To state the obvious: The 2020 sports calendar is strange and getting stranger by the day. There are much more important things going on in the world, and while we all want sports to return, we’re getting a real lesson on the word essential, including where sports fit in. Plenty of our treasured sporting events will never happen (like March Madness) while others are being forced to take extreme measures to find a spot on the calendar (like The Masters in November).
The NFL had the benefit of time, with the COVID-19 crisis not being treated as a crisis until shortly after the Super Bowl wrapped up. But as the NFL trudges forward with a virtual draft and virtual offseason, questions remain about the 2020 season.
The league says it’ll release a schedule by May 9 and that it’ll plan for a normal fall, with contingency plans in case it needs to be shortened or adjusted. Beyond that, details have been scant.
So I’ll imagine some of those details myself. Here’s what a flexible NFL schedule could (or should) look like.
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Before we get to the actual schedule, I want to acknowledge there are all kinds of things I’m not accounting for. Clearly. Building the schedule is a Herculean task that requires very smart computers. My framework doesn’t solve for dates when there’s a concert at the stadium, the baseball team next door needs the parking lot, or the Pope is coming to Philly.
I’m also ignoring requests like networks wanting certain games in prime time or Jerry Jones wanting the Cowboys to open both new NFL stadiums this year (neither of which might actually be finished). I know some teams want their bye weeks after a London game (which also may not happen anyway, so I’ll just act as if they are canceled). And my goal isn’t to build an actual master schedule that solves for all these problems. This is merely a scaled down and simplified version showing how to put 256 units into 17 boxes.
But with the NFL planning to schedule a season of normal length, while confronting the possibility of shortening things later, here are a few things the league can do…
Step 1: Interconference Games
This is an easy one: Put all interconference games (AFC vs. NFC) in the first four weeks. These are the least important games on the calendar, so we can cram them all into the weeks that may be least likely to exist if a part of the season gets the axe. Don’t get me wrong, I like that interconference games exist each year, but you could argue from a competitive balance standpoint that strengths of schedule between teams in the same conference would be fairer without them anyway.
And logically, if the season had to be chopped from 16 games to 12, keeping the 12 games each team plays within its own conference would be the fairest way to determine playoff seeding.
As an added bonus, these four weeks include two home games and two road games for each team. So if the same 16 teams were home in Weeks 1 and 3 and the others were home in Weeks 2 and 4, every team would have an even number of home games in the season, whether you chop out all four weeks or just chop out the first two weeks and begin the season at Week 3.
Of course, starting in Week 3 under this proposal (thus setting up a 14-game season) would mean each team playing two interconference games, resulting in some schedule inequities between division rivals. After all, somebody would play the Ravens and somebody would play the Bengals. But what can you do? We’ve accepted that this will be an unusual season in every other sport, and I think the country would tolerate the mild frustration of an unlucky NFC East executive if it meant two extra weeks of fantasy, RedZone and actual live football on television.
Finally, while this would make for an unusual start to the NFL season, this type of schedule wouldn’t look too foreign to most sports fans. It’s not very different from a typical college football or college basketball season, where teams play most of their nonconference schedule to start the year and then move on to the meat of their season with familiar opponents coming in uninterrupted succession.
Side Note 1
I mentioned home/road splits a little above, and that point deserves more attention. Of course the goal is for each team to have the same number of home and road games, in the interest of fairness from both competition and revenue standpoints. That would prove tough to do with a normal NFL schedule, part of the reason I’m making significant tweaks.
Things work out cleanly by eliminating all the interconference games, but that may not be the case with other parts of the season. Despite our best efforts, certain scenarios exist where not every team may have the same number of home games. This is obviously the case if teams end up playing an odd number of games. It may also be true if we cut an even number of weeks, but we can mitigate the problem with something I call consistent blocking—as in blocking weeks together that have similarities.
That’s why I have all the interconference games at the same time: so you can cut all of them at the same time. Similarly, where I want division games, I have all division games. So that chopping off that week affects all teams evenly. In other spots, I’ll have two weeks that work well together in tandem. (Again, this is the idea behind having every team get one home game and one road game in each of the two-week spans Weeks 1-2 and Weeks 3-4.) Then you could feasibly cut a single week or two weeks and the resulting schedule would be as fair as possible.
So while we are blocking weeks…
Step 2: Division Games
Just as we frontloaded the interconference games, let’s backload some division games. Each team has six, two against each of three other teams. Let’s give each team division games in Weeks 15, 16 and 17. Technically you could give every team all six division games from Weeks 12-17, but I don’t think people would like that plan.
Pro: If continued social distancing measures prevent teams from having any physical contact until deep into the fall, teams can shake off the rest in less important games before the division games start.
Pro: If the season couldn’t start until Thanksgiving, and was chopped to just six weeks, this would give us the fairest way to settle division winners if that was considered the most crucial way to seed the playoffs.
Con: Pretty much everything else.
