Somebody’s always got it worse than you – that’s a truism that comes to my mind often. No matter my situation, someone out there is much worse off than I am. Today I’m glad I’m not one of the folks who determine the NFL schedule.
When the 2014 NFL schedule came out on Wednesday evening it was greeted with all measure of moaning and wailing from fans in Bills Nation and no doubt beyond. I think you would have to look long and hard to find a fan of any NFL team who was elated about the schedule for their team – everybody got something they didn’t like.
That you can’t please everyone is understandable when you look at the complexity of determining the full league schedule. Peter King had an excellent article on the Monday Morning Quarterback website about the men who put the schedule together and the considerations that go into the process.There are basic rules to the NFL schedule – a minimal baseline of fairness - every team gets 8 home games, 8 road games and a bye between week 4 and week 12. Conference rotations are cyclical and have been set years ahead (this year the Bills play the AFC West and the NFC North) and are split between home and road games. Conference non-division opponents are based on finishing places in 2013 (also split between home and road games). Here’s how it broke out for the Bills:
The Bills, like every other team in the league, have known since December which opponents they were scheduled to face and whether they would face them home or away, so the schedule that came out on Wednesday really didn’t do much except tell us the dates and order of the games in 2014.
I hear a lot of gripes from Bills fans about the schedule. Top complaints are a killer final four weeks of the season (at Denver, Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England), only a single primetime game (at Miami week 11), and no weather advantage (Miami and San Diego in Orchard Park when it’s still warm and Green Bay and Cleveland at the Ralph when it’s cold ). Even the Bills’ own reporter, Chris Brown, complains that the Jets get to meet the Bills on extra rest twice this season, the third time this has happened in the last four years. As I said before, everybody has something they didn’t like about their schedule.
It’s important to understand the schedule process and its factors if you want to understand why the Bills got the schedule they did. Once you apply the basic rules of the draft for every team, the schedule makers still had over a half million different schedule possibilities, so further considerations come into play. Some teams share stadiums with another football or baseball team, so certain dates are unavailable for home games. Chicago, for example, had a number of events at their home field which ruled out playing at home (a rugby game, a marathon, a concert). Schedulers also want to avoid long home and/or road stretches for teams, and are sensitive to travel constraints – ideally a team shouldn’t have to travel back and forth across the country each week. Schedulers also try to avoid long stretches without playing divisional opponents or scheduling the same opponent 2 weeks in a row. Once you start applying these further conditions, the number of possible schedules quickly reduces.
Last year Buffalo spoke up about having to play six games against teams who had extra rest before the game – a team coming off a previous Thursday game or a bye week. The greater NFL world likes to view this as the Bills whining about their schedule, but it is a valid concern. Outside playing at home, probably the biggest advantage one team can have over an opponent is having extra rest and preparation time ahead of the game. This obviously didn’t figure into the schedule in 2014, but it appears to have factored into the schedule this year – the Bills only face two teams coming off extended breaks. The crybaby label may be harsh but I’ll take it if it made the schedule makers factor it into their scheduling.
OK, so after all the logistics of meeting the basic schedule criteria are applied and logistical impossibilities (i.e. – stadium availability) are factored in the schedule probably boils down to TV ratings and revenue. NFL football may be the greatest sport going, but it’s still a business and there are still huge dollars involved. TV networks paid billions of dollars to broadcast games and they want return on investment – the hottest games with the most viewers. That means broadcasting the teams in the biggest television markets and with the most out of market interest. Look at the primetime slate of games and you see a lot of big market teams (New England, San Francisco, NY, Chicago) as well as teams with big name players (Indianapolis, Denver).
Small market teams lacking big national players are few and far between on the primetime schedule – Buffalo, Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay each have only the required one primetime game and each is on a Thursday. Add in that these teams haven’t been contenders recently and you can understand why the television networks would rather have other games in their primetime schedules. Honestly, why would you put Cleveland at Buffalo in primetime when you could broadcast San Francisco at Denver instead? It’s pretty easy to see why Buffalo has had so little primetime exposure when you realize that the NFL is run as a business.
As for the brutal December the Bills face, I think that may just be the result of the schedulers’ inability to factor in absolutely everything. Yes, Buffalo faces three likely Hall of Fame quarterbacks in a four week stretch and their only other opponent is on the road 3,000 miles away, but that’s just a quirk of the schedule – you can’t give everyone what they want. One of the things I think does NOT factor into the schedule is opponent strength – how good are the teams you are playing? It’s easy to predict that Denver, New England and Green Bay will be very good teams in 2014, but there is no way to know that at this point. Teams that look like they will be good now may have a poor 2014 season (who predicted Houston would be so bad in 2013?) and some teams that look weak now could be quite good (did anyone think Kansas City would win 11 games in 2013?). The strength part of the schedule is factored in with the conference opponents – Buffalo plays two other 4th place finishers. Beyond that, we knew we would have to play Denver, Green Bay and New England – we’ve actually known that for a few years.
Yes, it’s less than ideal that the Bills have to play tough teams so close together and at the end of the season, but to ask the schedulers to factor that into the schedules is ridiculous. When you see the other constraints that have to be figured into the schedule, whether driven by schedule rules, logistics or television ratings, it is laughable that they would somehow ensure a team didn’t have too many projected “hard” games in a row.
If anything, the schedulers may have applied some helpful business decision making for the Bills with the December schedule. Buffalo has had trouble selling out late season games – sitting out in the cold watching a team out of contention isn’t as hot a ticket as you might think. This year the Bills have one home game in December and it is against a popular opponent with a marquee quarterback – it’s hard to imagine the December 14th game against Green Bay in Orchard Park wouldn’t sell out – even Thurman Thomas tweeted his excitement at seeing Aaron Rogers come to town. Think about this as you’re sitting in a comfy chair watching that game on TV in week 15 and then see if you’re still upset that the Bills didn’t draw Cleveland that day.
The Bills 2014 schedule may not be ideal, but to think that the NFL “screwed the Bills again” is off the mark. As humans and as Bills fans we’re certainly entitled to gripe as loudly as we want whether it is justified or not, but the schedule is what it is and was as accommodating to the Bills as much as the other teams in the league given all the other factors. That said, I certainly wouldn’t want to be one of those NFL schedulers – I can’t imagine working so hard to produce something that produces so much scorn and complaints – somebody’s always got it worse.