The people in charge of putting together the 272-game NFL schedule you’re looking at right now processed Tom Brady’s announcement on March 13 in the same way you did on that fateful night—with a combination of shock and excitement and anticipation for what may come next in the craziest offseason of all.
The difference was that from then on, Onnie Bose, Howard Katz, Mike North, Charlotte Carey, Blake Jones, and Nick Cooney had to get back to work. So, after a night’s rest, the six schedulers reconvened in New York with a mountain to climb.
“When you believe the greatest player of all time has retired, and with the opponents Tampa has?” remarked Bose, the NFL’s V.P. of broadcasting, on Thursday, shortly before the schedule was released. “We were going to utilize those games because they were still Dallas, Kansas City, Green Bay, and the Rams.” However, his reappearance only increased the number of games from six to eight, which may be played in any timeframe. That changed everything for us.
“We use the expression ‘all systems halt’—let’s stop everything we’ve been working on and review.” So it’s not an exaggeration to say that [changed everything]. It isn’t a complete reset but rather a thorough reassessment of everything. And now we have to figure out how to disperse those games in the correct places and throughout our networks.”
This is only one of several issues that the schedulers encountered this spring.
A short timeline of events can demonstrate this. Brady announced his retirement in late January. Kyler Murray made a statement on February 28 questioning his future in Arizona. Aaron Rodgers decided to stay in Green Bay, while Russell Wilson was dealt on March 8. Carson Wentz was sold on March 9. Brady’s return above occurred on March 13. On March 18, Deshaun Watson and Davante Adams were traded. Matt Ryan was dealt with on March 21, Tyreek Hill on March 23, and Deebo Samuel’s trade request was made public on April 20.
Throughout it all, the group of a half-dozen NFL people assembling that massive jigsaw puzzle had to keep rejigging things to account for obvious rising interest in a game like Seahawks–Broncos (now the Monday night game in Week 1) to more subtly enhanced matchups like Commanders–Jaguars (another Week 1 game, pitting Wentz against Doug Pederson).
“Things make it more difficult; we must anticipate and respond,” added Bose. “It was practically day by day, like Whoa, this is fantastic. How does this affect our schedule?” We, too, are fans at heart. It’s thrilling to observe these deals and to consider the consequences. …
“We went into it believing we didn’t have Tom Brady, and we didn’t know where Aaron Rodgers was going to be.” That was a significant variable. And look at the schedule—Tampa Bay and Green Bay have several tough opponents, including each other. Those two bits of uncertainty alone fueled so much of the action. Then there’s Russell going to Denver, the way the AFC West is now loaded, and they’re facing the NFC West.”
And… well, you get the idea. Putting things together this year was both exhilarating and tough. In this week’s GamePlan, we’ll go through some of the specifics that set this one apart from others we’ve seen in the past, with the assistance of Bose.
The raw data in bringing it all together are, as usual, mind-boggling. This year, the NFL used over 4,000 computers to generate schedules in the cloud. Millions of fragmentary slates were generated. The computers developed 119,153 complete programs, from which Bose, Katz, North, Carey, Jones, and Cooney were able to choose 209 for deep dives using their own sets of guidelines.
Schedule 119,011 was the one who made it. Following that, the computers generated additional 142 schedules against which the final one was compared before being chosen.
This year saw the debut of the international rotation, which added to the 17th game dynamic that began the previous year (which pushed the total number of games from 256 to 272). There were also amusing oddities that the schedulers wanted to incorporate. One is the Raiders’ game against the Steelers on Christmas Eve night, the day after the Immaculate Reception’s 50th anniversary. Another is the Dolphins’ Week 7 matchup against the Raiders, which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of their undefeated championship squad, who defeated Oakland in the AFC final game that year.
Then there were certain underlying themes, which we may discuss further here.
A whopping 12 clubs were limited to five prime-time games. It’s a large amount, yet the NFL felt fit to do so with the Bills, Packers, Cowboys, Chiefs, Rams, Broncos, Buccaneers, Chargers, Bengals, Eagles, Patriots, and 49ers. Four additional clubs (the Colts, Titans, Steelers, and Cardinals) have four prime-time games, indicating that half of the league has four or more.
