What the 2024 NFL Schedule Should Look Like

The 2024 NFL schedule is slated to be released tonight at 8 PM ET – not ideal as it falls in the middle of network upfront week, as opposed to past years when it was released before upfronts so networks could promote the games on their schedule, with the most likely culprit for the delay being ongoing negotiations with Netflix and Amazon for the slate of Christmas Day games that were unexpectedly added.

Last year, I published a list of the games that should have been given featured windows on the 2023 schedule but weren’t. As the year went along, however, I became increasingly convinced that the protections given to CBS and Fox in the new TV contracts had the effect of severely constricting the league’s schedule flexibility. If CBS and Fox no longer needed to protect divisional matchups if the other half had already been scheduled for another network, or if they no longer needed to protect games involving the biggest brands – the Cowboys and Chiefs – at all if they had the minimum eight games involving them, it suddenly became a lot more difficult to flex any games at all. The idea of “playing your way into primetime” had long been a joke, but now it had been rendered an outright lie. To the extent they ever wanted to, the league can no longer rely on flexible scheduling to deliver the best matchups to the biggest audiences. This became most apparent in Week 17, when a Dolphins-Ravens game to determine the #1 seed in the AFC was stuck in the early doubleheader window while CBS’ late window remained focused on a game between the Bengals, whose playoff chances without Joe Burrow were hanging by a thread, and the Chiefs, virtually locked into the 3 seed at that point, and while the Sunday night game involved two teams in the Packers and Vikings that, at the time, were on the outside looking in on the playoff picture. As it happened, I’d identified Dolphins-Ravens as one of the games that should have been given a featured window but wasn’t, and even suggested that if things played out exactly as expected, it would be a potential candidate to be flexed in for Packers-Vikings.

In short, the increased difficulty of flex scheduling means that the schedule that’s announced in May should set the league up for success as much as possible. At least down the stretch of the season, if the three main featured windows (the late doubleheader, Sunday night, and Monday night) don’t contain the three best games of the week, any game that is among the three best but is buried as an undercard should not be set up to be protected. In other words, they can’t be the most desirable game on the singleheader network, and if they’re on the doubleheader network then the main late game can’t be a divisional game where the other matchup is on another network, or a game involving the Cowboys or Chiefs – and such situations should generally be avoided during the main flex period in general, or at least avoiding having games with teams with significantly worse expected records hogging spots while games between teams expected to be .500 or above can’t or won’t be flexed in. Creating a situation where the league would want to pull a flex if teams perform exactly as expected is already something of a failure of schedule construction, as flexible scheduling should only come in if teams don’t perform as expected; creating a situation where the league would want to pull a flex but can’t should be completely unacceptable.

Given these constraints, it’s not enough for me to point to certain games and say they should have been given more prominent spots; I should be able to put together a schedule that maximizes distribution of the best games and teams and minimizes the likelihood of flexes being desirable but impossible, while still allowing for some diversity of teams featured, giving networks shots at the most desirable teams, and generally putting something together that looks like what the league might actually put together. That’s what I intend to do in this post: put together the sort of schedule that the league should be constructing. Details on how I put this together, as well as the schedule itself, after the jump. 

Read moreWhat the 2024 NFL Schedule Should Look Like

What to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 3

The week before the NFL Draft, John Ourand reported in his newsletter for Puck that ESPN’s contract to air the draft only runs through next year. Ourand noted that ESPN is expected to renew, and the implication I’ve gotten (not having read more than Awful Announcing’s write-up) was that he was merely noting that the NFL and ESPN were getting together to work on such a renewal, but I think most people could be forgiven for assuming from the mention of the draft when ESPN announced its most recent comprehensive agreement with the league in 2021 that ESPN had secured rights to the draft for the duration of the deal, and I’m inclined to think that Ourand would not have reported on this if some party didn’t want to influence the negotiations somehow, implying that a renewal might not be a formality, nor do I think the NFL would have awarded ESPN rights to the draft only through 2025 if they didn’t intend on seriously considering shaking up the status quo of the draft.

Prior to signing its most recent deals with its media partners, there was discussion of the notion that the league wanted the draft to be covered like the presidential election, with coverage on every network. Towards that end, the league had Fox, then preparing to start its first season airing Thursday Night Football, simulcast NFL Network’s coverage of the first two days of the 2018 Draft, with ESPN then agreeing to simulcast the third day’s coverage on ABC; from 2019 onwards, ABC has aired a separate production of the first two nights before simulcasting ESPN’s coverage on Day 3. Fox failing to even win the night against entertainment programming on the other broadcast networks seemed to make the notion of “presidential-election-style” coverage seem laughable, especially for CBS, but that might not be the only way to shake up draft coverage.

