Inside the process of making the NFL schedule

Posted: April 14, 2009

THE ONE AND ONLY certainty about the 2009 NFL schedule to be unveiled tonight is that not everyone is going to be happy with it.

Some teams won't like the placement of their bye week. Others will gripe about a three-game October road trip or playing four of their first five games against playoff teams or having to make a cross-country road trek the week after a Monday night game.

The league's television partners also won't be completely happy. Fox and CBS will complain about some of the games they lost to NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network, and ESPN will complain about the quality of its Monday night package, and NBC will complain about having to pay for an extra driver to get the Madden cruiser from Miami to Seattle for back-to-back games in December.

"This is one of the most complicated and complex things I've ever been involved with," said Howard Katz, the NFL senior vice president for media operations, who, for the last 4 years, has been the lucky guy charged with constructing the league schedule.

"You're trying to serve 37 different masters - the 32 individual teams and the five networks. Everybody's lobbying and their interests aren't always consistent. So what we've got to do is look at how we can produce the best overall schedule from a league perspective that is fairest for all of the teams and is as fair as we can make it for our [television] partners."

Katz and a team of assistants have spent the better part of the last 2 1/2 months crafting the 256-game schedule that will be announced at 7 tonight on the NFL Network. They rolled up their sleeves right after the Super Bowl, and have been working 6- and 7-day weeks since.

They finally finished it late last week, but were still "tweaking" it as late as yesterday afternoon.

"Because of what it is, we always think we can make it a little better," Katz said.

Better, but not perfect.

"The perfect schedule would be perfect spacing for every one of the 32 teams," he said. "Alternate home and away weekends. Everyone would have a midseason or late-season bye. You'd have no three-game road trips. You wouldn't play over any stadium block requests. It's impossible.

"But the process has improved so dramatically. I was sitting with the commissioner [Roger Goodell] the other day and going through where we were in the process. He asked me how the computers have helped. I told him that a decade ago, we played schedules that we wouldn't even consider today. Eight years ago, we were still playing schedules that we wouldn't consider today.

"We consider more things now than ever before. We look at teams playing road games coming off their byes. How many times teams have consecutive road games. A few years ago, it wasn't uncommon to see a schedule where 10 teams had three-game road trips. Now, that number is usually less than five."

For years, the schedule was drawn up manually by former league executive Val Pinchbeck. Computers helped the league streamline the process in the 1990s.

"Val started building [the schedule] from the top down," Katz said. "By the time he'd get to Week 6, it was a matter of, 'OK, we just need to finish it.' It's far more sophisticated now than it ever was."

Katz met with the league's network partners just before the Super Bowl. He got NBC's and ESPN's wish lists of prime-time games, then asked CBS, which has the rights to AFC games, and Fox, which has the rights to NFC games, for their lists of the 25 games they most want to keep.

By the end of January, each of the league's 32 teams had to submit their list of stadium availability and special requests.

"Clubs will give us all of the stadium blocks that they either have to have or are requesting," Katz said. "It gets complicated because, while we have only three teams that share stadiums with Major League Baseball [Minnesota, Oakland and Miami], we have nine other clubs that either share parking or municipal services [with baseball teams]. In every one of those instances, baseball gets regular-season priority in the leases."

Last year, the league obliged the Eagles' request to avoid potential scheduling conflicts with the Phillies in late September and October, in case the Phils were in a late-season pennant race and/or made the playoffs.

Katz said the league gets an average of about 100 stadium block requests annually from teams.

"It's not totally baseball-driven," he said. "You've also got other events at stadiums. They play the Big 12 championship game in Dallas and the SEC championship game in Atlanta and the ACC championship game in Jacksonville. So we try to schedule around that.

"Some [stadium blocks] we have to accommodate, like the baseball ones. Others we do our best to accommodate. The way we do that is by putting penalties against things as we build the schedule."

Katz and his team assign penalty values to things they don't want to do, such as making a team play a three-game road trip or having the Eagles play at home on the same weekend that Temple is using the Linc. The penalty values range from 1 to 50 points. The idea is to keep the penalty total as low as possible.

They begin by laying in most of the 42 prime-time games. Then they will pencil in specific games for CBS' and Fox' doubleheader weekend games. They then will put that information, along with all of the stadium-block requests, into the computer.

"The computer will spit back a schedule to us," Katz said. "We'll then manually look at the penalties, look at each team, look at the television [situation] and say either, 'OK, this is one we can work with,' or 'there's no potential here,' and throw it out."

Katz said this year the computer generated about 1.3 million schedules. Of that number, he and his team looked at about 3,500. The 3,500 they looked at were determined by the number of penalty points.

"Of the 3,500 schedules we actually finished, we probably took 50 of them and read them all the way through," Katz said. "What I mean by that is, once we get what we think is a playable schedule, we'll post that and say, 'Here's our leader. This is a schedule we're prepared to play.'

"We won't look at another schedule until we think it's better. This year, we went through probably another 50 finished schedules. So, once we got a finished schedule, we probably improved it roughly 50 times, where we said, 'OK, this one is better.'

"A lot of it is trade-offs. We thought we had a pretty good schedule about a week ago that we loved for television and loved for 30 of the 32 teams. But there were two teams where we said, 'You know what, we need to fix this.'

"So we went back and specifically tried to address the issues with the two teams. In doing that, a lot of other things fall apart, like a doubleheader week for one of the networks."

So, no perfection, but a playable schedule that Katz feels is reasonably fair to the league's 32 teams and its broadcast partners and won't have anyone threatening him with bodily harm.

Which is good, because he's already playing hurt.

"I'm going to have hernia surgery," he said. "I've been postponing it until after I got the schedule done." *

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