Each year there are a handful of divisional opponents that play each other twice within just a few weeks, and it’s often a little weird. Even if we were forced to have a six-week season (maybe the smallest number the league could get to without scrapping the season entirely or just inventing some sort of tournament?) if there were no conference games between teams from separate divisions, it could be hard to seed teams. (But again, this would be the kind of problem you would just solve when you got there. Better to salvage six weeks of football and the playoffs than have nothing at all. Maybe the league would use point differential as a tiebreaker; maybe it would… have a selection committee decide playoff seeding? OK, we’re getting seriously off track now.)
So my schedule won’t backload all six division games into the final six weeks, but I will keep them all consistently blocked together. I’ll put them in Weeks 9-11 and Weeks 15-17.
Side Note 2
You may have thought about this already, and my apologies for taking so long to get to it, but here’s where we address bye weeks. This is actually the number one reason blocking similar weeks together is so crucial.
The most recent example of the NFL canceling an entire week of games comes from the aftermath of 9/11. The league postponed its Week 2 action in 2001; in that case, they were able to take the full Week 2 slate and reattach it to the end of the season, without any local conflicts getting in the way.
So I’m going to operate under the assumption that the 2001 model of removing an entire week from the season could be replicated. A week could be removed and added to the back, or it could be plucked from the middle with the rest of the schedule smushed back together—baseball games, concerts and Papal visits be damned.
One of the nice things about blocking division games and having all 32 teams play 16 intra-division games in the same week is that you can move entire chunks of the season, and it’ll affect teams close to the same amount. Similarly, if you block bye weeks, you can cancel entire weeks and teams would at least play the same number of games. Truthfully, if we’re talking strictly about fairness in determining the playoff field, it doesn’t really matter how many games every team plays, as long as they all play the same number. (I know that’s not really true in a vacuum. The number of games matters. You want to play enough games to have a big sample size, and those who point to player safety as a reason not to expand the schedule would say it’s callous of me to claim the number of games doesn’t matter. You get what I mean here, though.)
This brings us to…
Step 3: Bye Weeks
So all 32 teams need to have a bye week at some point. Those bye weeks won’t come in Weeks 1-4 (interconference games) or Weeks 9-11 and 15-17 (division games). So we have 32 bye weeks to go in Weeks 5-8 and 12-14. In the interest of fairness, I’ll put them in the middle of the season—all in Weeks 7, 8, 12 and 13. Instead of sprinkling them in a few at a time across the season, I’ll block them together with eight teams getting a bye in each of those weeks.
It takes a little getting used to. The NFL likes to have weeks with 13, 14 or 15 games, chopping off just a few and preserving plentiful days for the TV audience. But, as I have said repeatedly, on some issues the league will just have to get over it.
Right now, Weeks 7, 8, 12 and 13 are pretty close to the middle of the season. I know it’s possible that we may add weeks to the end of the season, in which case those byes are less centered, but we already operate in a world where the NFL gives teams byes in Week 4. We’re doing our best.
Here you see our basic schedule.
Starting the season with four games against teams from the opposite conference. Cramming every bye week into four select weeks (7, 8, 12 and 13). Having six weeks made entirely of division games, backloaded to the end of the season.
If the widespread rapid testing and proper social distancing measures make it possible for football to be played by September (with or without fans in the stadiums), this is a normal enough NFL season. There would be some quirks but no major interruptions.
If the country isn’t ready for football by then, here are some alternative schedules you could build by stripping the above base schedule for parts.
This one is simple: Just get rid of some AFC vs. NFC games. You could cut out four weeks and start at Week 5. Each team would have 12 games, all against teams from their own conference. You could also cut out just the first two weeks—each team would still be able to have seven home games and seven road games in a 14-game season.
If the NFL needed to cut weeks from the middle of the season, here are two other options:
You could cut out Weeks 7, 8, 12 and 13, which would result in a 13-game season where nobody has a bye. Or you could cut out weeks 5, 6 and 14, building a 13-game season where every team still has a bye.
Both of these scenarios are a little strange. I think it would be more likely to dip into these reserves after Weeks 1-4 were already canceled. If the NFL had to trim down to a nine-game season, it would be possible to cut Weeks 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 12 and 13. (Again, this would hopefully involve moving weeks together, like how the NFL moved all of Week 2 in 2001, instead of full-league byes in a few weeks.) See the nine-game schedule below.
Finally, if for whatever reason the NFL wanted to remove division games, it could decide to do that too. Maybe the league likes the once-every-four-years interconference battles. Maybe it wants to preserve games between teams in different divisions so we still get Patrick Mahomes against Lamar Jackson before we seed the playoffs. In that case you could build a 13-game season by chopping out Weeks 9-11 or Weeks 15-17. (Or, again, you could build a 10-game season or 12-game season by cutting one round of divisional games and dipping into the interconference games at the start of the year.)
None of this is ideal. Like the rest of you, I’m hoping we have as normal a fall as we can. I want to see the Chiefs’ title defense, Tom Brady’s Bucs debut and all the rookie wide receivers. And I’d like to see them play 16 games apiece from my couch, even if there are no fans allowed in the buildings. But if the NFL has to get creative, and possibly pare down the season, there are some options that require a little foresight but would maximize fairness and minimize chaos come decision time.
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