The people charged with putting together the 272-game NFL schedule you’re leafing through right now digested the Tom Brady news March 13 the same way you did on that fateful night—with a mixture of shock and excitement, and anticipation for what might come next in the wildest offseason of them all.
The difference is, from there, it really was time for Onnie Bose, Howard Katz, Mike North, Charlotte Carey, Blake Jones and Nick Cooney to get back to work. So hours later, after a night’s sleep, the six schedule-makers reconvened in New York, with a mountain to climb.
“When you’re thinking the greatest player of all time has retired and with the opponents Tampa just has?” said Bose, the NFL’s VP of broadcasting, on Thursday, just before the schedule release. “We were gonna use those games in good places, anyway, because they were still Dallas and Kansas City and Green Bay and the Rams. But him returning just elevated six to eight games—you can play those in any window. That was a game-changer for us.
“We use the phrase the ‘all systems stop’—everything we’ve been working on, let’s stop and reassess. So it’s not inaccurate to say it [changed everything]. It’s not full restart, but it’s a fundamental rethinking of everything. And now how do we redistribute those games in the right places and across our networks.”
That’s just one example of many such challenges the schedule-makers faced this spring.
A simple accounting of events can illustrate that. Brady retired in late January. Kyler Murray issued a statement Feb. 28 calling his future in Arizona into doubt. Aaron Rodgers made the call he was staying in Green Bay, and Russell Wilson was traded on March 8. Carson Wentz was traded March 9. The aforementioned Brady return happened March 13. Deshaun Watson and Davante Adams were dealt March 18. Matt Ryan was traded March 21, Tyreek Hill was dealt March 23 and Deebo Samuel’s trade request went public April 20.
Through it all, the group of a half dozen NFL folks putting that massive jigsaw puzzle together had to keep rejiggering things to account for obvious rising interest in a game such as Seahawks-Broncos (now the Monday-night game in Week 1) all the way to the more subtly enhanced matchups such as Commanders-Jaguars (another Week 1 game, pitting Wentz against Doug Pederson).
“It makes it more challenging; it makes us have to anticipate and be able to react,” said Bose. “It was almost, at times, day-by-day, like, Whoa, this is incredible, how does this impact our schedule? We’re fans at heart, too. It’s exciting to see these transactions and what the implications are.
“We very much went into that thinking we don’t have Tom Brady, and we’re not sure where Aaron Rodgers is gonna be. That was a big variable. And look at this schedule—Tampa Bay and Green Bay, including playing each other, have incredible opponents. Those two pieces of uncertainty alone drove so much. And then throw in Russell going to Denver and the way the AFC West is now stacked and playing the NFC West.”
And, well, you get the picture. This was an exciting, and difficult, year to put everything together. In this week’s GamePlan, we’re going to take you through, with the help of Bose, a bunch of the particulars on what makes this one a little different than what we’ve seen in the past.
The raw numbers in the process of putting the whole thing together are, as always, mind-blowing. This year, the NFL had about 4,000 computers generating schedules in a cloud. Millions of partial slates were spit out. And the computers wound up producing 119,153 full schedules, from which, through their sets of rules, Bose, Katz, North, Carey, Jones and Cooney were able to pluck 209 to do deep dives.
The schedule that made it was Schedule 119,011. After that, the computers ran off another 142 schedules against which the eventual one was pitted, before being picked.
There were new elements this year, with the international rotation starting and adding to the 17th-game dynamic that started last year (which pushed the total number of games from 256 to 272). And there were fun quirks that the schedule-makers really wanted to work in. One is the Raiders playing the Steelers the day after the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, on Christmas Eve night. Another is the Dolphins playing the Raiders on Sunday night in Week 7, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their undefeated championship team, which beat Oakland in the AFC title game that year.
And then, there were some overarching themes, which we can jump on here.
A staggering 12 teams maxed out with five prime-time games. It’s a huge number, but the NFL saw fit to do that with (here goes) the Bills, Packers, Cowboys, Chiefs, Rams, Broncos, Bucs, Chargers, Bengals, Eagles, Patriots and 49ers. Four more teams (the Colts, Titans, Steelers and Cardinals) have four prime-time games, meaning half the league is at or above that number.
