The NFL schedule, on paper, doesn’t seem all that important to the league’s overall vitality. It’s something that could be taken care of easily with a random number generator. You take a quick glance — as long as it accounts for everyone, that should be fine. Right? Well, not exactly. Without the right mix – a big primetime game here, an intriguing divisional matchup there – the final product wouldn’t quite be the same.
Being on a fly in that room, to see and hear the rationale for which primetime games go where and how something uncontrollable like weather factors in, would be quite fascinating.
NFL Director of Broadcast Planning Mike North recently joined The Finsiders to give an inside look at what goes into the NFL schedule.
“It’s part art and part science,” North said. “The science is searching through what amounts to hundreds of trillions of possible NFL schedules every year and trying to find the one that actually is best for everybody.
“And it’s really part art. Howard Katz, senior vice president of broadcasting at the NFL, he’s the artist. He has a vision in his mind’s eye for what he wants the schedule to look like.”
Finding that perfect balance between art and science doesn’t happen overnight, though. It’s more like making a stew — you have to add, subtract and let it all simmer before the final draft is ready. Knowing that there’s a room of excecutives, for whom television matters a great deal, deciding when and where a team plays is probably a tad disconcerting for the conspiracy-theory-peddeling portion of a fanbase. This group does not, however, have any control whatsoever of the actual matchups.
Those are pre-determined the same way every year: a combination of six divisional matchups, an annual rotation through the divisions and a pair of conference games slotted by record.
So after the final whistle, the group can start getting to work.
“As soon as we know the final standings from 2012, we now know the 256 matchups for 2013.”
No matter how many continginces you create, sometimes a situation can arise that can throw the whole schedule for a loop — a perfect storm of sorts happened this year. Traditionally, the defending Super Bowl champion has hosted the season-opening Thursday night game, so the schedule was created with this in mind. One problem: The Orioles, who play across the street from the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, have a scheduled series that conflicts.
Without a resolution — the Orioles didn’t want to move their series — and Rosh Hashanah affecting possible contingencies, the Ravens had to be sent to open the season in Denver, a rematch of their AFC Divisional Round win.
If a team has any input on the schedule, North said, it’s typically because they need to accomodate a shared tennant. This happened to the Dolphins when they shared Sun Life Stadium with the Miami Marlins. The latter’s magical postseason run in 1997, extending the baseball schedule as far as it could go with a World Series Game 7, had the NFL scrambling modify the schedule on the fly.
“We actually had to move a football game. We had to move Dolphins-Bears to Monday night,” North said. “So you’ve got to take some calculated risks against some of the baseball teams in those markets.”
You’ll hear more about the scheduling snafus, but that’s only because North, Katz and Co. typically do so well to neutralize any potential problems and create new alternatives to improve the product. Some of it is trial and error. For instance, when contending teams — most famously, the Indianapolis Colts — opted to sit players as the playoffs approached, sometimes for weeks at a time, the scheduling committee reacted, looking to maintain compeitive continuity while — theoretically — creating meaningful matchups for the television networks and viewers.
All things considered, it has worked nicely.
If it hadn’t, the league would have been right at back at the drawing table to figure out what could.
“We had a lot of discussion about teams resting starters, either heading into the playoffs or playing younger players late in the year. By amassing those division games late in the year, it keeps all the games competitive, it keeps all the playoff races tight, hopefully.
“…We’ve been pretty luck that game 256, for several years in a row, has basically been a playoff game. A win and you’re in.”
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The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.