One approach could be to rotate exclusive, or at least primary, draft coverage across the broadcast networks; ABC/ESPN airing the 2025 draft would fit with rotating the draft on a two-year offset from the Super Bowl rotation, so each network gets either the draft or the Super Bowl every other year. The downside to this, though, is that the experts at ESPN and NFL Network have incentive to cover and assess every year’s slate of prospects to prepare for each year’s draft broadcast; having experts brought in to cover the draft only once every four years skews the incentives and could skew the coverage. On the other hand, having only a single network air the draft means you don’t have to synchronize commercial breaks across two networks and each prospect to take the stage only needs to be interviewed once, meaning you can reduce the lag between a pick coming in and being announced, reducing the opportunity and incentive for pick-tipping. (Also, rumors of the NFL taking a stake in ESPN, and ESPN taking over management of NFL Network, could reduce NFLN’s incentive to offer its own draft coverage, making consolidation on a single network easier.) Shaking up the draft could also be as simple as allowing Amazon to add their own coverage to the proceedings.

Besides that, circumstances in the television industry have changed substantially since 2018, with ratings for non-live primetime programming continuing to decline, accelerated by the change in viewing habits during the pandemic, and with The Big Bang Theory ending and Young Sheldon preparing to do the same, depriving CBS of its most popular Thursday programming. As it increasingly becomes the case that anything on a linear network that’s not a live event is just filler between live events, perhaps the notion of “presidential-election-style” coverage becomes more viable again – or at least, it’s worth the league talking to its partners on whether they want to cover the draft and how. My impression after 2018 and 2019 was that there wasn’t any reason for the league to move away from the status quo in place since then, but has presidential-election-style coverage become more viable, and if the league did decide to offer one network exclusive draft rights, how interested might each network, especially CBS, be? 

Read moreWhat to Make of the NFL’s Experiment with Putting the Draft on Broadcast, Part 3

Cantonmetrics: 2024 Inductions and Offseason Snapshot

Senior/Coach/Contributor Semifinalists

Congratulations to Julius Peppers, Andre Johnson, Dwight Freeney, Devin Hester, Patrick Willis, Randy Gradishar, and Steve McMichael on their induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Now it’s time to look at how this year’s selection process affects who the players most likely to get in next year are, and with the 2023 season fully at a close, what active and recently-retired players have most built their resumes for eventual induction into Canton. 

Read moreCantonmetrics: 2024 Inductions and Offseason Snapshot

NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 16

Note: This post does not incorporate the result of the Thursday or Saturday night games.

Perhaps predictably, over the past week social media has erupted with people moaning about why Dolphins-Ravens, the game likely to determine the #1 seed in the AFC, is trapped in the early singleheader, why it wasn’t moved to 4:25 or Sunday night. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened in recent years, and CBS sure is trying its best to show it to as much of the country as possible, but it is notable that even leaving aside the jockeying between networks and the increased protections CBS and Fox get in the new contracts, this game could have easily been moved to the late afternoon and stayed on CBS. Instead, before any of last week’s games were even played CBS opted to stick with the Burrow-less disappointing Bengals against the Chiefs. Lo and behold, once the week’s results played out the Bengals’ win streak with Jake Browning at quarterback had come to an abrupt halt, leaving the Bengals hanging on to the possibility of a playoff spot by a thread, and the Chiefs had stumbled to the Raiders, keeping the silver and black’s own threadbare playoff hopes alive and nearly locking the Chiefs into the 3 seed, especially when coupled with Dolphins and Ravens wins against two of the best teams in the NFC.

It’s a reminder that as much as the NFL has a nationalized fanbase, the people who want to watch the best, most important games between the best teams, at least in the regular season, are still a distinct minority compared to those that just want to watch the teams they’re fans of or the most attractive, biggest-name teams. A Chiefs game this year always carries the possibility of a Taylor Swift bump, but even without the Swift factor the Chiefs are one of the three most attractive teams in the league right now, by far the most attractive in the AFC, the most dominant team in the league in recent years with some of its biggest stars. They’re not the Cowboys – if the Chiefs-Patriots game that got flexed out earlier this year for Eagles-Seahawks had been Cowboys-Patriots I think it keeps its spot – but they are one of those teams that can pop a rating by their mere presence. On the flip side, let’s not forget that the Dolphins produced one of the worst December Sunday Night Football ratings ever when they were flexed in down the stretch of last season – contributing to the league’s decision to plug Lions-Packers into Sunday night of Week 18 instead of a game that wouldn’t become meaningless for one team by the time it kicked off. Couple that with the Bengals and Chiefs still being very much in the playoff hunt, and that’s why my prediction last week was that if Dolphins-Ravens was going to be moved to a later time at all, it would be into Sunday night, not the late afternoon window.

