Here we go again! Backed by popular demand (well, my own personal demand, anyway), here is my latest installment in my now-yearly pet project.
There are so many complications, and yet that’s what makes this schedule beautiful, just as it was between 2002-2005. For those who forget, that was the four-year period when the league had 32 teams and still lived on the old TV deal. Frankly, that was when the schedule was at its absolute best.
These days, it almost feels like anyone could make this schedule. No longer do the schedule-makers have to worry about not putting the Raiders and 49ers or Giants and Jets in the same time slot. They don’t really seem to care about travel, three-game road-trips, or overloading a team’s prime-time schedule. This schedule is the most solid proof we’ve ever seen that it really is all about money in the NFL (not that it wasn’t before, but it wasn’t as blatant through the schedule). Oh yeah, and for no reason (other than money, obviously) they play 17 games instead of 16.
So I always long to dream, and hence this yearly version of the schedule. Here are the main complications in making this schedule, rules I did my very best not to break, and core beliefs on display:
Monday Night Football needs to be the premier event
What is the point of having Monday Night Football if it isn’t the headline game of the week? Why have an extra day of football for a game that plays second-fiddle to the one the night before? This was one of the more heartbreaking changes that occurred as part of the new TV deal that began in 2006. In this version, MNF is No. 1.
All games will be played in the USA
No, this is not some sort of patriotic statement. I love that the league wants to go global, but one London game is too much, let alone four! The league tinkered with a game in Mexico City in 2005, the only non-US game between 2002-2005, but the travel and timing has thrown the schedule out of whack. Not to mention, who wants to wake up at 9:30 AM local time to watch their team play, or lose a home game off the schedule? There are only eight of these a year; this isn’t baseball.
Thursday football is for Thanksgiving (and the opener)
Again, let’s keep things simple. Thursday football is a scheduling nightmare, and player safety is put at risk. The opening Thursday night game makes sense because no team is playing on a “short week.” Thanksgiving football is the most pure thing about the NFL, so it stays. But only the Lions and Cowboys should carry on this tradition. A Thursday night game on Thanksgiving is overkill.
Week 17 is unrestricted
This is, without a doubt, the worst part of the schedule for me. I don’t even quite know why, but I’m starting to figure it out. And no, it has nothing to do with Patriots-bias, where the Pats get to play their AFC East patsies to round out every year.
First off, it’s stale. With the unveiling of the schedule back in the day, I always looked at Week 17 first. I wanted to know the unpredictable matchups on the docket that would finish off the year. Some of the best Week 17’s of all time happened because of non-divisional matchups, and it stinks to already basically know who is going to play whom in Week 17. That takes away the fun of the schedule being unveiled.
In theory it made sense what the league wanted to do, but rumor has it that this was actually born out of frustration that the Colts did not go for the perfect season in 2009, choosing to rest their players and prompting the change for 2010. I’ll give the league a sliver of credit for finally pitting the Ravens against the Steelers in Week 17. For years, this was a great hypocrisy. Sure, we’ll make all the games divisional games so they’re more competitive… except for the matchups we want to save for primetime. This was the case with the Patriots and Jets the first seven years of this format.
Having Week 17 be all divisional games almost makes it feel like a different season, like the schedule-makers block off this week because of this silly rule. It also can potentially render Week 16 — yes, Week 16! — games meaningless, and in the past two years combined only one division title has actually been decided in a head-to-head matchup.
Don’t flex those muscles
Likely the part of my schedule most vulnerable to criticism, and I understand why, but I chose not to go with the flex scheduling that entered our lives in 2006. It has probably made things better, and yet the league managed to survive all the way through 2005 by setting a matchup and sticking with it. This is a schedule, which means it’s set and structured and not meant to be changed. I understand doing away with the final Monday night game so as not to risk anyone playing a playoff game on a short week (as was the case the last time it happened, with the 2002 49ers), but even just leaving the Sunday night game in place is fine with me.
Also, I refuse to acknowledge the existence of “cross-flexing.” Plain and simple, if the AFC team is the road team, the game is on CBS. If the NFC team is the road team, the game is on Fox.
Time and geography
The hardest part of the schedule usually boils down to balancing the Giants and Jets, and now the Rams and Chargers (since the Raiders and 49ers no longer share the Bay Area, their games never clash). There is also the MLB schedule that is in play for the first month, as about eight teams prefer not to have the two teams in the city play at the same time. I honored this as well as the days when the NFL had the courtesy not to schedule a Sunday night game up against the World Series.
Since the Giants and Jets share a stadium, and now so do the Rams and Bolts, they of course cannot be home on the same day. They also cannot play in the same time slot or the same TV network. That used to be true for the 49ers and Raiders, even though they did not share a stadium.
Oh, and by the way, you’ll notice I stuck with the 4:15 p.m. time slot for the nationally televised games, not the silly 4:25 p.m. slot that the league implemented to take up the airwaves for a little longer.
They would keep the bye weeks rather simple, having them between Weeks 3 and 10, with four teams off per week. Nowadays they are all over the place. Granted, Week 3 is a little early, but this was the system, and it worked just fine and I decided to stick with it.
The Pro Bowl is back in Hawaii after the season!
The way it should be. Really nothing more to say there. Go back and watch highlights from some old Pro Bowls, and you’ll realize it wasn’t always this pitiful display we have now (on the mainland, no less). This all started to go downhill when the league experimented in moving the game to Miami in 2009 (and I can say that with certainty because I was there).
Saturday Night Fever
Good on the NFL for bringing back Saturday football late in the year. The way it used to be was that the league would usually have two weeks (either 15 and 16 or 16 and 17) with Saturday games, with 2005 being an exception because all bulk of the Week 16 games were played on Saturday because Christmas was Sunday. There is a game in a 1:30 p.m. slot, a 5 p.m. slot, and sometimes a primetime game at night. If the 5 p.m. game is a Fox game, the Sunday national games would be on CBS, and vice versa. Because of the oddity of the 2023 schedule’s final two Sundays falling on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve (there is no playbook because this did not occur between 2002-2005), I did my best to balance it by having a standalone Saturday night game in Week 15 and then going with the traditional tripleheaders in Weeks 15 and 16.
As there would be 35 primetime games (as opposed to the outrageous, oversaturated 50+ they have now), one network would have to lose an additional game to primetime. To even things out, that network would get one extra “doubleheader” (the nationally televised 4:15 p.m. game of the week). The league would alternate each year, as you would expect.
One oddity in my schedule that I had yet to see was that I had the Packers playing three straight divisional games twice. My rule of thumb in accordance with the 2002-2005 schedules was that two division rivals didn’t have their first rematch until at least Week 8. I really tried to limit three-game homestands and roadtrips, as usually you wouldn’t see more than five of the former or three of the latter in a season.
As for the primetime games, what the league used to do was be cognizant of altering home and road games, not repeating matchups if they’re division rivals, and balancing divisional and non-divisional games. No team gets more than three Monday night games nor will they get more than four primetime games overall. It was important — and challenging — to even those out and make sure every top team appeared on SNF at least once. Back in the day, you usually would have anywhere from four to six teams that got snubbed for primetime games; I ended up with four. Teams should not appear on the same primetime network more than once in a three-week span, although it’s not uncommon to have a team play a Sunday night game and Monday night game back-to-back, or vice versa.
Below is the full version of the schedule, and beneath that are each team’s individual schedules.