Steelers vs. Chiefs: Should NFL Have Used Flex Schedule for Sunday Night's Game?

Joshua HayesCorrespondent IINovember 24, 2011

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 21:   Tyler Palko #4 of the Kansas City Chiefs is sacked by  Andre Carter #93 of the New England Patriots on November 21, 2011 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

As the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for a contest against the Kansas City Chiefs, fans in both Missouri and Western Pennsylvania are waiting to see if the raucous "Red Sea" of Arrowhead Stadium can propel the struggling home squad to an upset win over the visitors. 

With former Pittsburgh collegiate quarterback Tyler Palko making only his second professional start, the odds seem long.  However, NFL is merely an acronym for No Freakin' Logic.  More eloquently stated, the game is a testament to the notion that anything can happen.

In 2009, the Chiefs were 2-7 as they hosted the defending champion Steelers.  The Black and Gold had opportunities to win the contest, but ultimately lost in overtime to the eventual 4-12 basement dwellers of the AFC West.

For fans in the Steel City, the contest marks an opportunity for retribution; after all, Pittsburgh dropped their last two games in K.C., missing the playoffs in both seasons (2003 and 2009).  Through the 90's, the two squads were among conference heavyweights (at least, in the regular season) when coach Marty Schottenheimer faced off with pupil Bill Cowher. 

As contests go, there are compelling angles to the upcoming Sunday Night affair for those fans completely vested in either squad.  Yet, on a national conscience, what type of buzz is there for the Steelers vs. Chiefs? 

Isn't Sunday Night Football's slogan "Game of the Week?"  Forgetting that anything can happen for a moment, ask yourself: do you think anything will happen?  Or, will Tyler Palko struggle again, seeing the Chiefs fall to 4-7 and the resurgent 2011 Steelers continue their quest to win the AFC North?

Looking at the slate of prime-time games for recent seasons, it is clear that the NFL is promoting NBC's package as the premiere contest of each NFL weekend.  Barring a few clunkers, the NBC showcase is reserved for the biggest storylines and games.  From Vick heading back to Atlanta to AFC North brutes facing off again (Pittsburgh and Baltimore), the SNF list of games (aside from those featuring the Colts) have been largely compelling.

In an attempt to keep their headline game interesting, flex scheduling was introduced for Sunday nights in 2006.

Each year, the NFL schedule features asterisks beside the slate of Sunday night contests that occur later in the season, another testament to the league's desire to promote their NBC product as the (or, at least a) Game of the Week.  The asterisks mean simply that the starting time for the game could be changed, and a new game could take the premiere time slot. 

Other nationally televised games are not slated to be changed, and networks do not have this luxury to have their contest be "picked" from the pinnacle of the pack.

Take Thanksgiving as an example.  For years, the struggling Cowboys and Lions made a mockery of the annual tradition, and many holiday contests featuring the turkey day stalwarts resulted in hype-lacking, uneventful blowouts despite both clubs' best intentions to put on a good showing. 

Who can forget Manning's six touchdowns at Ford Field (one of the few recent holiday highlights) or Dallas' 40-21 loss to Miami one year before Peyton's cornucopia of scores?

Actually, I think most have forgotten the latter.  Yet, for all of the naysayers who wanted the two hosting teams changed, the league felt an obligation to honor traditions, and it did.  By chance in 2011, a wonderful slate of games has blessed the holiday.  No matter the final score, hype for Packers vs. Lions and Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh has added an electricity to November 24th that was lacking in previous seasons. 

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22:  Wide receiver Mike Wallace #17 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball during NFL action against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 22, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri.  The Chiefs defeated the Stee
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

As much as turkey, stuffing and gravy, people relished the opportunity to watch a great trio of games.

Sunday Night Football is tied to no such traditions.  It has the ability to make fans salivate every week over.  With the option to provide the most compelling contest, why wouldn't the league want to produce as much electricity as possible surrounding its marquee match?

In 2008, the Steelers had a saying that every game on their schedule was a five-star matchup because they were in it.  With a fanbase that stretches the country, continent and world, any contest featuring the Black and Gold will draw in masses of viewers. 

However, the Steelers are not the only team that can make this claim.  And, every Steelers fan will watch nearly every game, no matter the time.  The national broadcasts are surely selected with national interests in mind, and the NFL and advertisers surely benefit from airing the most compelling game possible.

If the NFL is truly invested in making sure their prime slots are filled with quality football action, it is odd to think that Palko versus Pittsburgh will complete Sunday's action.

