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Improving the NFL: Schedule Structure

Passing through the NFL Dead Zone by offering improvements to the scheduling process

NFL: Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

We’re currently battling the NFL Dead Zone, otherwise known as the period between mid-June and mid-July. I figured I’d #DoMyPart with a filler piece about a change to the NFL that I think would improve the quality of the product. We’ve had posts related to this in the recent past - mostly concerning rule changes - but I’m expanding it to another area I feel needs improvement: the scheduling process. Specifically, I’ll be looking at the schedule formula, which determines what clubs each team plays every season.

The Proposal

I am sure you are all aware of how the schedule is built each offseason, as BLG discusses this every year, but for the sake of being thorough I’ll run through it quickly here. The NFL currently uses the following formula to create the 16-game schedule:

  • 6 divisional games [6]
  • 1 entire intra-conference division [10]
  • 1 entire out-of-conference division [14]
  • 2 at-large conference games [16]

The 2 at-large conference games are determined by the place a given team finished in their division from the previous season, lined up against the 2 divisions not covered in the divisional or intra-conference division games. For example, the Eagles won the NFC East in 2017 and played the entire NFC South in 2018, so for their 2 at-large 2018 conference games they played the 2017 winners of the NFC North (Minnesota) and the NFC West (Los Angeles), going 1-1 in those games.

These 2 games are the only difference between a “first-place schedule” and a “fourth-place” schedule, which makes it kind of silly to even talk about the schedule in these terms considering how much turnover there is in division placing every season. It’s also an embarrassing and half-baked attempt by the league to manufacture parity and make sure good teams have competitive schedules.

Meanwhile, playing an entire division from the other conference has its own problems. For starters, there is a lot of untapped potential in rivalries between out-of-conference teams that have never flourished because they only play each other once every four years (such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, a heated intra-state rivalry that has been pre-built by the NHL). Additionally, this scheduling formula can sometimes result in a brutal travel itinerary in a sport that is already hard on players’ bodies by nature. This happened to the Eagles in 2017 as an East coast team that had to play both West divisions, and therefore had 4 road games on the other side of the country. This admittedly does not happen often (once every 12 years), but it really shouldn’t happen at all.

Given these problems - lack of a “true” disparity in scheduling and unimaginative scheduling of out-of-conference games - you might be catching on to what I’m proposing: extend the formula used to schedule the at-large games to the other conference. By applying this method, the number of games in the schedule intended to level the playing field increases threefold and scheduling quirks for travel are largely eliminated.

As an example, here are the teams the Eagles are set to play in 2019 under the current scheduling process:

And here’s what it would look like under the proposed scheduling process

  • 6 divisional games [Cowboys x2, Giants x2, Redskins x2]
  • NFC North [Packers, Bears, Vikings, Lions]
  • 2018 2nd-place-finishers in the AFC [Dolphins, Steelers, Chargers, Colts]
  • 2018 2nd-place finishers in the NFC [Atlanta, Seattle]

As you can see, this formula allows out-of-conference teams to play each other more often (the Eagles just played the Colts last year, and the Chargers in 2017). It also creates a more “competitive” schedule, as most of the AFC East is middling at best while the Chargers and Colts won a combined 22 games last season. I say “competitive” because this method of determining at-large games is both meaningless and kind-of-not meaningless at the same time, which is what I will discuss in the next section.

The NFL Already Has Parity (But It Also Doesn’t)

So even though the previous season’s record is not really indicative of future success, it would probably be impossible to divorce this method from the concept of trying to foster parity through competitive scheduling. One could make the argument that the NFL already has parity due to the high turnover in year-to-year division winners and playoff teams, and that person would be correct. Since 1990, an average of at least a third of the playoff field is new every year, and of the 136 division champions that have been crowned since the NFL realignment (and current playoff format) was implemented in 2002, only 54 of those (about 40%) won their division the previous year. [Author’s note: I compiled the following statistics in this section myself, but did not present the charts to keep the post length down - they can be provided on request, just hit me up on Twitter.]