That being said, while the games scheduled for featured windows before the season are determined as much by popularity as by how they’re expected to perform, the flexible scheduling regime is still governed by how good the teams are. The game originally scheduled for a primetime window will keep its spot unless there’s a compelling reason to move out of it, but if it is flexed out the game that replaces it will generally be determined by what game has the best pair of records, and there have been times when a passable game scheduled for Sunday night has nonetheless been flexed out in favor of a game that seemed to be too good to be as weakly distributed as it otherwise would have been. Mike North has repeatedly stated in recent seasons that the league wants to give every playoff team exposure in national windows before the playoffs so that audiences have some familiarity with the team before the playoffs hit – obscure, unpopular, yet good teams aren’t going to become more popular if they continue to languish in obscurity. So the NFL does try to put the best games in the best windows.

Well, Dolphins-Ravens ranked #4 on my list of Games That Should Be Nationally Televised But Aren’t that I wrote before the season, where I even raised the prospect of it being flexed in for Packers-Vikings. In my tier structure based on preseason win totals at sportsbooks I introduced a few weeks ago, it was a Tier 2 game, meaning if the best games of the year were distributed evenly, it would be the second-best game of its week. Given the poor ratings for the Dolphins on SNF last year and the perception that the AFC North was still the Bengals’ to lose, I can’t completely fault the league for not putting the game in a featured window to begin with, but I can fault the league for scheduling it this late in the season but punting it to the early doubleheader while giving the Sunday night timeslot to a game involving a Packers team expected to finish below .500, New Year’s Eve or no. The league had to be aware that if things played out exactly as expected, CBS would have two games between big-time playoff contenders with win totals no lower than 9.5 while SNF would have a game involving a team on the fringes of the playoff picture at best, yet because CBS was scheduled for only eight Chiefs appearances the league wouldn’t be able to flex either one in. To be sure, the league and CBS couldn’t have figured that, while CBS would have the game between the AFC’s two best teams, it wouldn’t be the one they thought it’d be. Still, I feel like while the league and its TV partners can mess around with games involving popular teams for the first three months of the season, once December hits they need to stop messing around. If the flexible windows don’t contain what are expected to be the best games of their respective weeks, not counting games in featured inflexible windows, then the games that are the best need to be in a position where they can be flexed in, period. At the very least, if they’re serious about “playing your way into primetime” they need to minimize the risk of something like this happening.

How NFL flexible scheduling works: (see also the NFL’s own page on flex schedule procedures)

  • Up to two games in Weeks 5-10 (the “early flex” period), and any number of games from Week 11 onward, may be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Any number of games from Week 12 onward may be flexed into Monday Night Football, and up to two games from Week 13 onward may be flexed into Thursday Night Football. In addition, in select weeks in December a number of games may be listed as “TBD”, with two or three of those games being assigned to be played on Saturday. Note that I only cover early flexes if a star player on one of the teams is injured.
  • Only games scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or set aside for a potential move to Saturday, may be flexed into one of the flex-eligible windows – not existing primetime games or games in other standalone windows. The game currently listed in the flex-eligible window will take the flexed-in game’s space on the Sunday afternoon slate, generally on the network that the flexed-in game was originally scheduled for. The league may also move Sunday afternoon games between 1 PM ET and 4:05 or 4:25 PM ET.
  • Thursday Night Football flex moves must be announced 28 days in advance. Sunday and Monday Night Football moves must be announced 12 days in advance, except for Sunday night games in Week 14 onward, which can be announced at any point up until 6 days in advance.
  • CBS and Fox have the right to protect one game each per week, among the games scheduled for their networks, from being flexed into primetime windows. During the early flex period, they may protect games at any point once the league tells them they’re thinking of pulling the flex. It’s not known when they must protect games in the main flex period, only that it’s “significantly closer to each game date” relative to the old deadline of Week 5. My assumption is that protections are due five weeks in advance, in accordance with the 28-day deadline for TNF flexes. Protections have never been officially publicized, and have not leaked en masse since 2014, so can only be speculated on.
  • Supposedly, CBS and Fox are also guaranteed one half of each division rivalry. Notably, some Week 18 games (see below) have their other halves scheduled for the other conference’s network, though none are scheduled for primetime.
  • No team may appear more than seven times in primetime windows – six scheduled before the season plus one flexed in. This appears to consider only the actual time the game is played; Amazon’s Black Friday game does not count even though the rest of their TNF slate does, and NBC’s Saturday afternoon game Week 16 doesn’t count but their Peacock game that night does. This post contains a list of all teams’ primetime appearances entering the season.
  • Teams may play no more than two Thursday games following Sunday games, and (apparently) no more than one of them can be on the road.
  • In Week 18 the entire schedule, consisting entirely of games between divisional opponents, is set on six days’ notice, usually during the previous week’s Sunday night game. One game will be scheduled for Sunday night, usually a game that decides who wins the division, a game where the winner is guaranteed to make the playoffs while the loser is out, or a game where one team makes the playoffs with a win but falls behind the winner of another game, and thus loses the division and/or misses the playoffs, with a loss. Two more games with playoff implications are scheduled for Saturday on ABC and ESPN, with the remaining games doled out to CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoon, with the league generally trying to maximize what each team has to play for. Protections and appearance limits do not apply to Week 18.
  • Click here to learn how to read the charts.