“It plays to where we are in the league right now,” Bose said. While we’ve got Brady and Rodgers as all-time greats, and their teams, you’ve got another slate of young, exciting quarterbacks, or quarterbacks on the move. All of a sudden, Cincinnati is in play to be maxed out, and Buffalo is in play to be maxed out. I’ve done this for 15, 16 years, those are not teams that were in a max-out position. They’re there now.
“The Rams winning the Super Bowl, they were always on the rise, they’re maxed out. Russell Wilson going to Denver, the excitement around Justin Herbert, the quality of the NFC West. It’s somewhat by design, let’s get the best games to the best windows. And we’re in a fortunate place, with the breadth of these teams, being able to spread them out.”
The prime-time schedule is more balanced than I can remember it. Generally, the pecking order has been straightforward—Sunday night, then Monday night, then Thursday night. This year, it sure looks to me like the marquee games are more spread out than they ever have been. Broncos-Seahawks and Bills-Bengals bookend the ESPN Monday-night slate. Amazon opens with Chargers-Chiefs, gets Steelers-Browns in Week 2 and has Ravens-Bucs in midseason. And the NBC slate on Sunday night is still strong.
“It really plays to the strength and the breadth of the teams, the matchups, and West playing West, two strong Western divisions with a lot of games you can bring in to prime time,” Bose said. “And look, there’s no doubt, Amazon, a new partner, digital distribution, we wanted to get them off to a strong start and starting with the Chargers-K.C. at Arrowhead feels huge. We’re really happy with the slate of games we’re able to do through the whole season, even games like Tampa-Baltimore and Green Bay–Tennessee, the opportunity to put them into the Amazon schedule is tremendous.
“And then to your Monday-night point, same thing, the depth that we have, to get to some games that are really exciting like Rams–Green Bay, and Dallas-Giants in Week 3. And I love Buffalo-Cincinnati in Week 17. And there’s a bunch of games that’ll be simulcast on ABC, in Week 1, 3, 15 and 17, and the Week 18 doubleheader.”
Worth mentioning here: Amazon’s paying $1 billion/year and Disney’s at $2.7 billion/year on the new TV deal, which kicks in fully in 2023. So the NFL’s got, quite literally, billions of reasons to want to keep them happy.
A singular story line drove the pick of Buffalo for the Week 1 Thursday kickoff game. And I’ll let Bose take that from here, with Bills and Rams on tap for Week 1.
“The Rams had a bunch of attractive opponents,” he said. “Could you have done the championship game rematch with the Niners? Or once Russell went to Denver, could you have done Denver? Absolutely. Those were games in consideration. I think we really liked the idea of our last memory of Josh Allen was him playing at an unreal level. And you just wished he got the ball in overtime. There was just a lot there—Hey, let’s start the season there, and get this guy along with the champion Rams on that stage from the beginning.”
Which brings us to the last point …
As much as has ever been the case, quarterbacks were driving all of this. Brady. Rodgers. Wilson. Heck, Bose even mentioned to me how much he liked the Denver-Indy game in Week 5, because you’ll have two quarterbacks in new homes in what could be a pivotal game in playoff positioning down the line—that’s another Amazon game.
So yeah, the guys taking the snaps were a driving force in all of this.
“There are key things, when you talk about the teams that are going to be maxed out,” Bose said. “There’s traditional teams, big markets and fan bases—of course Dallas is gonna get maxed out, and Green Bay, and it changes over the years, but K.C. is in that category now, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, just by population are going to get a lot of that.
“But really where it varies is the star quarterbacks. Peyton [Manning] in Indy had to be on the marquee and was gonna be there, and that’s independent of market and everything else. The top two determent factors of teams with the biggest appeal are traditional markets and teams that have a large fan base, and then it is very much quarterback-driven.”
So it was that the most memorable call Bose made this week was to the Broncos.
Back in January, they had potential for 2022 but not much curb appeal at all. Then, March 8 happened, and everything changed—perfectly illustrating both the tumultuous nature of this offseason and the power of the quarterback position.
“They play seven stand-alone national games, which is just incredible,” Bose said. “And that’s a testament to the games they have, the opponents, Russell going back to Seattle. And they’re in a unique position; They’re playing on every network, plus they’re playing on ESPN+ in London and they’re playing on Nickelodeon on Christmas. Cool result there.”
And from here? With the work of Bose, North, Katz, Carey, Jones and Cooney done, the hope is that what we see on the field a few months from now is every bit as cool as it looks on paper Thursday night.