But that doesn’t paint the whole picture. Of those 54 repeat champions, 32 of them (about 59%) were quarterbacked by what most people generally to consider to be the six 2000s “generational” quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady alone is responsible for 13 of those repeats, or 24%!

If we expand that to the “second tier” of 2000s quarterbacks (an aging Brett Favre, Donovan McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck, an emerging Andrew Luck, a resurgent Alex Smith, and an emerging Russell Wilson), the share of repeats jumps to 45 (83%). And that doesn’t even include the 2012 49ers, where Smith began as the starter but finished the season on the bench.

In other words, while the NFL only has a repeat champion about 40% of the time, 59% of the repeats came at the hands of 6 quarterbacks, and 83% of the repeats came at the hands of 12. That last number - 12 - might seem like a lot, but if you consider that the perpetually awful Browns started 29 quarterbacks between 1999-2017, it really isn’t. (Hell, the Eagles have started 7 since McNabb left.) So while the turnover rate in the playoffs is high, it’s because the rest of the league is fighting to secure the other spots not already taken by the mainstays.

That Dynamic Makes This Schedule Structure A Win-Win

Given all of this, the new scheduling process would have 2 very likely outcomes, and both of them are awesome. These outcomes assume that the quarterbacks I have listed above are still just as talented in an alternate universe with my scheduling structure, so their teams are still competitive, increasing the odds that they will play each other in a given year (because of their division placing from the previous season).

Outcome #1: Higher Division Champion Turnover

The first outcome of this is the heightened competition could cause those teams to all beat each other, reducing their collective number of wins and giving someone else in their divisions a shot at unseating them every year. With this outcome we’d see a more balanced turnover in division champions. Just imagine if, every third year or so, the Jets won the AFC East instead of the Patriots? Or maybe the Dolphins? Or Bills (lol)?

Without going down the rabbit hole too much, one direct downstream impact of the first outcome is in the draft. As repeat champions, these teams were punching a ticket for a draft position of 21 or lower in the first round. But with the higher turnover, they’d get more picks in the teens - or maybe even higher. Teams with already competitive rosters would have access to talent that was too far out of reach in our timeline, and trades into the top five wouldn’t cost nearly as much draft capital (such as the Falcons’ blockbuster trade for Julio Jones). Would this be a good or bad thing? It’s hard to tell since the draft can largely be a crapshoot anyway. Maybe nothing would change, or maybe these teams would re-bolster their competitive edge over the league, which segues nicely into our second possible outcome.

Outcome #2: Hall-of-Fame Quarterback Matchup Bonanza

In the second outcome, since the previous year’s record doesn’t mean much, perhaps these same quarterbacks continue to keep winning their divisions anyway (or coming close). That means we would see a lot more of Brady vs. Rodgers, Brees vs. Rivers, Manning vs. Rodgers, Brees vs. Manning, Roethlisberger vs. Brees, Rodgers vs. Roethlisberger... you get the idea. This would be must-watch football, consistently, every year, throughout the season. Who wouldn’t sign up for that? Am I the only one who thinks it’s a tragedy that Tom Brady has only played Aaron Rodgers twice in his career? Or Peyton Manning once, when he was a husk of himself in 2015? Does anyone else feel we have been robbed of what could have been instant classics simply because these quarterbacks played in the wrong conference?

Closing Thoughts

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to improve the NFL. This is one of those ways, in my opinion. The altered schedule structure would leave us with two desirable outcomes: increased parity at the top of the league, or an increase in the number of phenomenal football games pitting generational quarterbacks against each other. (Or, I suppose, a middle ground between these two.) Objectively, either of these outcomes would make every NFL season more interesting, and improve the NFL as an entertainment product.

Do you agree? Vote in the poll below, and sound off in the comments with your own suggestions on how to improve the NFL! If I see one I like, I may discuss it in a follow-up post if I can find the time (the news cycle might be dead, but my summer sure isn’t).


Would this scheduling process improve the NFL?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Yes (w/Outcome #1)
    (23 votes)
  • 16%
    Yes (w/Outcome #2)
    (78 votes)
  • 39%
    Yes (w/either outcome)
    (192 votes)
  • 39%
    Hell no
    (188 votes)
481 votes total Vote Now

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