The 2014 NFL schedule was finally released Wednesday night, ending weeks of speculation as to who is playing where and when this coming fall. The NFL Network marked the occasion with a three-hour televised event—showing us that, yes, only the NFL can put a show in prime time that has but one function: to tell viewers when their actual show will be on this season.
Thankfully, the league didn't wait until the end of their three-hour tour of the schedule to release it to the masses, creating a feeding frenzy of trip-planning, ticket-brokering and NFL-division-prognosticating well into the night on Wednesday and trickling on through to Thursday's news cycle.
The NFL schedule is a big freaking deal in this country, and it's great to finally get a chance to break it all down.
And while far smarter footballing minds than mine are scouring the 17-week slate for the best matchups, toughest schedules and easiest roads to the postseason, I find myself far more fascinated with breaking down the logic of the NFL schedule-makers.
The fact is, nobody knows which games are going to be good or which ones will be one-sided blowouts (last season's Super Bowl result will attest to that). So while it's fun to guess which late-season games are going to matter the most, there is no telling if the Week 17 Jaguars-Texans tilt will be a meaningless division game between two teams with a combined six wins or a de facto playoff game that decides the AFC South title.
That's why the modern NFL is so much fun, and it is why watching the games is a billion times more entertaining than almost anything else on television.
Did I say billion? Multiply that by five.
That's how much the NFL rakes in each year from its media partners to put these games on the air; it's no wonder the league has such a tough task putting the schedule together. There are a lot of media mouths to feed, and for a few billion dollars those mouths are going to want something rather delectable in return.
In 2011, the NFL signed enormous extensions with NBC, CBS and Fox that take effect at the start of this season and will continue to run through 2022. Those deals total more than $3 billion annually for the NFL and comprise of both regular-season and playoff games, including a rotation of the Super Bowl.
In a separate move, the league also made a deal with ESPN in 2011 to expand the network's day-to-day coverage, highlighted by the extension of its existing Monday Night Football package. ESPN pays the NFL nearly $2 billion per season for MNF as well as expanded rights and usage of highlights and game film.
This February, the league opened up bidding for a limited Thursday Night Football schedule, won by CBS—it's worth noting that Turner, which owns Bleacher Report, was involved in that bidding process—adding $275 million to the network's annual tab for the NFL. (This SportsBusiness Journal article by John Ourand has all the details of the NFL's current contracts, which includes the DirecTV Sunday Ticket deal that ends this season deal as well.)
For five billion dollars, the league better get this television schedule right.
It's no wonder it takes a group of schedule-makers more than two months to finalize the slate. Not only does the league have to worry about making all of the TV networks happy, but they need to actually worry about competitive balance, home and road contests and outside forces, too—like if there is a rugby contest already scheduled the day before a game.
Seriously, here is a look from Peter King of Sports Illustrated at the scheduling process:
This year, NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz and his team had the following roadblocks to the schedule you’ve bitched and moaned about since last night: a combined 17 games in non-traditional slots—Thursday CBS/NFL Network games, Saturday NFL Network games, and a Sunday morning FOX game (Detroit-Atlanta, from London)—as well as six One Direction concerts at NFL venues in the fall, New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks playing at Soldier Field on Saturday of Week 9 (the NFL won’t risk a bad-weather rugby game ruining an already-iffy field for a Bears game the next day), and baseball.
The joke in the room late Wednesday was the NFL would have to root against the Phillies all summer, because the Eagles are home on potential baseball playoff weekends on Oct. 5 and 12. Lord help the league if the Pirates get hot in October—because the Steelers are home Oct. 20 and 26. And it’s not neighborly to fool with the World Series.
The NFL tried to mess with MLB's schedule last season in Baltimore and lost, so there is no chance they want to deal with that public-relations gaffe again. The rugby thing is just kind of hilarious.
It's an insurmountably difficult task to make everyone happy in the NFL, so it feels unfair to rip the league for any scheduling decisions. If you think your team got screwed on the schedule, just look back at last year's prognostications—that road game at Atlanta or Houston didn't end up being as bad as you thought in 2013, did it?—and chill out.
Instead, let's look at the breakdown of games, the prime-time balance between the networks and a few other interesting notes in a 2014 schedule that is clearly the most intricate, complex and downright confusing in league history.
The Daytime/Primetime Breakdown
There is far more money in televising games in prime time than on a normal Sunday afternoon. No matter how many people in this country plan their Sundays around NFL telecasts, there is still more cache with playing a game at night, even if the game happens to be on a Monday or Thursday night.
Of the 256 games on the 2014 NFL slate, 49 of them will be in prime time, with another two games coming during the day on Thanksgiving, which, for ratings purposes, is as good as being in prime time.
By comparison, there will be 150 games played at 1 p.m. ET this season, with one additional game being played at 9:30 a.m. ET as part of the NFL's international series.
Red Zone will never be more important than in 2014.