“It speaks to where we are in the league right now,” added Bose. While we have Brady and Rodgers as all-time greats and their teams, you also have a slew of young, intriguing quarterbacks or quarterbacks on the rise. Cincinnati is now in play to be maxed out, and Buffalo is in space to be maxed out. I’ve been doing this for 15 or 16 years, and those were not max-out teams. They’ve arrived.
“The Rams won the Super Bowl, they were always on the rise, and now they’ve reached their peak.” Russell Wilson’s move to Denver, the buzz around Justin Herbert, and the caliber of the NFC West. It’s intentional; let’s bring the greatest games to the best windows. And given the breadth of these teams, we’re in a fortunate position to spread them out.”
The prime-time schedule is more balanced than I recall. The pecking order has been simple: Sunday night, Monday night, and Thursday night. The big games appear to be more spaced out this year than ever. The Broncos-Seahawks game and the Bills-Bengals game round up the ESPN Monday-night program. Amazon begins with Chargers-Chiefs, then moves on to Steelers-Browns in Week 2 and Ravens–Bucs in Week 3. And NBC’s Sunday night lineup remains solid.
“It plays to the quality and breadth of the clubs, the matches, and West vs. West, two strong Western divisions with many games you can bring into prime time,” Bose explained. “And, without question, Amazon, a new partner, digital distribution, we wanted to get them off to a good start, and starting with the Chargers–K.C. at Arrowhead feels enormous.” We’re pretty delighted with the slate of games we’re able to do throughout the season, including matchups like Tampa–Baltimore and Green Bay–Tennessee, which have the chance to be included in the Amazon schedule.
“And then, to your Monday night point, we have the depth to get to some great matchups like Rams–Green Bay and Dallas–Giants in Week 3.” I also enjoy Buffalo–Cincinnati in Week 17. And there will be some games broadcast on ABC in Weeks 1, 3, 15, and 17 and the Week 18 doubleheader.”
It’s worth noting that Amazon is paying $1 billion per year on the new T.V. agreement, whereas Disney is paying $2.7 billion per year. So there are billions of reasons for the NFL to keep them satisfied.
Buffalo was chosen for the Week 1 Thursday kickoff game due to a unique narrative line. And I’ll leave it to Bose to take it from there, with the Bills and Rams on the schedule for Week 1.
“The Rams have a lot of appealing opponents,” he remarked. “Could you have done a title game rematch with the Niners?” Could you have done Denver if Russell had gone to Denver? Absolutely. Those were the games that were under consideration. I believe we enjoyed the concept of our final recollection of Josh Allen being him performing at an unbelievable level. And you wish he had the ball in overtime. There was so much there—hey, let’s start the season there and get this man and the champion Rams on that platform right away.”
Which gets us to the final point…
As has always been, quarterbacks were at the heart of everything. Brady. Rodgers. Wilson. Bose also told me he likes the Denver–Indy game in Week 5 because you’ll have two quarterbacks in new homes in what might be a significant game in playoff positioning down the road—another Amazon game.
So, certainly, the folks shooting the photos were a driving factor behind everything.
“There are crucial factors to consider when talking about the teams that will be maxed out,” Bose added. “There are classic clubs, huge cities, and fan bases—of course, Dallas and Green Bay are going to be maxed out, and it fluctuates through time, but Kansas City is in that category now, and Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago are going to gain a lot of that just by population.”
“Where it truly differs is with the elite quarterbacks.” Peyton [Manning] in Indianapolis had to be on the marquee and would be there, regardless of market or anything else. Traditional markets and teams with a significant fan base are the top two deterrent factors for teams with the most appeal, and it is very much quarterback-driven.”
So it was with the Broncos, that Bose made the most remarkable call this week.
They had promised 2022 back in January, but not much curb appeal. Then, on March 8, everything changed, exemplifying both the chaotic nature of this offseason and the power of the quarterback position.
“They play seven separate national games, astounding,” remarked Bose. “And that speaks to their games, the opponents, Russell returning to Seattle.” And they’re in a unique situation; they’re on every network, plus ESPN+ in London and Nickelodeon on Christmas. That’s a great outcome.”
What happens next? With the work of Bose, North, Katz, Carey, Jones, and Cooney completed, the goal is that what we see on the field in a few months is as fantastic as it appears on paper Thursday night.