolina, at Jacksonville—in December is about as painless as three in a row away can get. None of those trips is more than about an hour’s flight.
Baltimore. If the Ravens can get to the bye at 5-3, they’ll be in great shape. The Ravens get all four of their west-of-the-Mississippi games done by Week 7. They asked the NFL to pair the San Francisco/Oakland trips so they could stay in the Bay Area, but the league couldn’t finagle that. Instead, the league put the Denver-Oakland road swing in Weeks 1 and 2, then the San Francisco-Arizona trip in Weeks 6 and 7. Baltimore plays the last nine games of the season in the Eastern time zone, and can recover with a Week 9 bye.
Buffalo. Two home games to start (Colts, Patriots), two to finish (Cowboys, Jets). That should—but I’m not sure—make up for two home games in a 10-week span late in the year.
Carolina. Cam Newton gets a prime-time national showcase in back-to-back midseason games in Charlotte, on Sunday night, Oct. 25, against the Eagles and Monday night, Nov. 2, in a head-to-header against Andrew Luck and the Colts. The league is trusting Carolina to be a contender by midseason.
Chicago. A note about the Chicago-Seattle Week 3 game: Think of the importance of this game to CBS. This game, in Week 3, would be a FOX B game, seen by maybe 20 percent of the country. But on a weak weekend for CBS, it becomes an A game, a solid CBS doubleheader-week game, seen by maybe 75 percent of the country.
Cincinnati. The NFL is betting big on the Bengals. Risky move, with the Andy Dalton big-game shakiness in play. The Bengals have prime-time home games in Weeks 9 and 10 with Cleveland (Thursday) and Houston (Monday); a could-be-flexed Sunday-nighter with Niners in Week 15; and a Monday-nighter at Denver in Week 16. Dalton will either have his prime-time ghosts exorcised by New Year’s Eve or he’ll be planted on the bench by then.
Cleveland. The last nine games are a consistent land mine: Arizona, at Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Francisco, at Seattle, at Kansas City, Pittsburgh. But how about the league giving the Browns two of those post-Halloween games on national TV, in prime time? Risky.
Dallas. If the Cowboys survive New England-Giants-Seattle in games five through seven, they'll appreciate a closing trio of the Jets-Buffalo-Washington.
Denver. Just look at the Broncos’ schedule. It’s like every week is prime time. Lions, Packers, Patriots on Sunday night. Chiefs on Thursday. Bengals on Monday. Five national doubleheader late-Sunday-window games. Man, what will the league do when Peyton Manning retires?
Detroit. The rare back-to-back Thursday tilts: Thanksgiving at home with the Eagles, a week later at home with the Packers, who are also doing back-to-back Thursdays.
Green Bay. Big Thanksgiving Night capper to the NFL holiday tripleheader, obviously, and the Bears-Packers game will sandwich the Brett Favre number retirement at halftime … Also: A huge September, with an NFC Championship Game rematch in Week 2 on Sunday night against Seattle, and a rematch of Super Bowl I, Chiefs at Packers, in Week 3 at home. Then there’s Aaron Rodgers at Peyton Manning and Cam Newton in back-to-back midseason weeks, and a December road trip to Oakland and Arizona. Interesting. Challenging.
Houston. NFL teams like three things with the schedule: opening at home, closing at home, and a midseason bye. Texans open with Kansas City at home, close with Jacksonville at home, and have a Week 9 bye. The schedule’s surviveable. Now they just need a quarterback to emerge.
Indianapolis. In the span of 22 mid-season days, Andrew Luck will face Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning at Lucas Oil Stadium. Like, whoa.
Jacksonville. At first glance, if I’m Jacksonville, I hate the three-game road trip early (at Patriots, Colts, Bucs). Then I see the end of the season, and I really get ticked off: at Saints, at Texans.
Kansas City. Chiefs should get an emotional lift with the home opener on Thursday of Week 2 against Peyton Manning. The league will be sweating Bears and Steelers noon home games in October, with the rise of the Royals and the chance of another postseason run by the local baseball team.
Miami. Sure hope Ndamukong Suh likes warm weather. Look at Miami’s last five games: Ravens and Giants home; at San Diego; the Colts and Patriots home.
