The NFL schedule is a 256-piece jigsaw puzzle, with everything having to go into place exactly right for it to fit perfectly. Piece by piece, or game by game, a team led by NFL Senior VP of Broadcast and Media Operations Howard Katz maps out how the 17-week slate will take shape. The process takes several months, as the group has to take apart and then puts back together a complex web that involves both known and unforeseen challenges. The goal is to find a perfect schedule that pleases all 32 teams and the league's five broadcast partners. The problem is that what pleases one of those entities may not be optimal for another, with various obstacles popping up that prevent easy fixes.
NFL Senior VP of Broadcast and Media Operations Howard Katz
Who teams are playing and where the games will be held have been established for months; figuring out when and on which TV channel each team will play its 16 games is the tricky part for the schedule makers.
With the 2016 regular season schedule set to be unveiled on Thursday, ChicagoBears.com looked to answer 17 important questions about how the 17-week schedule is put together. Both from a league and team perspective, the schedule is more than just names and dates on a page. Football coaches like to say they take things one game at a time, but when it comes to creating the schedule, figuring out where those 256 games will go involves elaborate planning, educated guessing and just a bit of luck to complete the puzzle.
1. Who is responsible for making the schedule?
Katz and a team of NFL executives meet at the league headquarters in New York City to create the 17-week schedule. Using a computer program developed by Optimal Planning Solutions of Vernon, British Columbia, Canada, the league is able to plug in various scenarios and rules that allow the program to churn out hundreds of schedules per night. Then the execs come into the office, read over the schedules and look for various problems and issues they want to correct moving forward. Do this again, don't do this again, try to do this, don't put this game in that week, don't do this team like that. The program then churns out new schedules with the new rules. That process is repeated until the league finds a complete 256-game schedule that satisfies everything it is looking for.
2. What factors are taken into account?
"Anything you could think of if you were a general manager of any of the 32 teams or the president of any of our five network television partners, if there's something any finished schedule that you don't like," says Michael North, the NFL's director of broadcasting and one of the few people in the room with Katz to help make the schedule. The main key is to try to make a schedule that's fair and balanced for every team. That means trying to avoid things like three-game road trips or a road game for a club following an away game on "Monday Night Football." But the league is also an entertainment product, and works actively with the TV networks to put the best games on times and channels that allow for the greatest audience.
On top of all that, the schedule makers have to deal with different stadium and city factors for the 32 teams. For example, clubs like the Chiefs and Ravens share parking lots with their city's respective baseball teams, so that means working around the baseball schedule. The Jets and Giants share a stadium, so they can't be at home on the same Sunday. And other events, like concerts and college games, also present roadblocks the league must work around for stadium availability.
3. Does anyone have veto power of the schedule?
Surprisingly, no. All 32 teams put in requests for things they want or don't want, and the TV networks have preferences as well. But the group headed by Katz works on its own. Commissioner Roger Goodell takes a look throughout the process to make sure the scheduling team is doing well, but once it's set in stone, nobody can edit the final schedule.
4. How can teams influence the schedule?
In January, the league sends out scheduling forms to the 32 teams, asking them what requests they have for the coming year. Some teams paid for and built their own stadium, and therefore have free reign of when they use the buildings. Others, including the Bears, are tenants, meaning they don't have complete control of when they play at home. On the forms, the teams can state which days they are free to host games and when they can't be at home.
The NFL can't promise to meet every request that every team makes, but the league tries its best to please everyone.
5. What obligations do the Bears have?
The Bears have an agreement with the Chicago Park District, which owns Soldier Field, to play home games there. But within that agreement are some clauses. One of them is that the Park District can schedule a college football or game of another sport once a year. In 2016, that is a rugby match on November 5 between the New Zealand All Blacks and the Ireland national team. Though that game is on Saturday, the Bears told the league they would prefer to be on the road that weekend because of the damage that may occur to the turf.
The City of Chicago also asks the Bears to be on the road the day of the city's marathon, which is on October 9. The race's Start and Finish lines are in Grant Park, and the fear is that there would be too many people in the area already without the 63,000 or so Bears fans that would be attending the game nearby.
6. What impact do those team requests have?
The Bears lets the NFL know they want to be on the road those two weekends, and while the league can't guarantee that request, Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips said in his 33 years working for the clubs, the league has never put the team at home the weekend of the Chicago Marathon.
However, North explained there are repercussions for those requests. "Putting the Bears on the road in Week 5 and Week 9 is going to manifest itself somewhere," he explained. "Somebody has to catch a three-game road trip or a road after a road Monday, and the odds increase of it landing on a team like Chicago because the stadium is blocked a couple of weekends."
7. Who decides what channel they are on?
Like the teams, the five broadcast partners (CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and The NFL Network) all put in requests on games they'd like to air. It is up to the league to determine which games go on which station.
NFL Director of Broadcasting Michael North in the schedule room with Howard Katz.
8. Which games does the NFL figure out first?
Certain pieces of the puzzle are locked in right away. There are three games in London this season and one in Mexico, and those times, dates and teams have already been determined. The Lions and Cowboys always play at home on Thanksgiving, so they will be slotted there for Week 11. Additionally, the reigning Super Bowl champ has traditionally opened the season at home on Thursday night, so Denver will be at home when the year kicks off on September 8.