Read moreNFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 16

Cantonmetrics: 2024 Finalists

Offseason Snapshot | Senior/Coach/Contributor Semifinalists | All-Snub Team

Each year, the Pro Football Hall of Fame names at least 15 modern-era players (more if there’s a tie for the last spot), narrowed down from the semifinalists named in November, who played at least part of their careers in the past 25 years and have been retired at least 5, as finalists for induction to the Hall of Fame. Before Super Bowl LVIII, the panel will meet virtually and narrow down the list of modern-era finalists down to five. Those five will be considered alongside three senior candidates and one coach or contributor, each selected by nine-member subpanels of the larger panel last August, for a total of eight. From this list, at least four and no more than nine people will be selected for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Unless they have only a handful of years of eligibility left, players that are named finalists are almost always inducted eventually, so this provides a glimpse at what players can look forward to eventual induction.

Read moreCantonmetrics: 2024 Finalists

NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 15

Note: This post does not incorporate the result of the Thursday night or Saturday games (mostly).

So despite my use of a “cheat sheet” after what happened in 2021 this post came pretty close to going the same way. I’m inclined to blame it on the problems I ran into trying to fly to Seattle, but I still didn’t spend any time working on this on Friday. Maybe I should see if I can find a way to start working on this another week in advance? But the combinations involved multiply exponentially another week out.

One thing that occurred to me while I was working on the Week 17 section (before Thursday’s news) was that the eight-game minimum that applied to Cowboys games on Fox almost certainly doesn’t apply across the board. Only eleven out of 30 teams on my primetime appearance count list were scheduled to air on their respective conference’s network more than eight times, which would severely limit the league’s ability to pull the flex; notably, the Seahawks are among the teams scheduled for only eight Fox games, so flexing them in for Chiefs-Patriots would seem to have put them below the minimum. It had always been reported that CBS and Fox could choose a certain number of teams to air a minimum number of times on their air, but without any firm measure of what those numbers are I think there was a tendency to assume that the former number would apply across the board just to simplify things, avoid having to figure out what those teams were, and align with CBS and Fox maintaining their overall conference affiliations (and I think some things some executives said may have contributed to that perception), but clearly there is a discretionary element involved here. (That said, I suspect there is a smaller minimum that does apply across the board.) Eight games makes sense as the overall minimum to apply to the teams the networks choose, and the number of teams they can choose is probably pretty low for the Steelers to be scheduled for only seven CBS games, but even before Swiftmania came to Kansas City the Chiefs were probably one of the teams CBS did choose, which has relevance to the Week 17 flex because it removes any remaining doubt that they protected Dolphins-Ravens.

How NFL flexible scheduling works: (see also the NFL’s own page on flex schedule procedures)

  • Up to two games in Weeks 5-10 (the “early flex” period), and any number of games from Week 11 onward, may be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Any number of games from Week 12 onward may be flexed into Monday Night Football, and up to two games from Week 13 onward may be flexed into Thursday Night Football. In addition, in select weeks in December a number of games may be listed as “TBD”, with two or three of those games being assigned to be played on Saturday. Note that I only cover early flexes if a star player on one of the teams is injured.
  • Only games scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or set aside for a potential move to Saturday, may be flexed into one of the flex-eligible windows – not existing primetime games or games in other standalone windows. The game currently listed in the flex-eligible window will take the flexed-in game’s space on the Sunday afternoon slate, generally on the network that the flexed-in game was originally scheduled for. The league may also move Sunday afternoon games between 1 PM ET and 4:05 or 4:25 PM ET.
  • Thursday Night Football flex moves must be announced 28 days in advance. Sunday and Monday Night Football moves must be announced 12 days in advance, except for Sunday night games in Week 14 onward, which can be announced at any point up until 6 days in advance.
  • CBS and Fox have the right to protect one game each per week, among the games scheduled for their networks, from being flexed into primetime windows. During the early flex period, they may protect games at any point once the league tells them they’re thinking of pulling the flex. It’s not known when they must protect games in the main flex period, only that it’s “significantly closer to each game date” relative to the old deadline of Week 5. My assumption is that protections are due five weeks in advance, in accordance with the 28-day deadline for TNF flexes. Protections have never been officially publicized, and have not leaked en masse since 2014, so can only be speculated on.
  • Supposedly, CBS and Fox are also guaranteed one half of each division rivalry. Notably, some Week 18 games (see below) have their other halves scheduled for the other conference’s network, though none are scheduled for primetime.
  • No team may appear more than seven times in primetime windows – six scheduled before the season plus one flexed in. This appears to consider only the actual time the game is played; Amazon’s Black Friday game does not count even though the rest of their TNF slate does, and NBC’s Saturday afternoon game Week 16 doesn’t count but their Peacock game that night does. This post contains a list of all teams’ primetime appearances entering the season.
  • Teams may play no more than two Thursday games following Sunday games, and (apparently) no more than one of them can be on the road.
  • In Week 18 the entire schedule, consisting entirely of games between divisional opponents, is set on six days’ notice, usually during the previous week’s Sunday night game. One game will be scheduled for Sunday night, usually a game that decides who wins the division, a game where the winner is guaranteed to make the playoffs while the loser is out, or a game where one team makes the playoffs with a win but falls behind the winner of another game, and thus loses the division and/or misses the playoffs, with a loss. Two more games with playoff implications are scheduled for Saturday on ABC and ESPN, with the remaining games doled out to CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoon, with the league generally trying to maximize what each team has to play for. Protections and appearance limits do not apply to Week 18.
  • Click here to learn how to read the charts.