MORE FROM THIS WEEK
1) I thought this was interesting, from an AFC exec last week, because it reflected a sentiment I started hearing more and more the closer we got to the draft: “For all the talk about how ‘deep’ this draft was, there really wasn’t much quality in that depth. By the fourth round, it was very thin. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a significant number of draft picks that come available on waivers at cut-down time.”
This should be an interesting thing to follow. Last year, WR Dez Fitzpatrick, the fourth pick of the fourth round, was the highest pick cut. The Titans traded up for him, let him go in August, brought him back on the practice squad after he cleared waivers, then promoted him to the active roster in November, and he caught five balls down the stretch for Tennessee. He’s still with the team. Meanwhile, the Lions’ Amon-Ra St. Brown went three picks after Fitzpatrick and caught 90 balls as a rookie. So we’ll see how many of this year’s Day 3 picks look like Fitzpatrick, and how many look like St. Brown.
2) Smart move by the Raiders to put Jarrett Stidham in their quarterback room—giving Derek Carr and Nick Mullens a guy who’s run the offense Josh McDaniels is putting in (in practice, at least) for three years. The price was almost nothing (they basically moved a sixth-round pick down a round). And I get it from the Patriots’ perspective, too. Brian Hoyer’s in New England to be an experienced resource to Mac Jones, and brings plenty of value from that perspective. And Bailey Zappe, a fourth-round pick, will almost certainly make the team. So Stidham was probably on the way out, anyway, and this allows for New England to give Zappe the reps he’ll need to compete in camp.
3) And Stidham wasn’t a failure in New England. He was a fourth-rounder. He gave the team depth at an expensive position for a three-year total of about $2.7 million. He also lasted longer than most of the quarterbacks drafted in 2019. Just three of the 11 quarterbacks drafted that April are still with the teams that took them—Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones and, believe it or not, Easton Stick. And the second-most successful quarterback in the class, depending on what you think of Jones, might just be Gardner Minshew. So Stidham stuck with his team longer than seven quarterbacks drafted his year, and four who were taken before he was.
That’s why I think teams like the Falcons (Desmond Ridder) and Commanders (Sam Howell) were smart to take quarterbacks later, given that those are really good team guys with high floors who, at worst, project as long-term backups. And if you get more, great. But it won’t stop you from drafting a QB, or trading for one, in the next year or two if the right opportunity comes along.
4) It’ll be interesting to see where the Steelers’ GM search lands, and how the hire winds up working out. Their process, thanks to Kevin Colbert giving the team a runway, and it happening during a downtime in the calendar, has allowed for the kind of slowed-down time line many in the league have advocated for. As such, Pittsburgh interviewed 16 candidates in its first round, and at least a half dozen have been invited back for second interviews (internal candidates Brandon Hunt and Omar Khan, ex–Bills GM/Steelers exec Doug Whaley, the Bucs’ John Spytek, Titans’ Ryan Cowden and Eagles’ Andy Weidl). So the outcome of this one will be really interesting, given the amount of time and work going into it.
5) The lack of movement on older free agents is at least interesting—guys like Jadeveon Clowney, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Julio Jones and Trey Flowers remain unsigned. And OTAs (read: football practice) start the week after next for most teams.
AND ONE THING TO LEAVE YOU WITH
We’ll have more on Tom Brady the broadcaster Monday. But for now … if I was a player, I’d be paying close attention to all of this. Brady’s reported 10-year, $375 million deal stands as an outlier, to be sure. But the fact that it comes after both Troy Aikman and Tony Romo copped $18 million per year to, more or less, voice over game action in an entertaining way, should inform every guy buckling a chinstrap in the NFL of what their worth is.
The fact is, this shows the value a person brings the networks, and in turn the league, when he steps on the NFL stage. And by yearly average, Tom Brady’s Fox contract would put him eighth among active players, while Romo’s CBS deal and Aikman’s ESPN deal would land them comfortably at 50th.
Given the amount most fans really care who’s calling the game (and I say this with all due respect to Aikman and Romo, who do a really nice job), if I’m a player, I’m looking at that and saying there are lots of guys between the white lines worth more. Now, of course, the CBA doesn’t expire for another nine years, so it’s not like some sort of sea change is coming. But this is another piece of evidence that pro football players probably shouldn’t ever be talked into taking too much less.
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