Reimagined NFL schedule: 7 ways league can optimize lineup of games – and its bottom line

Reimagined NFL schedule: 7 ways league can optimize lineup of games – and its bottom line

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The NFL’s 2024 schedule will finally be released in its totality Wednesday night. It’s an amazingly and intricately designed compromise, one that literally requires multiple millions of hours of super-computing (and some human) input, aimed at satisfying as many parties with disparate priorities as possible – owners, networks, fans, et al. – despite the fact that every team’s 2024 opponents were locked in at the conclusion of the 2023 regular season. And the variables for an ever-evolving process only continue to increase – from an expanding list of broadcast partners to more international obligations, to added emphasis on holiday windows like Christmas (even mid-week, like this year) and Black Friday … and, in all likelihood, the eventual addition of an 18th regular-season game.

There’s little question the schedule will continue to transform as a league that was once essentially contained to four months of relevance at the start of the Super Bowl era in 1966 continues to creep toward something closer to year-long prominence given the ever-growing spotlight on the annual scouting combine, free agency, draft – even the reveal of the schedule itself – continues to brighten while keeping interest in the NFL dialed high even when the actual games are months away.

But it’s those games that remain the league’s most precious inventory, their relative scarcity and ability to impact a given club’s fortunes making them far more valuable than those in sports that can have nearly 100 contests or more per team, including playoffs that typically aren’t of the one-and-done variety. Including postseason, the 2023 NFL schedule had 285 games total – roughly the same amount played over a three-week stretch for Major League Baseball or six weeks in the NBA or NHL.

The question for the NFL moving forward will be finding ways to maximize that commodity without compromising its most valuable asset – the players, whose health and financial interests will need to be served and carefully considered given their bodies can only handle so much extra load.

So here’s a pitch for a reimagined NFL season, one that adds more stakes, more equally distributed game commitments, yet also more rest while lengthening the season’s calendar by only a week – that objective one the NFL has in its crosshairs anyway.

My seven-step plan:

1. Shorten preseason

Let’s start this alternate framework by – gasp – giving time and additional rest back to players. Extraneous as the Hall of Fame Game, which kicks off the preseason, has become – let’s cancel it and keep Canton’s focus on the HOF inductees and off a venue that’s struggled (weather, field conditions) to even support a largely ceremonial contest in recent years. Let’s also cut each team’s preseason schedule from three games to two – one home, one away – an outcome even league Commissioner Roger Goodell advocates for given the generally substandard quality of exhibition football. Let’s also mandate that August is when players report to training camp (instead of July), essentially giving them two weeks to prepare for the first preseason game – plenty sufficient given the way most train year-round, and with a proof of concept already provided during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2. Add an in-season ‘NFL Cup’

Is it kinda cheesy and maybe a touch too soccer-y? Yeah, probably. But it also seems to be where things are headed – see: professional basketball and even NASCAR – so let’s do it better. (And one note here: In this model, the regular season will remain at 17 games per team, not the 18 Goodell suggested might make sense during an NFL draft interview on “The Pat McAfee Show.”)

While an “NFL Cup” scheduling mechanism could start in Week 1, let’s push it to Week 2 and allow openers the flexibility of a strong Thursday night matchup for the defending champions as well as the wherewithal to stage unique contests like this year’s Friday meeting between the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers … in Brazil.

But from Weeks 2 through 8, teams will enter into a round robin that includes one game against each of their divisional foes and all four against their scheduled intraconference division. (To illustrate the example here, let’s follow the Eagles, who would play a round of NFC East games and all four of their NFC South dates.)

Entering Week 9, the flexible scheduling architecture the league increasingly uses would be implemented. Let’s say Philadelphia wins its pod (the best record through eight weeks among NFC East and South teams with standard tiebreakers applied as needed), then the Eagles would take on the winner of the NFC North/West pod with a corresponding matchup occurring in the AFC. Though it could be scheduled around from the beginning, if Philadelphia had to face Green Bay again in Week 9, then those teams’ other one-off intraconference matchups of the season – the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints, respectively – would play each other in Week 9 instead. If the Eagles faced any NFC team but Green Bay, then the Rams would face either that club’s corresponding one-off NFC East or South opponent. (Elsewhere in the league, teams would be playing one of their slotted intraconference one-off games, e.g. the Kansas City Chiefs would face either the Houston Texans or Buffalo Bills as part of their first-place schedule.)

Finally in Week 10, and let’s say the Eagles prevail again, they’d face the AFC winner – how about the New York Jets? – for the NFL Cup. The game could be hyped as much or as little as the league fancies – play it in London, put the other 30 teams on bye, some combination thereof, or just make it the Week 10 Sunday night matchup while the other teams all play their interconference one-offs (the Eagles’ and Jets’ originally scheduled opponents, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, would be reassigned to each other, for example).

As for the winner of the first-half tourney? Make it worthwhile for the NFL Cup “champion,” which would essentially be the top club at the season’s midpoint. Guarantee a playoff spot no matter how the rest of the squad’s campaign unfolds. Heck, guarantee at least a No. 4 seed – meaning a home postseason game – even if that means the weakest division champion winds up as the fifth-seeded opponent and has to travel.

