- We go inside the league offices with the five-person team in charge of putting together the 2019 NFL schedule to learn just how complicated this “256-game Rubik’s cube” can be.
NEW YORK — On March 12, the five NFL officials tasked with assembling the 2019 schedule gathered in the Val Pinchbeck Room, one of the few rooms at the NFL’s 345 Park Avenue headquarters with frosted windows to block the view from the hallway, to talk over an idea.
The 2019 season will be the NFL’s 100th season and the 50th season of Monday Night Football. That combination was enough to consider a rematch of the first-ever game on MNF—Browns vs. Jets on Sept. 21, 1970—for 2019’s Week 1 MNF matchup on ESPN. As luck would have it, the regular rotation of teams gave Senior VP of broadcasting Howard Katz, VP of broadcasting Mike North and their team that matchup to play with. Then, things started happening.
“We’d already said [that] this is a game that probably should live on ESPN, on Monday Night Football,” VP of broadcasting Onnie Bose says. “That night, Odell [Beckham Jr.] got traded early evening, and then Le’Veon [Bell] got signed overnight. We came into the office the next day and said, ‘Alright, that game has that much more buzz and meaning around it.’”
“All of the sudden, that game became a Monday night game, a possible Sunday night game, a possible Sunday doubleheader game, a really good Thursday night game,” Katz adds. “That was a game we could’ve played in almost every window.”
That, of course, illustrates the fragility of the schedule-making process that finally came to an end this week, and was celebrated over two networks live on Wednesday night. It also shows the power of the game’s biggest stars. Almost overnight, the Browns had gone from an intriguing gamble into must-see television. And the league was going to hear about it.
“From every [network],” Katz says. “Literally everybody called and said, ‘We want more Cleveland.’”
Every year, getting to this day is a lot of work for Katz, North, Bose, senior manager of broadcasting Charlotte Carey and senior director of broadcasting Blake Jones. Every year, there are forks in the road to navigate and curveballs to hit in putting together what Katz calls a 256-game Rubik’s cube. And that’s because every year, between January and April, the league goes through unforeseen changes.
This year, three players changing addresses were earth-shakers for this crew.
In this week’s GamePlan, we have plenty of draft information, with answers to your questions on …
• The potential that a couple high profile defensive linemen could fall on draft day.
• The idea that Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins might too.
• What the Cardinals are going to do with the No. 1 draft pick, and where Josh Rosen could land if Arizona takes Kyler Murray and decides to move on from the 2018 first-rounder.
• The Dolphins’ and Raiders’ drafts.
And we’ll also get to contract situations on the horizon involving Carolina’s Cam Newton and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. But we’re starting with the 2019 schedule release, because that’s where everyone eyes were on Wednesday afternoon and right into the evening broadcasts on ESPN and NFL Network.
In the wee hours of March 10, the Steelers traded Antonio Brown to the Raiders a little over 48 hours before the Browns traded the Giants for Beckham, which preceded Bell signing with the Jets by about five hours. Just like that, things changed for the schedule-makers.
Around the Super Bowl in early February, the networks give the NFL their requests for the next fall. As Katz explains it, “CBS or FOX will send us a list of the games that they really don’t want to lose—‘Here’s our 20, don’t take any of these!’ And NBC and ESPN will also send us a list—‘Here are the games we really want!’ And it’s the same list.”
From there, dialogue continues, and Katz and co. continue to tweak their grades on games, which starts on a scale of 1–3, then goes to 1–5. Every so often, a newsworthy bomb will go off, causing a network to rework its list. It just so happened that three bombs exploded in 72 hours, and all the networks reacted quickly.
“The [networks] upgraded Oakland, the Jets and Cleveland,” Katz says. “They let us know that those games are now more important to them than they might have been when we talked to them around the Super Bowl.”
So the schedule-makers decided to lock in Beckham’s return to MetLife Stadium, featuring Bell’s return to primetime after a year away, into that first standalone MNF slot, moving it from the Week 1 MNF doubleheader to Week 2. They also moved the Browns’ trips to New England and Pittsburgh from probable 1 p.m. anchors into the national doubleheader window at 4:25 p.m. And Cleveland wound up with four primetime games all told.
NBC will get one, FOX will get another (on Thursday night). And ESPN will see the Browns twice, maybe because they were prepared for this—“ESPN, to their credit, they’d bought into Cleveland at the end of last season,” Katz says. “The Beckham trade reinforced what they wanted.”
Meanwhile, Oakland’s game 1 p.m. ET games at Minnesota and Green Bay in Weeks 3 and 7 became the top games for those windows, largely because of the Brown trade, which gave the schedule-makers some more flexibility.