From there, important primetime games and other contests the NFL wants to guarantee are on a specific date or time are put in place, so that the computer program doesn't shuffle them into a slot that isn't desirable for the league, its teams or TV partners.
9. How many schedules does the NFL go through before it finds 'The One?'
Hundreds of thousands, until one is found that fits everything the league is looking for. North said, "The magical, mythical, perfect, mathematically ideal NFL schedule that works around all of our stadium blocks, is fair to all of our clubs, delivers good television, eases travel, fills up all the London and Mexico, try to put division games late in the season, not being unfair to the same team in the same way. So it's this gigantic accordion that you expand and contract."
10. Can a team choose if it wants to start at home or on the road?
Like with other requests, teams can ask to start at home or on the road, but the final call belongs to the league. Weather plays a big factor. The Bears have been at home in Week 1 each of the past six seasons, because the team wants to avoid sending fans into the bitter December. Phillips said the team would prefer fewer home games later in the season, but overall they have no control where the opener is held.
11. How are bye weeks determined?
Every team will get one week off between Weeks 4 and 10 of the season, but for most teams, the specific off date is not determined until the schedule is put in place. (Teams playing in London are always off the week following that game.) Most NFL coaches prefer byes later in the season, so North said that clubs who got early byes in 2015 get preferential treatment for late-season byes this year, but nothing can be set for sure.
12. Are TV networks able to pick their primetime games?
The NFL has three primetime TV packages: NBC on Sunday nights, ESPN on Mondays and a trio of networks sharing the Thursday package. Those partners pay a lot of money to air those games, and with that, they receive some say-so as to whom they will air. But the final decision, ultimately, is in the hands of the league.
This year presents some new and unique challenges to the primetime slate. Minnesota is opening up its new stadium and the Rams are playing their first year back in Los Angeles. Both of those teams likely want to debut their new digs under the lights. But each team is not equal. The Vikings won the NFC North a year ago and have a well-known star in Adrian Peterson, which makes their request to play on the league's biggest stage very appealing. Meanwhile, the Rams haven't had an above .500 record since 2003 and are playing their home games at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Since the stadium is on a college campus, Monday and Thursday night games are hard to facilitate, putting the schedule makers in a bind when figuring out how to please the broadcast partners.
However certain matchups, like the Week 1 primetime games, are selected specifically by the league. Still, even if six of the 16 NBC games are locked in, there are more than three million different ways to order those 10 remaining games, which is why completing the puzzle is so complex.
13. Do the Bears prefer to play during the day or night?
In 2014, the Bears played five games at night; last season, the team only had two such contests. The league chooses game times, but what would the team pick if it could?
"If we had a choice between noon or 3 p.m. or a night game, often times we would pick the noon game," Phillips said. "There's one mindset, from a football perspective, that you'd like most games at the same time so players can be used to the same time of being ready to play. But there's also a thrill of being on primetime at night. And over the years, I think every single coach we've had has embraced the idea of playing in primetime. It's just a different factor to incentivize the players to be at their best."
14. Are there any unique scheduling challenges this year?
Every year, there are different quirks that Katz and his team have to sort through in order to make the schedule. The two new stadiums in Minneapolis and Los Angeles are among those in 2016. So is the fact that Christmas falls on a Sunday. The last time that took place, in 2011, the league placed one game on Thursday, December 22, 13 games on Christmas Eve, one on Christmas night and one on Monday, December 26. It's expected that layout will take place again.
The Bears were the road team on December 25, 2011, losing at Green Bay. The league asked clubs on the scheduling form if they wanted to host games Christmas Eve or Christmas night this season, and Phillips said the Bears responded no to both.
15. What aspect of prognostication is involved?
The league wants the best matchups in TV windows where fans will watch, and preferably, games that will decide playoff races at the end of the season. That involves some luck but also a bit of guesswork on the part of the schedule makers. When plotting out which games go where in the 256-piece puzzle, the schedule makers do some guessing as to which teams will be battling for positioning at the end of the year. But there are some hard parts to that. For example, in late-April, nobody's exactly sure who the starting quarterback for the reigning Super Bowl champion Broncos will be on September 8.
16. How important is competitive balance?
Making a fair schedule for all 32 teams is the most important task for the schedule makers. Some team will have to play up in Green Bay in December when it's cold or down in Miami in September when it's scorching hot. Not everyone can have their division home games at the end of the season or play a tough opponent when they are coming off a bye. But the hope of the league is that everyone is impacted evenly, so that it's a level playing field for each club.
17. Do the teams look forward to the schedule release as much as fans?
"It's become such a sophisticated process the NFL has to go through," Phillips said. "It's a bit of a puzzle. You can never blame the performance of a team on the schedule. We never do that. From my perspective, you know who you're playing already home and away. Whatever the schedule is, it is. You kind of just analyze, the coach looks at it, finds where the different quirks may be. There are so many different factors involved, for us it's just an exciting time to start the excitement preparing for the season."