What NFL's New Schedule Changes Mean for Teams and Fans

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystFebruary 6, 2014

Jan 29, 2013, New Orleans, LA, USA; CBS sports Super Bowl XLVII play-by-play broadcaster Jim Nantz (left) and lead analyst Phil Simms at press conference at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made it very clear in recent years that he's willing to shake things up in an effort to increase the league's ever-expanding coffers.

Now, the NFL has sold off the rights to air Thursday night games, while adding a pair of Saturday contests late in the year.

Add it all up, and it means more football for more fans on more days.

Most importantly to the NFL, it means more money.

John Ourand of Sports Business Journal was among the first to tweet the news earlier this week:

Richard Sandomir of The New York Times reported on the particulars of the deal. CBS beat out a number of competitors to win the rights to broadcast eight early-season Thursday night games, with the bid believed to be in excess of $250 million.

Those games, which will be broadcast by the lead CBS team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, will also be simulcast on the NFL Network.

The six remaining Thursday night games will air on NFL Network and will also be called by Nantz and Simms. The package includes a pair of Saturday games in Week 16, although it's unclear on what network those will air.

NFL Media COO Brian Rolapp hailed the league's expanded relationship with CBS, who has been broadcasting AFC games since 1998.

CBS has more viewers than any other network, and it was important for us from the beginning to have the biggest megaphone possible. Their reach was very attractive. They’re aggressive on all fronts.

The deal is only for one year, with a league option for a second. However, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus hopes the deal will wind up being a much longer one.

“We’re looking at this as a long-term commitment. Our goal is to have a highly rated NFL package on Thursday night and not have to compete against one on another network,” McManus told Sandomir.

For CBS, it's impossible to view this as anything other than a huge win. CBS is far and away the most popular broadcast network in regards to total viewers. The network now adds even more of the most watched content on TV.

Thursday Network TV Rankings
NetworkAverage Viewers
CBS11.3 million
ABC3.6 million
NBC4.2 million
FOX8.3 million
January 30, 2014

NBC's Sunday Night Football was the most popular show in America during the 2012-2013 season, according to Deadline Hollywood, averaging 21.5 million viewers per broadcast.

Those numbers dwarf the 6.35 million viewers that Thursday Night Football averaged in 2012, according to Anthony Crupi of AdWeek. However, it's also worth pointing out that the NFL Network is only available in about 62 percent of American homes with televisions.

Even that 6.35 million would be enough for CBS to place second on Thursday nights (behind FOX), and American Idol is the only non-CBS show that averaged more viewers than that on Thursday, January 30, 2014 per TV By the Numbers.

In other words, CBS' death grip on Thursdays just got tighter.

Meanwhile, the NFL just added a cool quarter-billion to the kitty, all while getting to keep the right to simulcast the games. As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported, that windfall could equate to upward of $4 million in extra salary cap space per NFL team starting in 2015.

It isn't all sunshine and puppies, though. As Florio writes in another piece, the new slate of Thursday/Saturday games presents a scheduling quirk.

This year, with the NFLN/CBS package including 14 games instead of last year’s 13-game slate on NFLN, the league will conduct a total of 17 Thursday games after the first Sunday of the season.  (Three short-week games are played on Thanksgiving, but not televised by NFLN.)  The change means that two teams will play an extra Thursday game after Week One.

As Florio points out, scheduling a bye the week before the "extra" Thursday game could help minimize the negative impact on the two clubs involved, but a pair of NFL teams are going to get the short end of the scheduling stick in 2014.

Of course, if Goodell and the NFL cared even a little bit about who got what end of which stick, teams wouldn't be put through the four-day turnaround wringer to begin with.

That's what many fans will bemoan. Last year's slate of Thursday games contained more than a few butt-ugly football showings, and many blame the quick turnaround for the poor quality of the product.

However, after several Thursday stinkers last year, Grantland's Bill Barnwell went back and looked at turnover and dropped pass numbers for Thursday, Sunday and Monday games from 1990 to that point.

The numbers were surprising, in that the difference was negligible.

