When the NFL schedule makers started to dig in after the Super Bowl on putting together the complex puzzle of a 272-game schedule, Tom Brady had just retired, Russell Wilson was in Seattle and the free-agent frenzy hadn’t even started.
After sifting through more than 100,000 schedules out of a possibility of more than one quadrillion possibilities, the final schedule that the NFL released on Thursday had Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Wilson and his new team in Denver getting prime-time television windows in Week 1.
The Bucs were given the opening Sunday night spot against the Dallas Cowboys, while Wilson’s debut for the Broncos will come against his former Seahawks team in Seattle in the opening Monday night game.
“In the old days, building this thing by hand, we might have been in Week 8 or 9 by the time we got Russell Wilson moving to Denver,” NFL Vice President of Broadcast Planning Mike North said. “Maybe we could have adjusted one or two things, but maybe not a wholesale stop and restart. Now thanks to the way the technology enables us to attack this process, we could stop, take a break, re-evaluate and talk to our partners, talk to our bosses and start all over again and within a couple of days we had a whole new path and a whole new plan that would maximize each of those Denver games, each one of those Tampa Bay games.
“We probably weren’t going to do that before those quarterbacks moved.”
While changes in free agency and the draft are always a factor the schedule makers have to deal with, this year’s retirement switch by Brady and new homes for Wilson and Deshaun Watson were higher-profile ones that had a large impact on the schedule.
The Broncos and Bucs were among the 13 teams that got the maximum five prime-time windows, along with Super Bowl participants the Rams and Bengals, and other big-draw teams such as Buffalo, Dallas, Kansas City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New England and the Chargers.
North said other deals such as Tyreek Hill’s trade from Kansas City to Miami also played a role in the schedule with the Dolphins’ game against Pittsburgh 50 years after they beat the Steelers in the AFC title game in their perfect season solidifying its spot as a Sunday night game in Week 7.
What once was done by hand on a corkboard by one NFL executive is now handled by a cloud of computers provided by Amazon that can run through all sorts of permutations each night before the league picks the one schedule it believes optimizes as best as possible fairness to both teams and network TV partners.
The league tries to balance which networks get the most high-profile games. A Bills-Chiefs playoff rematch was given to CBS; a matchup between Brady and Patrick Mahomes will be played on Sunday night for NBC; an NFC championship game rematch between the Rams and 49ers goes to ESPN on Monday night; Amazon gets flashy quarterbacks Mahomes and Justin Herbert for the first game of its new exclusive Thursday night package; and Fox gets what could be the final game between Brady and Aaron Rodgers for its doubleheader package.
The computers also have to sift through about 26,000 “rules” put in place to deal with stadium conflicts, international travel before and after the five games played in England, Mexico and Germany and trying to spread out the “pain” of schedule inequities like long road trips or the amount of games played against teams coming off byes.
“It’s, you know, a miracle, frankly, that we ever got one done by hand,” North said. “The software, the hardware, the technology, the search engine, the AWS cloud computers, they allow us to look at an awful lot more options. We still would have landed on one then hopefully that we would have been proud of. But it’s a very different process and we really couldn’t do it without the technology that’s available to us.”
There were a few quirks to the schedule such as the Bengals playing all three road division games in prime time and the Patriots playing four straight prime-time games. North said the issue with Cincinnati was the league wanted them to play in prime time against Miami and Buffalo and those were at home, leading to the other games going on the road.
The Patriots and Bills were both slotted early into the Thanksgiving schedule with New England playing Minnesota at night. With two of the six teams playing on Thanksgiving typically playing the next Thursday night as well, the NFL opted for a Patriots-Bills game.
The Patriots also requested back-to-back games out West, and the NFL slotted the Arizona and Las Vegas games the following two weeks and picked those for prime time.
Another quirk: The New York Jets open their season with games all against the AFC North: home vs. Baltimore, at Cleveland, home vs. Cincinnati and at Pittsburgh. The only other teams to open a season against an entire division since the league’s expansion to 32 teams were New Orleans in 2004 and the Giants in 2002 — both vs. the NFC West.
This year’s schedule has a few new wrinkles from a tripleheader on Christmas Day to a staggered Monday night doubleheader in Week 2 with a Tennessee-Buffalo game starting at 7:15 p.m. ET on ESPN and a Minnesota-Philadelphia game starting at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
This is a change from previous years when ESPN aired a Week 1 doubleheader with the games being played back to back with the second game starting at 10:20 p.m. ET
“We’ll learn a little something from this year,” North said. “We’ll see what the fans tell us. And then next year, when we’ve got three such opportunities to have ESPN and ABC side by side, we might try three different ways.”
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