The traditional 4 p.m. ET block of games, which often funnels into the early part of Sunday evening's prime time on the East Coast, has just 52 games, with another two late-afternoon games scheduled for Saturday in Week 16.
The NFL loads up on early Sunday games for a reason. Those games are often sent to limited markets, giving fans a local or in-division offering in the early window. There is just one week of the season that will have more than four games in the late Sunday afternoon window, and most weeks have but two or three games in that time slot, giving either CBS or Fox a "Game of the Week" matchup to show to most of the country.
No matter what spin the NFL puts on it, this decision is not to serve the audience as much as it is the networks.
By putting one or two national-level games in that late window, the NFL is maximizing its ratings for that one game. It's more difficult to parse the ratings for six games and add them up to create an overall rating for the window, so having one marquee game in the late slot creates a much more dramatic ratings victory for the league.
Better ratings means more advertising revenue for the networks looking to earn back some of those billions and, theoretically, it means more power for the league in the next negotiating window. Everybody wins.
What's most interesting is that 59 percent of the schedule is still slated for 1 p.m. ET—or 10 a.m. on the West Coast—while 20 percent of the schedule is now in prime time, which is nearly the identical percentage of games set for the late Sunday afternoon time slot.
The NFL is redefining where the audience will go, using the schedule to create five unique windows of weekly must-see action, with more and more high-profile games headed to prime time.
NBC: The Happy Network
When NBC took over Sunday Night Football, the NFL shifted its focus of marquee prime-time games from the traditional Monday night window to Sundays, thanks to the everlasting power of network television.
Here's the odd thing about that: There are just over 115 million households in America, and about 97 percent of them have televisions. Of those 111 million homes, nearly 110 million have the ability to watch NBC.
ESPN is in somewhere between 98 million and 100-plus million homes. The difference is nearly 10 percent of overall households, but for the NFL's purposes, that difference seems nominal at best. And still, the network giant gets the by far the best games in the Sunday night window.
NBC has 18 regular-season games this season, with 16 on Sunday and two—the season opener and Thanksgiving night—on Thursday. Of the 36 team slots on NBC this season, 25 were given to those that made the playoffs last year.
There are just eight games this season on NBC that will not feature two teams from the playoffs last season, and there are only two games in which neither team made the playoffs in 2013. Those two games are the Ravens and Steelers matchup in Week 9—one of the two or three best rivalries in the sport over the last decade—and the Cowboys and Giants contest three weeks later.
Moreover, the NBC schedule is loaded up on division rivalries after the midway point, safe-guarding the schedule from potential late-season clunkers if last year's playoff teams don't repeat their performances from 2013.
NBC has eight divisional games this season, seven of which come after Week 8. And if that's not enough, the league announced that the network will have the ability to flex out of games starting as early as Week 5, making sure that late-season contests are as high profile as possible on Sunday nights.
The 2014 NFL schedule should make for a lot of happy peacocks this season.
CBS Thursday Night Drama
The Thursday night schedule may be thinner on playoff teams than Sunday night, but the league is not messing around in terms of mid-week rivalry games for CBS this year.
CBS and the NFL Network will share the early part of the Thursday slate, with games appearing on both networks for some nonsensical reason before the NFL Network shows the final seven games exclusively on its own network. The final "Thursday night" set of games will actually come on Saturday afternoon during the second-to-last week of the season.
Of the 16 games shared between CBS and NFLN as part of this expanded Thursday package, 14 are division rivalries, with the only two non-division games being Cowboys at Bears the week after Thanksgiving and Chargers at 49ers on the penultimate Saturday.
The logic? Competitive balance.
The league has been maligned for the marked lack of quality of Thursday night games, so making these games more important for each division will optimistically create more natural energy for the teams involved. In addition, making the Thursday slate nearly all divisional contests gives neither team an advantage going into—and out of—a short week created by the Thursday game.
While the league mandates that every team has one Thursday game, the Cowboys and Bears will actually have two, as both play on Thanksgiving this year before facing each other on full rest the following Thursday in the only non-division Thursday game.
It is a prudent move by the league to stack Thursday with division games, but NFL fans are very savvy viewers; we know that not all rivalries are created equal.
The Steelers-Ravens matchup leads off CBS's Thursday schedule, which highlights early games like the Giants-Redskins, Vikings-Packers, Jets-Patriots and Chargers-Broncos. These should be really good games for CBS to lock down the Thursday night audience.
What's interesting, however, is that the best Thursday matchup of the season, at least on paper, is the Saints at the Panthers, which comes on Oct. 30, the week after the CBS Thursday schedule ends. Thursday's early schedule is certainly more stacked for CBS than the late games are for NFLN, but the league's network did manage to pull one of the biggest division games of the entire season.