Chart Designed by Author

Granted, Barnwell concedes that there are several factors in "sloppy" play that can't be quantified, but he raises an interesting point.

Could it be, just maybe, that we were simply subjected to some bad matchups, interspersed with more than a little bad luck?

NFL Network Schedule 2013
WeekAway TeamHome TeamWinner/Score
2New York JetsNew England PatriotsNE (13-10)
3Kansas City ChiefsPhiladelphia EaglesKC (26-13)
4San Francisco 49ersSt. Louis RamsSF (35-11)
5Buffalo BillsCleveland BrownsCLE (37-24)
6*San Diego ChargersOakland RaidersOAK (27-17)
7New York GiantsChicago BearsCHI (27-21)
8Seattle SeahawksArizona CardinalsSEA (34-22)
9Carolina PanthersTampa Bay BuccaneersCAR (31-13)
10Cincinnati BengalsMiami DolphinsMIA (22-20)
11Washington RedskinsMinnesota VikingsMIN (34-27)
12Indianapolis ColtsTennessee TitansIND (30-27)
13New Orleans SaintsAtlanta FalconsNO (17-13)
15Houston TexansJacksonville JaguarsJAX (27-20)
16San Diego ChargersDenver BroncosSD (27-20)
Moved to Sun. by MLB playoffs

Of the 14 games that aired under the Thursday Night Football banner in 2013, only two favored teams went on to make the playoffs. Twice as many featured two teams that did not.

How good do we really expect a Week 15 game between the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars to be?

Given that the league spreads the Thursday games out across the entire NFL, there are going to be "dud" matchups.

With a much bigger platform, however, it's also reasonable to assume the league will make every effort to make the matchups as compelling as possible, possibly by mixing "contender" matchups with regional or divisional rivalries.

Besides, for what it's worth the Week 5 game between the Bills and Browns was actually very entertaining, even if it wasn't exactly a clinic on how the game should be played.

For the players themselves, it's a mixed bag.

For some, a short week of scaled-back practices is more than worth the precious and rare weekend of free time that comes after—a sort of mini-bye.

For others, such as Houston Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown, Thursday night contests rank right up there with trips to the proctologist on the list of annual treats to look forward to.

"It's dangerous," Brown told Sports Illustrated's Robert Klemko back in December before the Texans and Jaguars squared off. "It's horrible."

Brown went on to describe how he felt after the Thanksgiving game the year before in Detroit:

That Friday, everything was hurting; knees, hands, shoulders. I didn’t get out of bed until that night. I didn’t leave the house at all. You talk about player safety, but you want to extend the season and add Thursday games? It’s talking out of both sides of your mouth.

However, in 2012 the NFL conducted an injury study, and according to Klemko that study showed there were no more injuries on average on Thursday (5.2 per game) than on any other day of the week (5.3 per game).

The fact is, the Thursday night games are part of the collective bargaining agreement the players and owners signed in 2011. They aren't about to be going anywhere, especially when the NFL can pocket hundreds of millions of dollars just by selling a piece of them.

(While keeping the rights to simulcast them, no less. Between this and the weather at the Super Bowl, evidence continues to mount that Roger Goodell is, in fact, a warlock.)

At least this way, fans everywhere (and not just those with the NFL Network) will be able to catch their favorite teams on prime time at least once next season. Yes, there will be a few stinkers, but with any luck the NFL will try to limit them.

Meanwhile, the Saturday games will be a nice treat during the dry spell between the end of the college regular season and the bowls/playoffs. Traditionalists can't freak out either. Saturday NFL games have been around for decades. In fact, 2013 marked the first time since the AFL-NFL merger there wasn't a regular season game played on Saturday.

At the end of the day, progress is inevitable. Doubly so in Roger Goodell's NFL. Triply so if said progress is going to make the NFL money.

That's why the extra playoff teams (ugh) and (God help us) an 18-game regular season will more likely than not end up happening.

All the CBS deal really means (outside the "extra" Thursday game—stick, what stick?) is that a larger audience is going to have a chance to see football that was already happening anyway.

In the grand scheme of things, that ain't so bad.