I did it again. Months of trying to solve one of life’s trickiest puzzles was challenging and fun at the same time. Again, I am paying homage to the “good old days” of what the NFL schedule looked like between 2002-2005, before Roger Goodell came along with the new TV deal and did away with the best parts of football.
Otherwise, feel free to read on…
That’s obvious — making a class schedule at school is complicated, so imagine trying to juggle 256 games with a glut of rules and restrictions. The Raiders haven’t moved to Vegas yet, so every week still involves not having the Raiders and 49ers or Jets and Giants playing at either the same time or on the same TV network. This means that, say, Raiders games on Fox or Giants games on CBS require their counterpart to play either in prime-time or on a different day entirely. With the Chargers and Rams both in LA but not yet in the same stadium, there was more flexibility. However, the two could not play in the same time slot if they are on the same network.
But alas, that’s only the beginning.
Prime-time games were quite the hassle, because there are a subset of rules that existed during this time that no longer do. Not that I’m complaining, because those prime-time TV rules were essentially designed so as not to saturate the product the way Thursday Night Football has watered down the allure to an almost unbearable level. In the ABC/ESPN days, teams were capped at four prime-time games, with a maximum of three MNF contests. These days, teams can have six (as the 2016 Packers did). The league previously tried its darnedest to alternate home and road for these games, but not 100 percent of the time. I ran afoul of that on several occasions, but mostly kept the integrity of that rule in place.
The actual calendar was problematic, because each year the league has to dance around the holiday schedule. This year’s calendar mirrors that of the 2001 season, when the NFL utilized Saturdays (remember when they had a full slate of those?) because Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve both fell on Mondays. Essentially, the NFL always tried to avoid having three full Saturdays on its calendar, opting instead to break up two of those to compromise. So that’s what I did, utilizing the late-afternoon (5 p.m.) slot in Weeks 15 and 16 leading into an ABC telecast, which would substitute for the traditional Monday nighter.
There are a bunch of other intricacies that cropped up. Alternating late-afternoon doubleheaders with Fox and CBS wasn’t as easy as it sounded. The league alternates years in terms of which network would have nine 4:15 slots instead of eight, and it was Fox’s turn in 2018 (or, you know, would have been). Some weeks when one didn’t have the key slot, it still had juicy matchups that were neglected as a result. Certain times, there can be back-to-back weeks for one network (and in 2003 there was even a case where CBS had three straight), but it still wasn’t easy. Week 1 can never have any 4:05 p.m. games for CBS and Fox always gets the 4:15 p.m. slot because of the U.S. Open.
Baseball gets in the way, as there are eight teams (exactly one-quarter of the league) that cannot play at the same time as their MLB counterparts. So that impacted their matchups in the first four weeks. It also means there is no Sunday night game during the one World Series Sunday, which fell in Week 8. The NFL selfishly did away with that policy about a decade ago, if I recall correctly.
I was also extremely careful to avoid three-game homestands or roadtrips as best I could. Between 2002-2005, no more than three teams had three straight road games in a single season. The most three-game homestands in a year was six, so I stayed right around the median with three three-game homestands and two three-game roadtrips.
Remember, MONDAYS are the big days!
These days, Monday Night Football has wilted to almost nothing. It’s on ESPN and we aren’t even sure who will be paired in the booth with Jon Gruden now back roaming the sidelines. NBC gets the marquee games, with Al Michaels (woohoo!) and Cris Collinsworth (frown). When looking at this schedule, just turn your watches back 15 years and you will hear Michaels and John Madden on MNF telecasts, and the delightful trio of Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, and Paul Maguire calling the Sunday night games on ESPN. The Sunday night games were still big, but always deferred to MNF for the truly elite matchups. That’s the way it was intended, after all.
They really don’t play football on Thursdays (much)
Even if you’re one of the strange folks in the small minority of fans that think Thursday Night Football every week is okay, you have to admit there was something special when almost all of the games were played on Sundays/Mondays back in the day. I kept the traditional Thursday night opener, but the only other Thursday games were, of course, on Turkey Day. It would have been CBS’ turn to get the Lions game, making it a slam-dunk that the matchup would be Patriots-Lions. The Cowboys then had six Fox home games as an option for their Thanksgiving tilt, and I went with the Saints in a rematch of a 2010 thriller between the two clubs.
Last, but not least — taking back Week 17
This is unequivocally the biggest travesty of the entire paradigm shift with the schedule. Granted, the first four years of the new TV deal still did not restrict Week 17 to just divisional games, as that headache did not start until the 2010 season. Roger Goodell claims it is to “make the games more competitive” (because, really, what is more competitive than knowing that every single years the Steelers will get to feast on the Browns and the Patriots will fatten up on the Bills every single season finale?). The reality is, the 2009 Colts are at least partially to blame for this. Their decision to eschew the perfect season and rest their starters against the Jets and Bills (non-divisional foes) in Weeks 16 and 17 at least provided more ammunition to make this change. The reality is, it has no bearing on whether the games are meaningful or not. Only one division title was on the line in Week 17 last year, and it was not a head-to-head matchup. Some of those previous divisional title games have actually rendered Week 16 (yes, Week 16) games meaningless, with the teams knowing that the division title will be decided in Week 17 regardless.
The age we live in here in 2018 is one where if we don’t like something, we don’t stick with it, choosing instead to jump ship if something better comes along. Hence, flex scheduling, which I suppose is hard to argue with if you’re stuck with a 4-8 team hosting a 3-9 team in a prime-time matchup. While that part of it is more understandable, the Week 17 division-only scenario makes no sense. Some of the best Week 17’s of the past have been scenarios involving non-divisional matchups, and the unpredictability of the opponents (rather than a division matchup that could be entirely one-sided for a long period of time) can make for some tremendous drama. So in my schedule, there are still nine divisional games, because I have never had a beef with still having a division-heavy slate in Week 17. But there are two inter-conference games and five intra-conference matchups. A year ago, it’s obviously extremely hypothetical, but one of my Week 17, non-divisional games could have turned into a play-in game (Buffalo-L.A. Chargers). Just saying.
One of the other traditions kept in place was that the Pro Bowl stays after the season (as it should be) and in Hawaii (as it should be).