NEW YORK – It’s their Super Bowl.
The five-person team building the NFL schedule will unveil its latest masterpiece this week, with news spreading in the coming days leading up to Thursday’s release.
If everything goes as planned, everyone will be unhappy.
“Every schedule has its warts,” said Michael North, who has been preparing them for 25 years. “Our job is to figure out which ones are really expensive and unplayable, and which ones are, ‘Well, that’s not ideal, but look at all the goodness that comes with it.’
“If one of them jumps off the page because this guy is too happy or too disappointed, that’s probably not our best schedule. It’s about making everyone equally disappointed.
Naturally, everyone involved wants to feel good about the final product, and this collection of fine minds — led by Howard Katz, senior vice president of broadcast — spends months analyzing, debating and reworking a 272-game Rubik’s Cube. aimed at maximizing audience and fans. interest while trying to maintain fairness for the teams.
“One of the things that people don’t realize is how sophisticated our planning process is,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told The Times. “We consider more variables, more factors than we ever could. Part of it is technology, and part of it is our ability to learn and improve every year. That’s why the calendar is so much better.
The process of finding the closest-to-perfect schedule — like locating a particular grain of sand on the beach — requires co-opting up to 4,000 computers around the world to solve the problem around the clock.
Billions of schedule combinations are analyzed to find those that conform to over 25,000 “rules”, such as this stadium is not available on this date, or no team can have two three-game trips.
This year, Prime Video becomes the exclusive home of “Thursday Night Football”, the latest in a group of streaming partners packed for the best matchups.
“The puzzle gets more complex every year,” Katz said. “We have more and more computing power running, and then we get into the process.”
Another difference this year is that for the first time, the season kicks off with a Thursday night game in Los Angeles, thanks to the Rams’ Super Bowl victory.
Previously, week 1 would have been determined weeks ago. But now, because computers can spit out competing schedules that look completely different, the game for the September 8 opener isn’t locked in until the process is complete.
In the middle of last week, the group said, the visiting team for the opener was still on the move.
“Now we can teach the computer that Dallas is a good option, Denver is a good option, Buffalo, any of the NFC West opponents,” North said. “Choose whichever one you want and go that route, and let’s see what the outcome and the timeline look like.”
The NFL is fiercely protective with its roster information, so trying to decipher the plan from the outside is mostly a process of elimination. It would seem that the most logical opening opponent for the Rams would be Buffalo or Denver.
Dallas played last season’s opener at Tampa Bay and faced the Rams in Game 1 at SoFi Stadium and Game 1 of the preseason in Los Angeles. The Cowboys got a round.
San Francisco would be an intriguing choice, but with the way 49ers fans flooded SoFi last year, all that red could be bad optics for the defending Super Bowl champions at home.
The process makes the old system so antiquated and quaint, back when NFL leader Val Pinchbeck unscientifically assembled the calendar by hand on a giant pegboard, working back and forth and d back forward, then stuffing a bunch of games in the middle.
The room where decades of later schedules were built is now named after Pinchbeck, who died in 2004. This room is now also a relic, with everyone migrating to video calls during the pandemic and staying with them a times that they have proven to be more effective.
The Val Pinchbeck Room is small – perhaps 10 by 15 feet – on the fifth floor of the league headquarters on Park Avenue. It’s one of the few offices with frosted glass, and few people have a key card to access it. For years it was constantly supplied with candy and Mountain Dew and felt like too many people working too hard for too long.
At one end, Pinchbeck’s artifact of a pegboard. On the other, a whiteboard filled with a convoluted diagram that looks like something out of “Homeland,” but is meant to explain some aspect of the networks and early Sunday games. In the middle is a small table that faces a wall of televisions, and the “clubhouse leader,” the best program of the year so far, is taped to the solitary glass wall.
“We started putting the leader in the clubhouse so if Roger came down and banged on the glass, he’d have something to do with it,” Katz said. “There is a lot of anxiety until we have a playable schedule.”
The first of them arrived only on April 17 this year, when the game ended. All this technology allows the Katz crew to be more and more demanding, a blessing and a curse. The team consists of Katz, North, Senior Broadcast Manager Charlotte Carey, Broadcast Manager Blake Jones and Broadcast Manager Nick Cooney. Onnie Bose, vice president of broadcast operations, and Hans Schroeder, executive vice president of NFL Media, are also heavily involved. Nobody comes out. It’s all hours, all the time.
“My wife gets mad at me,” Jones said. “It’s usually me sitting in the corner staring into space. People just think I’m completely out of it and there’s no fun to be around. We just think about all these things, trying to figure it all out.
As with those computers, the group works around the clock. North goes through the readings after midnight and into the wee hours of the morning, then turns those tasks over to Carey.
“As a mother of a 2-year-old, I like to think of it as babysitting,” she said. “Mike takes the night shift, and he watches the computers until 3 or 4 in the morning and doesn’t sleep. I get up around 5 a.m. and take it from there.
“It’s a bit like Groundhog Day. We walk in, we all meet, look at the schedules. Howard says, “I like it. I do not like it. Let’s change these rules. We write new rules and software. We say, ‘Go!’ and the software is running.
There is still a pandemic effect too. All music tours return after a two-year hiatus, meaning stadiums are not always available.
“So every time a team sends us a request and says, ‘Hey can you get us on the road in week 2, we’ve got Elton John or Lady Gaga’, you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, sure’ “, said North. . “A week for them shouldn’t be a problem for the league office, should it? Just block it.
“But then the team says, ‘Don’t mess up our schedule as a result. We still want to open at home. Just put us on the road in week 2 and we’ll come home in week 3.’ But if 16 clubs have similar demands, it becomes a pretty big constraint for a pretty difficult puzzle that only gets more complicated.
Player movement also matters. That’s why the schedule is only announced after the draft, because a new influx of players can make the matches much more interesting. Denver got more intriguing with the addition of Russell Wilson. Ditto for Miami with Tyreek Hill and Indianapolis with Matt Ryan.
“When Tom Brady retired, we were concerned about the strength of the NFC package because there were so many great games in Tampa Bay that we were looking forward to,” Katz said.
“Then a month later he called off his retirement and we kind of started all over again.”
Next year, the life of schedulers will become more complex. As it stands, NFC games are owned by Fox and AFC games are owned by CBS. That changes in 2023 when all games essentially become free agents.
Just because an NFC team is on the road, for example, doesn’t guarantee that a game will belong to Fox. Each match will be a jump between networks.
At the end of the season, when it’s all over, the NFL will have to make sure it hits certain minimums for all of its partners, so there will be a certain number of times each AFC team will have to land on CBS. But the notion of “Hey, it’s Miami in Baltimore.” Must be a CBS game,” will be done.
This will never change: complaints.
“Everyone hates their schedule,” North said. “It’s the only thing you can count on. Sometimes it’s emotional. Sometimes it’s legit and based on historical data and winning percentages that we should go back and review. And we’re like, “That’s probably something we shouldn’t do again.
“Every year we learn. We listen to our constituents. And even though you’re not supposed to read comments on the internet, we listen to our fans. We’re trying to figure out which of these team inequalities are really onerous and which are just a bad break.
Either way, the teams will have something to say.
“They’re not shy,” North said. “And they have very long memories.”
©2022 Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.