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How the NFL has built flexibility into the 2020 schedule

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While we were expecting the league’s schedule to be flexible in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it didn’t play out quite like many had expected.

NFL: JAN 19 AFC Championship - Titans at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Thursday night, the NFL announced its full schedule for the 2020 season. As expected, it opens with Banner Night: a Thursday night Kansas City Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium on September 10 — which has been announced to be a rematch of the Chiefs’ 2019 Divisional round game against the Houston Texans.

The NFL wants you to know that as of right now, it intends to play the 2020 schedule as it was announced on Thursday. But the league has also hedged its bets on the schedule, giving themselves some flexibility if the COVID-19 pandemic continues (or returns) in the fall.

They just didn’t do it quite the way we expected.

Soon after the league announced that it would be releasing the schedule by May 9 — well after the usual release date — NBC Sports columnist Peter King speculated that the league would use the extra time to create schedules that had inter-conference games during the first weeks of the season. If it became necessary, the league would have been able to simply cancel those games with minimal impact to the playoff races.

In recent weeks, there has been reporting that backed up King’s speculation. As recently as Wednesday, longtime NFL reporter John Clayton told a Pittsburgh radio station this was exactly what was going to happen.

But as it turned out, you didn’t have to look any further than the Chiefs schedule — which includes four AFC opponents to open the season, including a division game against the Los Angeles Chargers — to know this isn’t what the league did.

According to an article by ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter published on Friday morning, the league chose to achieve flexibility by a different method — one that does not allow for the outright cancellation of games.

If the league does need scheduling help that science cannot provide for the coronavirus pandemic, and delays to the season’s start eventually become necessary, sources around the league indicated that Super Bowl LV could be pushed back by weeks or even a couple of months, potentially, while not having to make significant matchup changes to the regular-season schedule.

The option of the Super Bowl being moved back provides the NFL with the flexibility it needs, though it is not in the league’s plans today, and it prefers not to have any discussion about it.

Schefter said that if games couldn’t be played in the early part of the season, they would simply be moved back to the end of the season.

Consider this option: Say the start of the season had to be pushed back four weeks — again, not the league’s plan and not what it wants, but a hypothetical — then the NFL simply could push the Super Bowl back four weeks. It then could take regular-season Weeks 1 through 4 and turn them into, essentially, regular-season Weeks 18, 19, 20 and 21.

If the start of the season were pushed back two months, then the first half of the schedule simply could be moved to the back half of the schedule — assuming the Super Bowl could be pushed back for the corresponding period.

Whether that could actually happen is another question. Hosting a Super Bowl is a complicated undertaking for the city where it takes place — one that involves not just the use of its NFL stadium, but also thousands of hotel rooms and other venues that might not be available at a later date.

“We’re totally focused on Feb. 7 with the regular season kicking off as scheduled,” Rob Higgins, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee, said Thursday. “If adjustments needed to take place, we would be prepared to do that. But we haven’t been instructed to do that whatsoever.”

But Schefter said the league also has two other weeks with which it could work — each team’s bye week and the week in which the Pro Bowl is played.

The league already has certain cushions built into the schedule. The Pro Bowl could be dropped, buying an extra week for the NFL. Every team shares the same bye week as its Week 2 opponent, according to team sources who reviewed the 2020 schedule on Thursday. This approach was the formula the league successfully deployed during the lockout season of 2011, giving the league further flexibility on an additional week.

Neither head coaches or the NFLPA would be crazy about removing each team’s bye week from the schedule — but it would remain an option if enough games are postponed such a move would be necessary.

Even so, moving games originally scheduled for an earlier date could be problematic. Since NFL teams all expect to be playing in the postseason, their own facilities tend to be available at least through early January. But in a worst-case scenario — where regular-season games might extend into February — that will be less true. Outdoor stadiums in cold-weather climates (like Kansas City) aren’t likely to have scheduling conflicts. But cities with enclosed stadiums (or warmer spring weather) could have problems to solve. It’s a safe bet that the latter cities are now taking a close look at the commitments they have already made for early 2021 — and will make new ones very carefully.

So why did so many media members get it wrong?

It might be that they didn’t get it wrong at all.

The NFL creates its schedule with a computer program that starts with all the criteria that must be met — each team’s home and away opponents that we have known since January, local scheduling conflicts that must be considered, keeping travel from being too burdensome for coastal teams and so on — and creates a set of schedules that satisfy those criteria. Then the league — likely considering the input of its broadcast partners — evaluates those schedules, looking for the best set of primetime television matchups.

It’s likely that the league did, in fact, use the extra time to create a set of schedules that front-loaded inter-conference games that could be cancelled if necessary — but simply chose to reject them.

It’s important to remember that from the league’s perspective, the outright cancellation of games is the worst possible outcome. While playing games without fans in the stadiums — or in a different time of year — would hurt the league’s revenues, losing TV money from the cancellation of games would be catastrophic.

In addition, inter-conference games do not tend to be the kind of matchups television networks want; they don’t have built-in rivalries or playoff implications that tend to increase viewership. If the league had opened the season with those kinds of games, they wouldn’t have had good TV matchups for its premier telecasts for a quarter of the season — and many other good matchups in later weeks would have been played as regional games.

So here we are. The NFL is gambling that come September, it will be able to run a full, normal schedule of games — and even if it can’t start right away, it will somehow eventually be able to work all of them in.

We’ll see how it plays out.