ESPN's Monday Night Mediocrity
This is a great line from King's MMQB piece about ESPN's Monday Night Football schedule:
Don’t cry for ESPN. Even with more quality games siphoned off to CBS on Thursday, the Monday slate doesn’t look bad at all. Check out the quarterbacks in the first five Monday games: Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Luck, Jay Cutler, Tom Brady—and in the sixth, it’s a Russell Wilson-Robert Griffin III matchup.
Yes, America. Don't cry for ESPN, says the guy employed to cover NFL games for NBC.
Of course King is going to spin the schedule to make it look like ESPN is getting some high-profile games so there is less heat put on the NFL for handing his network the best schedule by leaps and bounds. The entire post-schedule release process is about spin, but there's no spinning out of the fact that of the networks featuring prime-time games, ESPN has gone from second fiddle to third.
ESPN has 17 games on Monday night this season, including a doubleheader to start the year. The Worldwide Leader has just three divisional games all season, and just one—Redskins at Cowboys—that will have anyone excited about a rivalry game at all.
There will be just 15 appearances—out of a possible 34—from 2013 playoff teams, including only four games between two teams that both went to last year's postseason.
There is a chance that one or two of the ESPN games could prove to be more enticing than they look today—the Texans at Steelers bout on Oct. 20 could be interesting if Houston gets off to a better start this season, and the Seahawks at Redskins matchup is somewhat intriguing with Russell Wilson facing Robert Griffin III on Oct. 6—but there isn't much ESPN should be too excited about this year. It certainly doesn't look like two billion dollars worth of quality matchups.
Now, that's not to say there may not be some close (read: good) games on ESPN. The Eagles and Colts are both coming off playoff years, and both should have high-powered offenses clicking when they face off in Week 2, but there's really little juice to that game, especially compared to most of the other CBS and NBC games.
The Patriots go to Kansas City in Week 4, which could be a good game, I guess. And the Eagles are on again in early November, hosting the Panthers, which could have big playoff implications.
Again, who knows? The Dolphins at Jets on Dec. 1 could decide the AFC East this year, so it's hard to look at the schedule and prognosticate how it will play out in five months. But on paper—the only thing we can do right now is look at the schedule on paper—ESPN is going to have to do a lot of promotional spinning to find good reasons for casual NFL fans to tune in on Monday nights this fall.
That, or ESPN better hope the Falcons, Steelers and Ravens have bounce-back years. Things might not be so bad at the end of the year if a few teams have the solid results this year that we thought they would have had last year.
Marquee Teams at Marquee Times
No team will be in prime time more than five times this season—though Chicago and Dallas have a sixth "prime-time" game when factoring in day games on Thanksgiving— and every team has at least one prime-time game, with the Bills, Browns, Jaguars, Raiders, Vikings and Buccaneers only getting one national game on a league-mandated Thursday night.
There are nine teams that have at least five prime-time games—a number that grows to 10 if you include the Eagles playing on Thanksgiving—and all of those teams but the Cowboys, Giants and Bears made the playoffs last year.
The defending-champion Seahawks have five games in prime time, including the season opener and a game on Thanksgiving night, giving the league's best team a ton of high-profile exposure this season. Having said that, the schedule-makers did them no favors in terms of difficulty, as four of those five prime-time games are on the road.
The 2014 schedule is so odd that the NFL had to make some abnormal concessions to appease all the networks. The league calls it "crossflexing", per King's story, which allows the schedule-makers to put up to seven games that would normally be slated for CBS or Fox on the other's network.
Traditionally, the NFC market games are on Fox while the AFC market games are on CBS. This year the Redskins and 49ers will play on CBS because Fox already had too many good games in Week 12. It's odd, however, that the NFL flexed an all-NFC game back to CBS instead of Detroit at New England or St. Louis at San Diego, which would have featured at least one AFC team.
It's also odd that Thanksgiving will feature six NFC teams in three games. Clearly, the NFL thinks the NFC teams are currently bigger draws nationally. Outside of Denver and New England in the AFC, it's hard to argue that point.
(NFC) East Coast Bias
Speaking of the NFL's conference bias, it's worth looking at each division to see which teams have the most prime-time games this season.
Again, including all three Thanksgiving games as "prime" football viewing slots on the schedule, the AFC South has the fewest marquee slots with 10, five of which involve the Colts.
Both the AFC East and NFC South have 11 prime-time slots, led by the Patriots and Saints (who each have five), while the AFC North and AFC West have 12 apiece, led by the Steelers and Broncos, respectively.
The NFC North has 14 prime-time slots, led by the Bears with six and the Packers with five, while the NFC West has 15 this season, buoyed by five each for the 49ers and Seahawks.
It's the NFC East, which had no team win more than 10 games and three teams finish .500 or worse last season, which has by far the most attention this season, securing 19 of a possible 104 "prime" slots for 2014.
The final schedule was reportedly one of half-a-million possibilities the NFL computers created. One has to wonder how many marquee games Jerry Jones might have secured in the other 499,999 scenarios.