The NFL revealed its 2017 schedule Thursday night, and I was inspired to declare instant winners and losers with a full understanding that not a single meaningful game will be played for more than four months.
All data is courtesy of the fast-calculating folks at ESPN Stats & Information.
Broadcasters and national-television viewers
Last year’s ratings slide for the NFL clearly impacted the league’s schedule-making process. For the first time in five years, neither the Cleveland Browns nor the Jacksonville Jaguars will play in prime time. (They both have “national” games in the 9:30 a.m. ET slot from London.) Instead, the league packed its prime-time schedule with its best draws.
Ten teams have the maximum number of five prime-time games, not including potential flex scheduling later in the season. That list includes the obvious candidates, among them the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Cowboys — the NFL’s ratings gold mine — also have nine late-afternoon kickoffs that traditionally draw larger audiences. Their only 1 p.m. ET kickoffs come in Weeks 4 and 17. The latter, at the Philadelphia Eagles, would likely be moved to a later time if it has playoff implications.
The Browns, on the other hand, are scheduled to kick off all but one of their games at 1 p.m. ET or earlier.
No short weeks for Jaguars and Browns
While that prime-time slight for Cleveland will be interpreted as an insult by many, it’s actually a competitive advantage when you consider it objectively. The Browns and Jaguars are the only teams this season that won’t face a short week and who won’t have to tweak their weekly schedules at all to accommodate alternate game days or times.
When it went to a full season of Thursday night games in 2012, the NFL indicated it would ensure every team played at least once on Thursday for fairness. But in a for-profit entertainment business, a level playing field isn’t going to trump ratings. The 2017 season will mark the first time since then that a team didn’t play at least once on Thursday.
You could argue that the Browns, who are 29-83 since the start of the 2010 season, and the Jaguars (30-82) are simply brought to a level playing field by getting this break. But no matter how you look at it, it’s a scheduling gift from the NFL.
Falcons avoid immediate verdict
The NFL decided against forcing the Atlanta Falcons to relive their Super Bowl collapse in Week 1 and instead scheduled their rematch with the Patriots for Week 7. That’s a win for the Falcons in my book.
There is a school of thought that it would have been better for the Falcons to move past this game as soon as possible, but the buildup in Week 7 should be far less intense than what it would have been for the annual kickoff game. While the sting of losing a 25-3 lead in Super Bowl LI will never fully disappear, the Falcons will have some time to get their feet under them in 2017 without having their team identity based on a Week 1 outcome.
I guess that’s a nice way of saying the Falcons could have doomed themselves with a Week 1 loss to the Patriots. Now, they’ll have a chance to ease themselves back into things before facing up to the biggest disappointment of their professional lives.
The Ravens’ opening (and closing) stanzas
The Baltimore Ravens have missed the playoffs in three of four seasons since they won Super Bowl XLVII and could avoid a host of big-picture questions by starting strong in 2017. Fortunately, they’ll have the NFL’s easiest September schedule to help them.
The Ravens will open against the Cincinnati Bengals, Browns and Jaguars, who all combined for a .219 winning percentage in 2016. The Ravens also finish the season with a reasonable three-game stretch — against the Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Bengals — and overall, have the NFL’s ninth-easiest strength of schedule in 2017. From a schedule perspective, at least, the Ravens have a good chance to get themselves back into the playoffs.
Oakland Raiders in Weeks 11-15
The most difficult stretch for any team belongs to the Raiders, who will play five teams between Weeks 11 and 15 that had a combined .738 winning percentage in 2016.
It will begin in Week 11 with a “home” game against the Patriots in Mexico City. They will then host the Denver Broncos and New York Giants, followed by a game at the Kansas City Chiefs and then at home against the Cowboys. If the Raiders plan to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season, they’ll need to navigate that monster of a stretch.
The Buffalo Bills will come close to matching that in December when they close out the season against the Patriots (twice), Miami Dolphins (twice) and the Colts in their final five games. Those teams had a combined .700 winning percentage last season, making the Bills’ December the worst month that any team will face.
The Giants’ rest deficit
Overall, the Giants might have the NFL’s least enviable schedule, based on ESPN senior analytics specialist Brian Burke’s analysis. They’ll have an NFL-high four games against teams coming off their bye and a net total of minus-22 days of rest compared to their opponents. (The next-highest lack of rest days belongs to the Detroit Lions at minus-12.)
Here is some analysis from Football Outsiders on how relative rest affects competitiveness. Suffice it to say, you want to avoid playing teams who are coming off their bye.
Finally, the Giants have four trips into the Mountain or Pacific time zones, giving them more travel miles than any East Coast team with the exception of the Jaguars, who have a home game in London.
Uncommitted Los Angeles fans
In their first season together in the Los Angeles market, the Rams and Chargers will play at the same day and time for nearly half of their home schedules. It’s difficult to know what to make of that odd occurrence.
Is the NFL confident that each team will carve out its own fan bases quickly enough to avoid limiting support on those parallel game days? Do they know that it will be a long climb, especially for the Chargers, regardless of the schedule? Or do they realize it is simply a temporary circumstance that will end when the teams move into the Rams’ new stadium in 2019?
The answer is probably a combination of those factors, but in the big picture, it is a reminder of how jumbled this arrangement is and will be for a couple seasons.
Both teams will kick off at 1:25 p.m. local time in Weeks 2, 14 and 17. The Rams will play in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a cavernous 93,000-seat stadium that was perhaps half-full for games by the end of last season. The Chargers will play 12 miles away in the StubHub Center, a soccer stadium that will seat 30,000 for football.
The size of the Chargers’ home crowd might make traffic logistics a little less relevant. But from a big picture, the NFL has put the limited number of Los Angeles football fans in position to choose between teams for three of the eight weeks. The Chargers have already sold out their season tickets, so it’s going to be a lot easier to find a seat for a Rams game at the Coliseum. It’s not the crime of the century, but it is far from ideal and indicative of the NFL’s herky-jerky return to the country’s second-largest market.
Opponents of Washington’s team name
The Redskins will host the Giants on Thanksgiving night, an arrangement that sparked a few raised eyebrows but was mostly a reminder that the league does not view the team name and mascot as an actionable issue.
The Oneida Nation’s “Change the Mascot” initiative issued a statement expressing “extreme disappointment” that an “offensive and damaging epithet will be broadcast over the airwaves to millions of viewers nationwide … on the very holiday that is supposed to be a time for our nation to reflect upon our country’s history and the many contributions of the native people.” Former Raiders executive Amy Trask said on Twitter that the schedule was either “remarkably insensitive or uncaring.”
A few years ago, public pressure appeared to be mounting against the franchise. Former President Barack Obama said in 2013 that “I’d think about changing the name.” But recent opinion polls have shown only a small percentage of Native Americans are offended by the name, and neither the NFL nor the team appears interested in addressing the concerns of the relative few. If they were, they could have easily avoided a home game in Washington on Thanksgiving Day.