Read moreNFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 15

NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 14

So in the early part of this year’s iteration of this feature, I was able to fill this introductory section with some discussion of how the week’s results shaped the flex scheduling picture on a high level, leaving the details for the body of the post. In the middle portion, there seemed to be new articles or news about flex scheduling just about every week, and this section became invaluable as a place for me to leave my comments about them. Now we’re hitting the last few weeks, with only two flex scheduling weeks left, and I’m not sure what to put here. That was already the case a few weeks ago when the surprise announcement of the Week 15 flexes before the Week 13 games bailed me out, but it’s even more acute here. There’s not much in the way of anything general I could say that would apply to both weeks, although the situation in the NFC North does apply to both, and for the most part, the situations themselves are cases where I’m basically twiddling my thumbs waiting for the clock to run out. In the past this would be the last week before a decision on Week 17 flexing needed to be made, but now that there’s a formal six-day window involved there’s one more week to go through before it’s time to make any sort of firm prediction.

I will say that, despite it being responsible for knocking out a week of the Flex Schedule Watch entirely some years ago, and the NFL rendering it worthless last year, I do intend to calculate the percentage chances of each game being moved to Sunday night again. Call me crazy, but as long as I’m doing this feature I should provide some sort of structure and context to the options for the final week as we come down the stretch. Right now I’m mostly providing shots in the dark in terms of what games are in the running and why, and I should get down to business trying to figure out what the actual scenarios are. But it means next week’s post could take a long time to put together again, especially since I’m flying to Seattle next Wednesday, and also I expect John Ourand’s year-end predictions column Monday so I’d likely need to find time to squeeze that and the annual blog-day post in over the course of the week.

How NFL flexible scheduling works: (see also the NFL’s own page on flex schedule procedures)

  • Up to two games in Weeks 5-10 (the “early flex” period), and any number of games from Week 11 onward, may be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Any number of games from Week 12 onward may be flexed into Monday Night Football, and up to two games from Week 13 onward may be flexed into Thursday Night Football. In addition, in select weeks in December a number of games may be listed as “TBD”, with two or three of those games being assigned to be played on Saturday. Note that I only cover early flexes if a star player on one of the teams is injured.
  • Only games scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or set aside for a potential move to Saturday, may be flexed into one of the flex-eligible windows – not existing primetime games or games in other standalone windows. The game currently listed in the flex-eligible window will take the flexed-in game’s space on the Sunday afternoon slate, generally on the network that the flexed-in game was originally scheduled for. The league may also move Sunday afternoon games between 1 PM ET and 4:05 or 4:25 PM ET.
  • Thursday Night Football flex moves must be announced 28 days in advance. Sunday and Monday Night Football moves must be announced 12 days in advance, except for Sunday night games in Week 14 onward, which can be announced at any point up until 6 days in advance.
  • CBS and Fox have the right to protect one game each per week, among the games scheduled for their networks, from being flexed into primetime windows. During the early flex period, they may protect games at any point once the league tells them they’re thinking of pulling the flex. It’s not known when they must protect games in the main flex period, only that it’s “significantly closer to each game date” relative to the old deadline of Week 5. My assumption is that protections are due five weeks in advance, in accordance with the 28-day deadline for TNF flexes. Protections have never been officially publicized, and have not leaked en masse since 2014, so can only be speculated on.
  • Supposedly, CBS and Fox are also guaranteed one half of each division rivalry. Notably, some Week 18 games (see below) have their other halves scheduled for the other conference’s network, though none are scheduled for primetime.
  • No team may appear more than seven times in primetime windows – six scheduled before the season plus one flexed in. This appears to consider only the actual time the game is played; Amazon’s Black Friday game does not count even though the rest of their TNF slate does, and NBC’s Saturday afternoon game Week 16 doesn’t count but their Peacock game that night does. This post contains a list of all teams’ primetime appearances entering the season.
  • Teams may play no more than two Thursday games following Sunday games, and (apparently) no more than one of them can be on the road.
  • In Week 18 the entire schedule, consisting entirely of games between divisional opponents, is set on six days’ notice, usually during the previous week’s Sunday night game. One game will be scheduled for Sunday night, usually a game that decides who wins the division, a game where the winner is guaranteed to make the playoffs while the loser is out, or a game where one team makes the playoffs with a win but falls behind the winner of another game, and thus loses the division and/or misses the playoffs, with a loss. Two more games with playoff implications are scheduled for Saturday on ABC and ESPN, with the remaining games doled out to CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoon, with the league generally trying to maximize what each team has to play for. Protections and appearance limits do not apply to Week 18.
  • Click here to learn how to read the charts.