Minnesota. The NFL has to be hoping Adrian Peterson and the Vikes resolve their differences and he’s on the field for them in Week 1, when Minnesota travels to San Francisco for the second half of a Monday night doubleheader.
New England. Not the typical marquee schedule for a defending Super Bowl champ because of the foes. But the Pats should be 3-0 (2-1 at worst) coming out of the Week 4 bye and traveling to Dallas and Indianapolis.
New Orleans. The past five short-week Thursday games for the Saints have been on the road. Not this year. The streak is broken (and the Saints gently reminded the league of said streak) with a Week 6 Thursday home game against Atlanta.
New York Giants. Clearly, the league’s counting on the Giants being a premier team, with two Sunday night games (Dallas, San Francisco) and a Thursday-nighter (Washington) in the first five weeks.
New York Jets. Start spreadin’ the news: Rex returns to New Jersey, New Jersey for a Thursday night hypefest in November. Jets are also in prime time twice more. Might be time to develop a quarterback.
Oakland. Raiders and Broncos have both been told the Denver-Oakland series could flip-flop … because the Raiders have the men of Manning at home on what could be an American League playoff weekend, Oct. 11.
Philadelphia. Surprise! Eagles maxed out their prime-time appearances at five, including three straight in midseason: Giants on Monday, Carolina and Dallas on Sunday night … Did you notice the three-game homestand in December? The Eagles requested the weekend of Dec. 13 on the road, because the Army-Navy game is at Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 12. The league tried but couldn’t accommodate Philadelphia, and so a three-game homestand was the result … And this from Michael North of the NFL, on whether the pope’s visit gave the Eagles three of the first four on the road: “If the pope were not there this year, given the Phillies’ blocks in Weeks 1 and 4 because of their home games, the Eagles most likely would have been home in Weeks 2 and 3.”
Pittsburgh. Toughest schedule in the league by winning percentage of foes (.579). Pittsburgh has nine games against 2014 playoff teams, plus games against two other teams—Kansas City and San Diego—that had winning records. One edge: The Steelers do have a second “mini-bye” because of the Thursday night opener in Foxboro. One detriment: The Steelers will face New England, San Francisco and St. Louis without franchise back Le’Veon Bell, who is suspended for the first three games after his August 2014 pot bust. And they close with two straight road games, thanks in part to the late December destruction of the Greenfield Bridge, which will impact traffic to and from Heinz Field.
St. Louis. Rams finish road-road, but not because the league’s trying to shoo them to Los Angeles early. The Ed Jones Dome is occupied the last two weekends of the season.
San Diego. Quite a nondescript slate. If the Chargers are in contention Dec. 1, it’ll be hard to stay that way. Last five: Denver, at Kansas City, Miami, at Oakland, at Denver.
San Francisco. Jim Tomsula, Western Pennsylvanian through and through, has to be pleased that the first road game of his coaching career is at Heinz Field on Sept. 20. Tomsula will have six games east of the Mississippi among his eight roadies.
Seattle. Hawks fans were ticked last year to see only one home prime time game. This year they have two, among their five prime-timers. But Seattle’s the king of the Sunday doubleheader game this year with five, so the team will be plenty famous by year end.
Tampa Bay. Perfect: Mariota at Winston in Week 1. That’s assuming a lot of things—that Marcus Mariota is drafted by Tennessee with the second overall pick next week, and Jameis Winston is drafted by Tampa Bay with the first pick. It’s a Titans-Bucs lidlifter in what would otherwise be one of the great snoozer games in recent pro football history.
Tennessee. See Tampa Bay. Oh, there’s also the quality Christmas-shopping road trips to play the Jets on Dec. 13 and the Patriots on Dec. 20.
Washington. Three of four at home to start, three of four away to end. And a Week 9 game at New England. Nothing alarming or particularly noteworthy about this schedule.
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“The thing we really like is there’s nothing egregious that we could find on any team’s schedule,” said Katz. “And the TV is pretty good throughout.”
The TV is pretty good throughout. Always remember that: An NFL schedule is never right unless the TV schedule is right.