3. Add a second bye week for every team

If you’re going to ultimately ask more of players, then take care of them. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow recently said, “two byes are pretty critical” given Goodell’s latest signal to an 18-game regular season. Burrow even suggested something akin to an NBA All-Star break for the entire league in addition to the normally distributed byes.

In this arrangement, we’d recommend a lightly scheduled Week 10 amid the NFL Cup final – maybe keep the prime-time windows – as the way to go while assuring every team gets a bye in Week 10 or 11, which would also provide the league flexibility to make schedule adjustments necessitated by the NFL Cup.

4. Stage NFL games to broader audiences

I’d emphasize the NFL Cup as the priority at the expense of other considerations – especially if it’s viable to play such a, ahem, marquee event in a venue like Wembley Stadium, which probably won’t ever host a Super Bowl, at least not in the near term … while recognizing that creates an issue for teams making an unscheduled trans-Atlantic trip. (But what place better than Great Britain to fete an in-season trophy that conveys something less than the primary championship?)

But a 17-game regular season does offer an opportunity to have every team play at a neutral site, whether it’s in Europe, Canada, Mexico, South America … or even St. Louis, San Antonio, Portland or other underserved American markets. To the extent it can be executed, that would also mean an equitable eight home and away games for every team at a time when most are getting one more or fewer home game amid the present setup.

This also seems to – largely – align with another of the NFL’s long-term objectives.

“I see us playing at least sixteen games in the international market, but that might be 10 years out,” Goodell told McAfee. “I think maybe a franchise at some point, but that’s beyond 10 years.”

5. Expand the playoffs

Following the NFL Cup, the regular season would continue for nine more weeks – each team getting its second bye over that stretch, which would include the customary build toward postseason qualification and slotting. However, the field would expand from its current 14 teams to 16, eight division winners and eight wild cards – which would eliminate first-round byes. Still, each team would have had two idle weeks over the final two months, while those that manage to lock up No. 1 seeds – or berths generally – would have the option to rest key players in Week 19, now the regular-season finale.

6. Institute a ‘Draft Bowl’

Here’s where the league, which lacks an interesting dynamic like European soccer’s relegation model, can add game inventory with a twist … even if it disrupts precious competitive balance to some degree.

While the standard postseason is seeded, the 16 non-playoff qualifiers would continue playing for draft position in a concurrent “Draft Bowl” tournament. No more getting rewarded with the No. 1 pick for being a terrible squad with your odds further bolstered in the tiebreaker department if you faced worse teams in, for example, a 3-14 campaign than another 3-14 squad. Yet let’s continue to eschew a lottery system as a means to discourage tanking – not that losing on purpose really helps you in the NFL anyway.

Still, we will provide assists to the league’s dregs.

The Draft Bowl, which would ignore conference affiliations – and it could be largely slotted in January’s relatively less valuable early Saturday and Sunday broadcast slots – would be seeded in reverse, the worst team getting home-field advantage in its bid to secure the No. 1 pick yet forced to face the best (No. 16 seed) of the non-postseason clubs in the first round of what would be a pure bracket. The teams losing their Draft Bowl openers would then select in the ninth through 16th spots of Round 1, the team with the worst record at No. 9 and so forth. The eight teams that win in Week 20 assure themselves a top-eight pick as the Draft Bowl progresses with winners continuing to advance closer to the top spot.

(One note: Applying the results only to the first round of the draft was a consideration, but then teams that had already traded their upcoming Round 1 pick would have zero incentive to win.)

The Draft Bowl itself, with the No. 1 pick at stake, could be played in the city set to host the upcoming draft – Green Bay next year – and that might invite the pros and cons of adverse weather. It would be played on the Sunday between the conference championship games and Super Bowl, effectively replacing … whatever the Pro Bowl has devolved into.

This approach not only adds games to the schedule, it incentivizes non-postseason teams and players to remain engaged while also giving their fans a different sense of anticipation and hope even while knowing the Lombardi Trophy is out of reach.

7. Hold Super Bowl on Presidents’ Day weekend

Goodell acknowledged his desire to eventually park the NFL’s showcase event on February’s holiday weekend – officially giving football fans what they want (and often take on the company dime) anyway, 24 hours to recover from Super Sunday.

The combine and/or free agency could all be delayed by one week without impacting the draft’s traditional home on April’s final weekend.

Takeaways

To summarize the benefits here:

▶ Fewer preseason games, a win for players.

▶ An in-season tournament that’s actually consequential and merely requires a bit more of the flexible scheduling that’s been steadily creeping into the calendar anyway as the league seeks ways to add exclusive broadcast windows – thus maximizing a limited amount of games, a win for the NFL and fans.

▶ A regular season lengthened from 18 weeks to 19 without adding games, a win for players.

▶ A postseason window that presently provides 13 games expanding to 30 while ensuring all 32 teams have something at stake entering Week 20. That’s a 6% increase of meaningful games that fairly distributes the load to the entire league, a win for everyone … the worst teams notwithstanding.

▶ A holistic football package that begins after Labor Day and ends on Presidents’ Day – win, win, win.

At a time when the popularity of the NFL only continues growing, seems like a fairly proportionate path to optimize a given season while simultaneously maintaining focus on player safety, revenue growth and fan engagement.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on X, formerly Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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