Read moreNFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 14

NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 13

On Monday the New York Post‘s Andrew Marchand sent a newsletter exploring “why more flex has meant less flex” for the league this year. It’s locked behind a paywall so I haven’t read it myself, but I can give you the big takeaway that was relayed to the 506sports Discord: that what I had thought was a no-brainer flex actually involved an excruciating amount of horse-trading (and would have involved it even if it had remained a no-brainer). Fox is scheduled for eight Cowboys games, the exact number they were guaranteed to have between Week 1 and Week 17 (i.e., not including Week 18), so they protected Eagles-Seahawks, not Cowboys-Bills. To convince Fox to release that protection, the league adhered to their request to have Bears-Browns on their air and did not move it to Saturday on NFL Network, moving Vikings-Bengals instead. This puts a lot of recent and semi-recent developments in perspective:

  • Most immediately, this probably explains why the week’s flexes were announced on Thursday: the deal that was reached effectively locked the league into a certain course of action regardless of the week’s results.
  • In retrospect, Mike North’s comments a couple weeks ago to the effect of “we only flex out of a game if it doesn’t have playoff implications” may have been intended to prime NFL fans for the possibility that Chiefs-Patriots wouldn’t be flexed out. That may seem odd when North made clear to Jimmy Traina that flexing out of Chiefs-Patriots was a possibility, but this is probably where the sense Rob Tornoe got that such a flex was “unlikely” came from.
  • The combination of the “plans to protect” phrasing and the timing of this tweet suggested to me that CBS and Fox were able to protect games up to two weeks in advance, but here Marchand is saying Fox had protected a game at least three weeks in advance. Another reading of the tweet would be that Fox “planned to protect” a game within the next 24 hours, which would be in keeping with a three-week protection window, but even then you’d expect Marchand to report on the league trying to convince Fox not to protect Eagles-Seahawks, not trying to convince them to release an existing protection. Perhaps the league was thinking of flexing out of Chargers-Raiders and that’s when protections were submitted? (Some people on the 506sports Discord suggested to me that CBS and Fox could protect games once the league told them they were thinking of pulling a flex, but a) that’s not quite in keeping with North’s comments in May that CBS and Fox could protect games “before we even start to think about” pulling a flex, and b) that would be impossible for me to work with not knowing when the league would actually send CBS and Fox formal notice of their intention to pull a flex, especially since they’d have incentive to do it as early as possible to maximize the possibility of CBS and Fox protecting the wrong games.)
  • This makes it all the more bewildering that Cowboys-Sheriffs in Week 18 would be a rematch of the Thanksgiving game on CBS. It would effectively guarantee Fox a ninth Cowboys game, yet not provide any relief from the eight-game minimum.
  • So, what does this mean for the Steelers being scheduled for only seven CBS games before the season, or the Bucs being scheduled for only seven Fox games, especially the former?

There’s even less in the way of clear solutions for this problem than there was for the problems raised by the guaranteed-division-rivalry rule; I don’t think Fox would stand for having all their Cowboys games (except for Thanksgiving in years they have it) crammed in early in the season before the main flex period starts, and I’m not sure the league’s other partners would want all their Cowboys games to fall late in the season either. (And make no mistake: Fox would only get the minimum eight Cowboys games in most years. If the Cowboys are so much as mediocre they’d be scheduled for the maximum six pre-flex primetime games, and CBS is going to want a couple Cowboys games of their own.)