If there is anything that the general NFL fanbase desires more than a popular team, it's a great match with great teams.   And, a fun side story doesn't hurt either.  When Super Bowl XLIV set a new record for viewership, who can argue that many rooted for the Saints in light of the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster in the New Orleans region?

In their defense, NBC's desire to secure the best contest isn't just as simple as snapping a finger.

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 21:  Todd Haley of the Kansas City Chiefs looks at the clock in the second half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on November 21, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The issue may not be with the selections, but moreover with the restrictions and criteria that go into flex scheduling.  Only Sunday afternoon contests are eligible as fill-ins for the originally scheduled Sunday Night contest.  This seems only fair, as ticket holders who have paid a hefty price for their seat have made the purchase with the preconception of the game occurring on a certain date.  Changing the time is difficult enough for many, especially the working stiffs who go into their respective jobs on Monday morning unexpectedly weary-eyed.

The main problem could be the advance notice required to make the change.  Asking for 12 days leeway, the game swap has to be confirmed at least two weeks prior to the event.  In other words, in the time between opting to replace one game for another, teams' records and rosters can change dramatically.

Still, in this case, that didn't have much impact.  In fact, the Chiefs were an easy prediction to fall in New England, making the Sunday Night scenario very foreseeable. 

As evidence, let's rewind the clocks to the day before November 15, 2011, which was the last eligible date for the league to announce a switch to another Week 12 contest for NBC.

On November 14th, it was well known that Matt Cassel would be out of the lineup for the Chiefs, who had just lost to Tim Tebow and the Broncos.  The famed Denver quarterback had completed two passes in the win, a week removed from Kansas City's home loss to winless Miami, 31-3.  While the AFC West was a tight race, largely due to the mediocrity of its teams, the illustrious home-field advantage was proving to be non-existent in 2011 for K.C.

Meanwhile, the Jets and Bills were both 5-4, in the midst of a tight wild-card race and scheduled to play two weeks later in Week 12.  Gang Green's bombastic coach and large personalities make them a marketable draw, and the division contest could essentially end the playoff hopes for one of these two teams that had such high aspirations just weeks ago.  

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 13:  Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts after throwing a touchdown pass against the Cincinnati Bengals during play at Paul Brown Stadium on November 13, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Ge
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Also, nearing the flex scheduling deadline, Carson Palmer had just lead the Raiders to a dramatic win over the Chargers in San Diego, and the Chicago Bears pummeled the Detroit Lions in Chi-town.  With an injury to Jay Cutler unknown (though that could make the game even more interesting) and such a unique matchup between two storied franchises, this contest between two squads with huge fanbases could have easily filled in for Sunday's nightcap. 

Instead, NBC maintained their originally scheduled event featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs.  The hardcore fans of both teams would have watched either way, whether wrapping up late Sunday afternoon or approaching midnight.  Now, a week removed from the predictable failure of Tyler Palko leading the Chiefs to wins, this unbiased Steelers fan has to ask: what compulsion does the average football fan have to stay up for this broadcast?

Kyle Orton may come off the bench if Palko struggles, but that seems unlikely.  Additionally, the Chiefs lost by a cumulative score of 48-13 in previous home contests to the Dolphins and Broncos, neither on par with the defending AFC Champions.  If the Chiefs' offense could only muster three points against the league's worst pass defense, can NBC and the NFL really expect fans will have a reason to stay up late into the fourth quarter against one of football's great defenses?

Are there compelling angles?  Sure.  Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense has been an aerial showcase, and the Steelers are in the midst of a tight AFC North race.  Likewise, the Chiefs are in striking distance in the AFC West despite their recent misfortunes.  Yet, honestly, after their showing in Massachusetts, how many non-invested fans are looking forward to the contest? 

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 21:  Tyler Palko #4 of the Kansas City Chiefs throws a pass against the New England Patriots in the second half at Gillette Stadium on November 21, 2011 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Steelers fan in myself doesn't care when the game airs, but the logistical side of me wonders: when you have the ability to enhance your product, why not use your tools?  Could the NFL's prime-time slate benefit from a less stringent timetable regarding advance notice of flex swapping? 

Could the game be close?  As stated, this is the NFL, or Nobody Figured League!  Yet, if the limitations to flex scheduling are as basic as those listed on the NFL site, it begs the question: why Steelers vs. Chiefs?

Looking over Week 12's Sunday afternoon games, only a couple stand out as compelling.  Perhaps in that light, CBS and Fox, both set to air games in New York and Oakland, are saying the exact opposite:

Why not Steelers vs. Chiefs on Sunday Night?  Surely, those networks are among those satisfied that Sunday's "Game of the Week"..... isn't.