As is the case every year, assembling the NFL schedule was a mad scramble for Howard Katz and his team, who pored over thousands of possible versions — generated by computers located all over the world — before releasing the final product.
This year, amid all the COVID-19 uncertainty, the puzzle was substantially more complex.
But the league also had a road map. In 2011, when the NFL was mired in a labor dispute, the schedule makers had to come up with a full slate of games that had seamless escape hatches and subtle contingency plans in case games had to be postponed or scrubbed.
That turned out to be a blueprint for this year’s schedule, which was released with a flourish Thursday night in prime time.
For instance, every game in Week 2 pits teams who have the same off week. Same in 2011. That way, if that week of games had to be postponed, all of those games could be made up during the respective off weeks of those teams.
There are no off weeks and no divisional rivalries in Weeks 3 and 4, and every team has a home and away game during that stretch. That would maintain fairness in the event those games had to be canceled, and is also identical to 2011.
“The release of the NFL schedule is something our fans eagerly anticipate every year, as they look forward with hope and optimism to the season ahead,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a written statement. “In preparing to play the season as scheduled, we will continue to make our decisions based on the latest medical and public health advice, in compliance with government regulations, and with appropriate safety protocols to protect the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and our communities.
“We will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary, as we have during this off-season in safely and efficiently conducting key activities such as free agency, the virtual off-season program, and the 2020 NFL draft.”
The NFL is heading into its next round of broadcasting negotiations, and it could not afford to come up with some kind of Frankenstein schedule complete with unsightly seams and untenable sacrifices. That it was able to construct a workable schedule that checks all the boxes is a credit to Katz, senior vice president of broadcasting, and his team: Michael North, Onnie Bose, Charlotte Carey and Blake Jones, who had to finish the process via video conferences from home, as opposed to their familiar confines at NFL headquarters on Park Avenue.
The schedule is normally built in a glass-walled room that’s frosted opaque with soundproof walls, encrypted computers, and can be accessed only by a special key card.
This was the most complicated schedule in league history, with 256 games, 17 weeks, six time slots, five networks and four possible game days — Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Saturday — all set against the backdrop of a pandemic that could scuttle everything.
It’s likely that the league will stage games before greatly reduced or nonexistent crowds in light of the pandemic. And it’s not clear at all whether teams in certain states, including California, will be allowed to play.
On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed doubts about games being played in California in the immediate future.
“It’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity and until we have a vaccine,” Newsom said. “There are conditions that persist in this state and this nation that make reopening very, very challenging.”
Even in a normal year, it’s standard practice for the NFL to have a backup stadium to host a game if the primary venue is unavailable. For the Rams and Chargers, the most likely candidates would be State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., home of the Cardinals, and Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, home of the Raiders.
The Rams are due to open SoFi Stadium against the Dallas Cowboys on the first Sunday night of the season, and the home opener for the Raiders is Monday night of Week 2 against New Orleans. The Chargers will make their SoFi debut in a Week 2 game against Kansas City, a CBS national game.
Several teams, including the Rams and Chargers, asked to play their most far-flung games in consecutive weeks in order to stay over and practice on the road. The league granted eight such requests. So the Rams play at Philadelphia and Buffalo in consecutive weeks, and the Chargers play back-to-back games at Tampa Bay and New Orleans.
Defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City is the only team with four sets of back-to-back road games, and the only two teams without prime-time games are Washington and Detroit, both of whom play their Thursday games on Thanksgiving Day.
The Kickoff Opener features the Chiefs hosting Houston, teams that split their two games last season. The Texans beat Kansas City in the regular season, but the Chiefs responded in the postseason by overcoming a 24-point deficit to win a divisional classic.
The Buccaneers and their new quarterback, Tom Brady, will get plenty of time on the national stage. They have the maximum five prime-time games, including three in a row from Weeks 7-9. Tampa Bay opens at New Orleans in a game that pits future Hall of Famers Brady and Drew Brees, and, according to ESPN, marks the first game in which both starting quarterbacks are at least 40 years old.