It’s worth noting, though, that it’s not as though the league couldn’t have guessed that they might want to flex Eagles-Seahawks in for Chiefs-Patriots. When the schedule came out, the Patriots’ win total at sportsbooks was 7.5, while the Seahawks’ was 8.5. To be sure, that’s only a one-game difference which isn’t normally enough for me to consider a flex, and it suggests most people didn’t expect the Patriots to be quite this bad, but it wouldn’t have taken much variation from those totals to justify a flex, and the Seahawks had made the playoffs the previous season while the Pats hadn’t. (Before the season I divide the schedule into 18-game “tiers” based on the win total of the worse team in the game. Eagles-Seahawks fell into tier 4, meaning if games were scheduled for featured windows solely based on expected record, it would have at least been good enough for TNF or the lead game in the 1 PM window, and might have snuck in to a truly featured window to allow for some variety in the teams featured. The Patriots, meanwhile, weren’t expected to be good enough to make the top six tiers.) And it’s not as though this was expected to be a split-national late window, not with the Cowboys involved playing what had been one of the AFC’s powerhouses; the Cowboys had the lower win total in that game of 9.5. So there’s probably something to be said for the league doing a lot more to ensure games involving teams expected to be at or above .500, especially on the West Coast, are, if not scheduled for featured windows (or at least as the lead game in their window) to begin with, at least in a position where they can be flexed in if desired, if they’re going to be scheduled for the main flex period.

Beyond that, maybe a tweak to the protection rules themselves could be warranted. Perhaps the league could mandate that the game the doubleheader network protects must be either a) scheduled for 1 PM ET or b) have the network’s lead broadcast team on the game, or at least have large enough distribution as to take a substantial chunk out of the feature game if it’s not the feature game itself, unless the league allows the network to do otherwise. In other words, the doubleheader network can’t use a protection to hoard a game it doesn’t intend to widely distribute, even if the appearance-minimum or guaranteed-division-rivalry rules mean they don’t have to protect their actual featured game.

What’s become increasingly apparent as the year has gone along is that CBS and Fox may have pulled a fast one on the league’s other partners, and maybe on the league itself. The additional protections they won, some of which were nominally more related to Sunday afternoon games becoming “free agents”, have turned out to substantially outweigh the expansion of flexible scheduling to Thursday and Monday nights, greatly restricting their ability to benefit from flexible scheduling. I’d like to think the league had some idea of the effect these rules were going to have on flex scheduling – just look at how many times CBS and Fox had protected division-rivalry games where the other half was scheduled on another network to see how the guaranteed-division-rivalry rule was going to affect things – but I wonder if, in retrospect, removing the requirement for CBS and Fox to leave one week unprotected was a mistake. There are weeks where I legitimately don’t know what the singleheader network would want to protect, but nonetheless they surely would anyway.

How NFL flexible scheduling works: (see also the NFL’s own page on flex schedule procedures)

  • Up to two games in Weeks 5-10 (the “early flex” period), and any number of games from Week 11 onward, may be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Any number of games from Week 12 onward may be flexed into Monday Night Football, and up to two games from Week 13 onward may be flexed into Thursday Night Football. In addition, in select weeks in December a number of games may be listed as “TBD”, with two or three of those games being assigned to be played on Saturday. Note that I only cover early flexes if a star player on one of the teams is injured.
  • Only games scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or set aside for a potential move to Saturday, may be flexed into one of the flex-eligible windows – not existing primetime games or games in other standalone windows. The game currently listed in the flex-eligible window will take the flexed-in game’s space on the Sunday afternoon slate, generally on the network that the flexed-in game was originally scheduled for. The league may also move Sunday afternoon games between 1 PM ET and 4:05 or 4:25 PM ET.
  • Thursday Night Football flex moves must be announced 28 days in advance. Sunday and Monday Night Football moves must be announced 12 days in advance, except for Sunday night games in Week 14 onward, which can be announced at any point up until 6 days in advance.
  • CBS and Fox have the right to protect one game each per week, among the games scheduled for their networks, from being flexed into primetime windows. During the early flex period, they may protect games at any point once the league tells them they’re thinking of pulling the flex. It’s not known when they must protect games in the main flex period, only that it’s “significantly closer to each game date” relative to the old deadline of Week 5. My assumption is that protections are due five weeks in advance, in accordance with the 28-day deadline for TNF flexes. Protections have never been officially publicized, and have not leaked en masse since 2014, so can only be speculated on.
  • Supposedly, CBS and Fox are also guaranteed one half of each division rivalry. Notably, some Week 18 games (see below) have their other halves scheduled for the other conference’s network, though none are scheduled for primetime.
  • No team may appear more than seven times in primetime windows – six scheduled before the season plus one flexed in. This appears to consider only the actual time the game is played; Amazon’s Black Friday game does not count even though the rest of their TNF slate does, and NBC’s Saturday afternoon game Week 16 doesn’t count but their Peacock game that night does. This post contains a list of all teams’ primetime appearances entering the season.
  • Teams may play no more than two Thursday games following Sunday games, and (apparently) no more than one of them can be on the road.
  • In Week 18 the entire schedule, consisting entirely of games between divisional opponents, is set on six days’ notice, usually during the previous week’s Sunday night game. One game will be scheduled for Sunday night, usually a game that decides who wins the division, a game where the winner is guaranteed to make the playoffs while the loser is out, or a game where one team makes the playoffs with a win but falls behind the winner of another game, and thus loses the division and/or misses the playoffs, with a loss. Two more games with playoff implications are scheduled for Saturday on ABC and ESPN, with the remaining games doled out to CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoon, with the league generally trying to maximize what each team has to play for. Protections and appearance limits do not apply to Week 18.
  • Click here to learn how to read the charts.