“We increased the quality value of a lot of Oakland games, as we did with the Jets and the Browns,” Katz says. “In Oakland’s case, we didn’t necessarily move games into other places, but their value changed.”
So that was one thing I took away from the hour I spent with the group of five responsible for making all this work. And there were a few other things worth mentioning here too.
The schedule was finished at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday. The process for this group starts the day after the regular season ends, when each team’s opponents are set via the scheduling formula. As it was explained to me, there are literally millions of iterations of the schedule that run through the master computer. All told, the group did deep dives on 273 of them.
On March 22, they identified their first “leader.” That leader was beaten out 12 times, leaving a draft stamped “Leader 13” that was dropped on commissioner Roger Goodell’s desk Sunday night. He reviewed it, and the group let the computers run more models overnight and through Monday. Around lunch, their phones pinged and there was one last contender to throw at the leader.
“Leader 13” survived, and Katz and his group went into Goodell’s office at 5:30 p.m. on Monday to finalize it as the winner. After about an hour talking it over, that’s just what they did. And so on Wednesday morning, the league sent CBS its portion of the schedule, and Fox its portion, before video-conferencing with both. Two CBS games were moved from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. And then, they called the teams.
The problems with the schedule were minimal … Although one team did push back a little bit. Katz sent a memo to the teams on Wednesday explaining what they had tried to accomplish over time, and that they only gave one team a three-game road trip (the Eagles), and only had one team playing a road game the week after playing on Monday night on the road.
“I call the Eagles with their schedule, I call (team president) Don Smolenski and I start reading him his schedule,” Bose says. “And he’s like, ‘Uh, I was really hoping not to be that guy.’”
“And oh by the way, Doug Pederson’s my next-door neighbor,” says Katz, who’s not exaggerating. “So I’ll hear about it.”
Katz hates putting teams in those positions, of course, but sees that part of it as largely inevitable. He could at least make those teams trips (Philly to Minnesota, Dallas and Buffalo; Green Bay to Minnesota and Detroit) manageable. He also isn’t wild about giving teams Week 4 byes. That’s where the Jets and Niners get their weeks off this year, but both those teams have had more ideal midseason byes, between Weeks 8 and 11, the last three years in a row.
The NFL is betting on the Phillies. Thanks to our Jonathan Jones for the idea—I asked if there were any weird events blocking the use of stadiums this year. And the crew said there really wasn’t, but baseball plays significantly into how they piece the early parts of the year together.
Twelve teams share services or parking with an MLB team, and of the 12, only the Cowboys have priority over their local nine (Jerry Jones owns the lots), because baseball teams play more games, which creates challenges in September. And it’s even harder to prognosticate what will happen when MLB playoffs start in October. So one reason why the NFL felt OK with the Eagles’ three-game road trip that month? They think the Phillies are good.
“For years, the Phillies were awful,” Katz says. “The Phillies are a now a contender, and we have to be mindful of where the Eagles are in baseball playoff weeks. So that’s part of what played into this three-game road trip.”
“We ask ourselves—do you think the Phillies can be in the postseason?” Blake Jones says. “We saw doubleheaders, Sunday night games falling there, it’s not worth that risk.”
The wheels for the Chicago opener were in motion back in the fall. As part of the NFL’s schedule release, they trumpeted the NFL 100 Game of the Week. “We identified 30, 40 games that could fall into that category,” Bose says. “An epic rivalry, like Green Bay-Chicago, or a very memorable game like the Music City Miracle, Super Bowl rematches. We’re just mindful of those games and where they fell. The objective was to have one fall in every week.”
They got that. And the first step for the league was finding a way to get the most out of the Thursday night opener. So it was early on that they decided it should be in Chicago, in conjuction with the Bears’ 100th anniversary, an idea they presented to team presidents at the league’s winter meeting in December. By doing it early, they’d let everyone know the Super Bowl champ wouldn’t get it, before anyone knew who that’d be, and give themselves time to map out festivities.
“We had to get the city on board because it wasn’t, ‘You won the Super Bowl, we’re coming,’” Bose says. “It was making sure we could work together, we wanted a location in Grant Park, going back to the draft.”
They also wanted this to be big, which necessitated getting going as early as possible. Last year, the party around the opener in Philadelphia drew between 15,000 and 20,000 fans. This year, the league is shooting to get 50,000 out in Grant Park, and planning to show the game in that outdoor setting.
The NFL used a consulting firm. And that consulting firm affirmed the job they do with this. As it works, the five schedule-makers are adding rules all the time to the computer program, locking games in, and locking some circumstances out to try and make their machine think as they would. But nothing’s perfect, and so the league worked with this analytics company to backstop its process.
The company gave the league—without considering the team and network requests that fill a packed six-inch binder in the Val Pinchbeck Room—a schedule they considered optimal for ratings. And what the league had built largely off Katz’s gut and the hard work of his group was off the firm’s optimal schedule by no more than three percent.
