In the NFL’s efforts to widen interest in the game and highlight the league’s most marketable talents, convenience for member clubs and players is sometimes overlooked. There has always been a significant disparity in total travel distances for certain teams, such as the Raiders in 2018 and 2019. They were so egregiously hosed that the NFL’s head of broadcasting issued the closest thing to an apology we’ll ever see from the league.
Oakland logged more flight miles in 2018 than the next three clubs combined. The Raiders did not play a game at their home stadium from September 22 to November 3, 2019, their last season, before migrating to Las Vegas. During one month, they accumulated more flight miles than nearly the entire NFL. Compared to their peers’ pleasant business travel, Jon Gruden was virtually Eudoxus of Cyzicus.
Take a look at the AFC North this season, for example. The geographically close division nearly always benefits from convenient, short-distance travel. The Steelers will travel less than 6,500 miles this season. If they didn’t want to travel to Atlanta, they might ride a bus for the duration of the season. They do not cross any time zones. This is a huge benefit of breaking in a rookie quarterback whose mind is already racing. Kenny Pickett could be stretched out in a Winnebago filling up his gas tank hours before most of his kickoffs and still arrive in time for the Instagram costume reveal.
While this piece will not focus on travel concerns, everything must be considered: rest time, general opponent strength, and the number of difficult games in succession. Starting the NFL season with a gauntlet is analogous to a lead balloon propelled on a cross-country trip. We’ll also look at the politics of prime-time games and where that leaves particular teams.
Let’s start with the six clubs who have the best chance of getting screwed by the schedule-makers this season.
1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks won the Most-Traveled Franchise of the Year honor, with 29,446 flight miles, courtesy of their home state and game versus the Buccaneers in Munich (Week 10, November 13). While their strength of schedule (based on last year’s winning %) is pretty acceptable (Broncos, 49ers, Falcons, Lions, Saints, and Cardinals during DeAndre Hopkins’ suspension), their post-Munich bye week run of games becomes downright brutal. The Seahawks will take a week off following Germany before facing the Raiders, Rams, 49ers, and Chiefs over the next five weeks, with just a game against the Panthers.
The Seahawks have a six-day vacation time between Week 1 and Week 2 and one short-week turnaround between a Sunday game and Thursday Night Football, which occurs December 11–15. Overall, the overseas match (which, being the first time Germany has hosted an NFL game, adds some challenges) combined with four large cross-country road trips (Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Detroit, and New Orleans) make this an awful way to begin the post–Russell Wilson era.
2. Cleveland Browns
To be clear, the Browns chose this option. We’re not saying they’re screwed, but there’s a distinct disparity in prime-time games between Cleveland and other teams who made comparably substantial personnel upgrades this summer. The Browns have two such games scheduled: a Week 3 Thursday game against the Steelers and a Halloween Monday Night Football game versus the Bengals. While the NFL has not released any information regarding a potential Deshaun Watson suspension, one has to wonder if the plan was to move the Browns’ prime-time games earlier in the season—when Watson would be most likely to miss time—so that announcers would not have to spend three hours discussing the troubling details of the Watson allegations, a task that certain commentators have struggled with in the past.
The Broncos, for example, play five prime-time games plus a highlighted London game that is also played at a different time. Matt Ryan and the Colts have three games in prime time. I believe we can conclude that the Browns’ placement—almost entirely in the 1 p.m. CBS slot—is an attempt to prevent a long-term torrent of criticism directed at the league’s broadcast partners for what might be seen as incompetence in managing a sensitive issue.
If you’re a player who appreciates the prime time or a coach on the Browns’ staff hoping for more television time to help you land a head-coaching job in 2023, having only one network prime-time game and one streaming prime-time game in 2022 is disappointing. Visibility is important in certain roles.
Cleveland’s schedule from Week 5 to Week 12 is terrible (Chargers, Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins, Bills, and Buccaneers).
3. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals’ schedule is brutally front- and backloaded, with the only discernible weak spot coming in the late September/early October stretch. Arizona kicks off the season at home against the Chiefs before traveling to Las Vegas to face the Raiders in their home debut under Josh McDaniels. What happens next? The reigning Super Bowl champion Rams will be in town.
The Cardinals follow a short-rest swing (Oct. 16–20, against the Seahawks and Saints, respectively) with a difficult stretch that includes a game in Minnesota, a trip to Los Angeles to face the Rams, an eight-day rest before facing the 49ers in the brutal, high-altitude Mexico City game, which is then followed by a short, six-day rest turnaround to host the Chargers at home. After the Chargers game on November 27? It’s the Patriots, the Broncos, and the Buccaneers.
Best wishes to Kliff Kingsbury and company, who knew they would have the second-toughest strength of schedule this season. While the Cardinals’ short-rest games are nicely balanced, they do not have a bye after leaving the country, unlike other overseas teams. I’d be interested to hear the NFL’s view on this. Yes, the journey from Phoenix to Mexico City is just around three and a half hours long, but it takes you over harsh terrain that is 2,000 feet higher above sea level than Denver. Furthermore, according to NFL Stats and Information rest analytics, the Cardinals have one of the league’s least good rest, too short rest splits this year.
4. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL this year, so we do not need to feel sorry for them. However, their plan is challenging to begin, with only one easily winnable game between the season-opening and Halloween. Dallas opens the season at home against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, followed by two divisional games against the Giants (Monday Night Football) and a short-rest game against the Commanders.
After facing a formidable Washington defensive line, the Cowboys fly to Los Angeles to play the defending champions, then cross the country to Philadelphia for a divisional game against the much-improved Eagles, a 1,200-mile journey followed by a 1,300-mile flight. After that dreadful stretch, a Mike McCarthy rivalry game against the Packers looms. It’s worth noting that if the out-of-conference games are piled in a challenging way, the preseason strength of schedule informs us next to nothing about the forthcoming season. NFC East clubs, for example, frequently play down to their intra-divisional opponents and lose in-season games they should not.
5. New Orleans Saints
I’m always interested to hear what teams believe about the necessity of a bye week following overseas travel. The Saints, who have crossed the second-most time zones in the NFL this season (30), do not have a bye after returning from their game against the Vikings in Tottenham. In reality, they go from England to a home game against the Seahawks, a home game against the Bengals, and a four-day turnaround Thursday night game against the Arizona Cardinals. That isn’t easy logistically, but some coaches prefer to keep playing if their team’s perceived momentum is positive.
I believe there is an expectation of rest following overseas travel, but whether or not it is complained about is directly related to previous performance. The Saints do not have a bye until early December. I believe coaches with senior quarterbacks prefer later byes for late-season injury maintenance. Still, with Jameis Winston, I wouldn’t want to wait that long for a chance to self-scout a notoriously inconsistent thrower, especially without Sean Payton.
6. Green Bay Packers
The Packers have the honor of the least beneficial rest schedule. According to the NFL’s data science department, Green Bay has the most lopsided rest days gained vs. rest days lost breakdown of any NFL club. This is worth investigating since Aaron Rodgers has already voiced dissatisfaction with how the Packers handle some travel difficulties.
To recapture some of the lost recuperation days, the Packers will need to plan ahead of time for specific stretches, like their early-season London trip, which is preceded and followed directly by home games. The Packers’ schedule is also somewhat backloaded, including a season-ending game against the Lions, which may be relevant given Detroit’s recent resurgence as a popular playoff selection. The Lions have the best rest breakdown of any club in the NFL this season.