Read moreNFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 13

NFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 12

I thought I might have a chance to get this post up before we got too far into the Thursday night game, but the NFL caught me off guard by announcing Week 15 flexes for both Saturday and Monday night on Thursday afternoon. Possible this was driven by the desire not to cut it too close to announce the Saturday games, but regardless there wasn’t any reason not to announce this as early as Tuesday. I think I’m going to have to commit to posting these on Wednesday at the very latest from now on, at least until only six-day flexes are left, if I can find a way to bring myself to do that and have my brain in sufficient working order to do so. I’m going to try to capture my thinking prior to this announcement (and the chart also doesn’t reflect today’s news) and why that makes it all the more surprising.

How NFL flexible scheduling works: (see also the NFL’s own page on flex schedule procedures)

  • Up to two games in Weeks 5-10 (the “early flex” period), and any number of games from Week 11 onward, may be flexed into Sunday Night Football. Any number of games from Week 12 onward may be flexed into Monday Night Football, and up to two games from Week 13 onward may be flexed into Thursday Night Football. In addition, in select weeks in December a number of games may be listed as “TBD”, with two or three of those games being assigned to be played on Saturday. Note that I only cover early flexes if a star player on one of the teams is injured.
  • Only games scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or set aside for a potential move to Saturday, may be flexed into one of the flex-eligible windows – not existing primetime games or games in other standalone windows. The game currently listed in the flex-eligible window will take the flexed-in game’s space on the Sunday afternoon slate, generally on the network that the flexed-in game was originally scheduled for. The league may also move Sunday afternoon games between 1 PM ET and 4:05 or 4:25 PM ET.
  • Thursday Night Football flex moves must be announced 28 days in advance. Sunday and Monday Night Football moves must be announced 12 days in advance, except for Sunday night games in Week 14 onward, which can be announced at any point up until 6 days in advance.
  • CBS and Fox have the right to protect one game each per week, among the games scheduled for their networks, from being flexed into primetime windows. During the early flex period, they may protect games at any point once the league tells them they’re thinking of pulling the flex. It’s not known when they must protect games in the main flex period, only that it’s “significantly closer to each game date” relative to the old deadline of Week 5. My assumption is that protections are due five weeks in advance, in accordance with the 28-day deadline for TNF flexes. Protections have never been officially publicized, and have not leaked en masse since 2014, so can only be speculated on.
  • Supposedly, CBS and Fox are also guaranteed one half of each division rivalry. Notably, some Week 18 games (see below) have their other halves scheduled for the other conference’s network, though none are scheduled for primetime.
  • No team may appear more than seven times in primetime windows – six scheduled before the season plus one flexed in. This appears to consider only the actual time the game is played; Amazon’s Black Friday game does not count even though the rest of their TNF slate does, and NBC’s Saturday afternoon game Week 16 doesn’t count but their Peacock game that night does. This post contains a list of all teams’ primetime appearances entering the season.
  • Teams may play no more than two Thursday games following Sunday games, and (apparently) no more than one of them can be on the road.
  • In Week 18 the entire schedule, consisting entirely of games between divisional opponents, is set on six days’ notice, usually during the previous week’s Sunday night game. One game will be scheduled for Sunday night, usually a game that decides who wins the division, a game where the winner is guaranteed to make the playoffs while the loser is out, or a game where one team makes the playoffs with a win but falls behind the winner of another game, and thus loses the division and/or misses the playoffs, with a loss. Two more games with playoff implications are scheduled for Saturday on ABC and ESPN, with the remaining games doled out to CBS and Fox on Sunday afternoon, with the league generally trying to maximize what each team has to play for. Protections and appearance limits do not apply to Week 18.
  • Click here to learn how to read the charts.

Read moreNFL Flexible Scheduling Watch: Week 12

Cantonmetrics: 2024 Semifinalists

Offseason Snapshot | Senior/Coach/Contributor Semifinalists | All-Snub Team

Each November, the Pro Football Hall of Fame names at least 25 modern-era players (more if there’s a tie for the last spot), narrowed down from the nominees named in September, who played at least part of their careers in the past 25 years and have been retired at least 5, as semifinalists for induction to the Hall of Fame. No more than five modern-era players are inducted each year, so most of the players listed below won’t be inducted this year and some won’t necessarily be inducted at all, but it’s still important to see what players the Hall of Fame voters consider most worthy of induction into the Hall among the currently-eligible players, and we can look at their relevant honors and argue over which players are worthy of induction. 

Read moreCantonmetrics: 2024 Semifinalists