“We all, in our gut, know that Dallas and Green Bay and Pittsburgh bring ratings, it’s a little more of a leap to the Clevelands and KCs,” Bose says. “And we’ve seen some numbers spit out, ‘here’s my optimal schedule, and here’s my analysis of your schedule.’ Whether this is right or wrong, our instincts are pretty close.”
At this point, the league’s still feeling out where they can make technological advances to streamline the schedule-making process even further. But in the short term, getting this kind of feedback certainly wasn’t bad.
By the time the schedule actually made it to TV, Katz, North, Bose, Carey and Jones were at The Palm in Manhattan having dinner. They weren’t going to watch the show that, really, they put on. “We already know who wins,” Jones joked.
In the coming days, they’ll get more complaints, as the football people get to digest it. Some will be constructive and go into the process for 2020. But for the most, once the commissioner signed off on their work Tuesday afternoon, what’s done for 2019 was done.
“A couple years ago, I met with a general manager who said, ‘You know, the NBA team in town, they tell us they actually get a draft of the NBA schedule and they’re able to make some comments before it’s made official,’” Katz says. “And I said, ‘yeah, what they do is ask them, would you give up this open date and play another game here? What would you prefer to do?’
“We only have 16 games. There’s no way we could ever do that. One change that you want to add, in the NBA, you could move a home-and-home series without affecting anybody else. Instead of playing Tuesday, you could play Wednesday because you had an open date. There’s no one change we can make in our schedule that wouldn’t affect the entire puzzle.”
That’s why this whole deal takes nearly four months, and five pretty experienced people, to complete. And besides, as the Bell and Brown and (most of all) Beckham situations clearly illustrated, they deal with enough change without adding any more on their own.
On to your mail …
From Alejandro #TankForTua (@MiamiAlejandro): Why are Rashan Gary and Ed Oliver slipping?
I believe the latter will go later than people think. I don’t think the former is slipping at all. The hard thing for teams with Rashan Gary is in amending the gap between his prodigious talent and middling production. The numbers and chaos the guy opposite him, Chase Winovich, generated are proof positive that, between having coordinator Don Brown and line coach Greg Mattison at Michigan, the coaching was available to him. So why does he still looks so raw?
There are some entitlement questions—Gary launching his own sports agency only bolstered those—that further pushes those concerns. To his credit, Gary did play hard and wasn’t any sort of problem, but given the athlete he is, teams are left wanting more. And there’s no question that if he’s ever going to fulfill his considerable potential, he’ll have to learn to play better with leverage and become craftier in beating blocks. Which is why I’d bet, right now, he falls out of the top 10.
As for Oliver, I feel comfortable saying that he’ll go somewhere between the third and ninth picks. He’s not for everyone—his fit in the base of some defense is a tough one. But he’s a damn good player for what he is, so I can pretty easily see him landing on the Jets, Bucs or Bills in that pick range.
From Stephen Murphy (@_StephenMurphy): How far do you think Haskins falls if the Giants don't take him?
Murph, I think if Haskins gets past the Giants, I’d keep an eye on both the Bengals and Redskins—who have owners who I think will be pleased to have him on the team. And I wouldn’t be stunned to see the Redskins to make a move up to get a quarterback, and it might be for Haskins.
There’s been a lot of conjecture over Haskins falling, and I think this draft is like 2014 all over again. If you asked 10 teams, you might get 10 different rankings on the quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s one that would have a first-round grade in every war room. In fact, I think you’d find that they all have a good amount of non-first-round grades.
For context, just before the 2014 draft, word was that Blake Bortles was falling out of the top 15, and maybe all the way to Arizona at 20—but he went third overall. Meanwhile, most figured Johnny Manziel was going top 10, maybe to Minnesota at No. 8—he went 22nd. And the two best players at the position that year wound up being second-rounders Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo.
I actually think that makes this year fun, like 2014.
From James Carl Rensing (@RensingJames): Could you see the Chargers trading for Rosen?
Yes. I could absolutely see it. Do I think they were over the moon on him coming out last year? No. But there could be pretty good value there. Say you flip your second-rounder, or even the 28th pick, to Arizona for him. In return, you get, for now, a cheap ($6.28 million over three years) backup. Long-term, it’s a swing at having a successor to Philip Rivers. I think something like that would be worth the risk.
I think that’s where the market for Arizona with Rosen could be. There are a handful of teams out there with aging starting quarterbacks that probably won’t be bad enough soon to draft a successor high, so those teams might have to get creative. This would be one way to do it.
From Jesse Baldwin (@J_Baldwin51): Cam Newton’s contract is coming up. Do you believe he’ll push for the top QB contact?
Newton has two years left on his current deal—he’s due $16.7 million this year, and $19.1 million next year, and is up just as the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021. So from his standpoint, waiting (and even forcing the team to tag him in two years) might make sense. And I’m sure the team would like to see how his shoulder heals, after this offseason’s surgery.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Panthers draft a quarterback in the second or third round—maybe someone like West Virginia’s Will Grier or Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham. That would give them a nice, affordable insurance policy behind Newton, with the potential that the insurance policy grows into something more.
From Michael Pollack (@PMikePollack): Why hasn’t Ben [Roethlisberger] gotten his extension?
Ben Roethlisberger didn’t ruminate much on retirement this offseason, but he has the last couple offseason, which I know would be enough for me to take a wait-and-see approach. Why? Well, if you do a new deal, it’ll likely be front-loaded—especially with Pittsburgh’s policy on not guaranteeing future years—and so a sudden retirement could leave the team out a bunch of money they don’t need to be.
That said, there’s obviously a price to waiting. The top of the quarterback market at this time last year was $28 million per. With Russell Wilson’s deal in the books, it’s gone up a staggering 25% since. And the Steelers can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube on that one.
From Alejandro #TankForTua (@MiamiAlejandro): Who do the Dolphins take at 13? Is the trade back in play?
I think a trade down has been in play throughout, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they even moved some picks to 2020 to build a warchest to get their long-term answer at quarterback (no offense, Fitz). And I actually think you might see a tackle, rather than a quarterback, being what prompts a team to work a trade with Miami GM Chris Grier—there are three top-shelf guys at the position (Jawaan Taylor, Andre Dillard, Jonah Williams), and the Dolphins may be at the end of a run on them.
If they stick, one thing I’ve heard is that it’s a good bet new coach Brian Flores will want someone who’s a cultural fit, and even an example, for the kind of program he wants to build in South Florida. And that it might be an offensive or defensive lineman. If you’re looking there, both Jonah Williams and Clemson DL Christian Wilkins make some sense.
From James Carl Rensing (@RensingJames): Would you draft Murray No. 1 with Rosen already on the team?
If I believe Kyler Murray is a superstar in the making, I wouldn’t think twice about it. The quarterback position is way, way too important for someone to get cute and say, “Yeah, but I could have Josh Rosen and the first pick.” And this goes twice over if Kliff Kingsbury is as high on Murray as I’ve heard he is. Arizona took a big swing on Kingsbury, so denying him the guy he wants—if he does want Murray—would make no sense.
I still think it’s happening. We’ll see how the next week or so goes.
From Charlie Horse (@PocketVeto): Small college (FCS) draft targets.
This isn’t the best year for them, but a few offensive linemen in a pretty good class of them come from the lower levels of college football: Alabama State OT Tytus Howard, Sioux Falls OT Trey Pipkins and UNC-Charlotte OG Nate Davis. All three had good all-star game weeks, Howard and Davis at the Senior Bowl, and Pipkis at East/West.
The same could be said of the weeks that Delaware S Nasir Addlerly, Western Illinois DT Khalen Saunders (he of the YouTube acrobatics) and Old Dominion DE Oshane Ximines. Adderly is one I thought early on could sneak in the first round, but now I see him going in round two or three. Which is what most if all of these six most likely wind up becoming next week
From Tevin B (@T_Bron): What are the chances of a team trading up to the top five for a quarterback?
I don’t think it’s impossible, because the Giants are sitting there at No. 6. Maybe Washington is motivated to leapfrog their NFC East rival?
On the flip side, I think you’d have to make it worth Tampa’s while. With the fifth pick, they’re sitting right near where there’s going to be a drop off in the level of player you get. This draft is super elite—Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and Alabama’s Quinnen Williams will likely be gone by the time Tampa picks. But the next tier— Kentucky’s Josh Allen, LSU’s Devin White and maybe Houston’s Ed Oliver—is appealing too.
And those guys might be even more appealing considering the dropoff after their gone. Lots of team see this draft as one where everyone will be staring at second-round grades in the teens. So if you’re Tampa, and you have a shot at a White or an Allen or an Oliver, is it worth passing on that and going with a lesser prospect for an extra pick or two later on? Maybe.
From Don Ridenour (@DonRidenour): Who is Mike Mayock’s first pick with Raiders??
We’ll wrap here with our friend Don, who sends a bag full of questions every week. And the short answer, Don, is that I don’t know. But I do think he’d like to set a tone with this pick. So if it’s not Quinnen Williams, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him grab White, who fits that bill—a pretty clean kid off the field that plays like a mother-bleeper on it.
Only a week until the draft? Only a week until the draft! I’ll see you Monday to talk more about it (and don’t miss my Periscopes this week and next).
Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.