Working Through the Logistics of an 18-Game Schedule

Reader Israel has offered to do the heavy lifting and work through the possible details of an 18-game season. Yes, we know, virtually nobody wants it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Might as well be prepared just in case.

By Israel Pickholtz, Jerusalem

The proposal to go to an 18-game NFL schedule has been on the radar for some months now, without much in the way of specifics. Of course, for those concerned about injuries – either for the players’ sakes or for the integrity of late season and playoff games – the specifics don’t matter much, except perhaps the suggestion to have a second bye week. The owners want the extra money, so for them who plays whom is a bit more relevant.

Eighteen games has become a headline, with the devil in the details. One of those details is the fate of the four-game preseason, and although it seems to me that the four games are necessary to evaluate players, I have to trust the coaches and the team execs to make that call.

Also among those details are symmetry and fairness. During Super Bowl weekend, one pundit – I forget who – spoke to the perfect symmetry of four divisions, four teams each, 16 games a week, 16 weeks. Rubbish, but not irrelevant.

Let me first stipulate that I think that adding two games is a bad idea. John Steigerwald might be right that the whole idea is just a negotiating ploy. But having said that, there are several different ways to determine the opponents for those 18 games and it is worth examining the most reasonable possibilities. Besides, what else is there to discuss now that the season is behind us and ahead is all fog?

The 16-game schedule based on four divisions in each conference is probably the best that the NFL has ever had, based on symmetry, fairness and all around good sense. Even back in my youth, when there were two six-team divisions, 12 games meant two from the other division which created an asymmetry and a lack of fairness.

According to the current system – the one we have lived with since the addition of Houston in 2002 – each team plays six division games, four against another conference division and four against a non-conference division. That way, within the basic 14, you play the other teams in your conference every three years and the teams in the other conference every four years. The other two games are against the teams in the other divisions in your conference that finished the same rank in their division as you did in yours.

For instance, in 2011, the Steelers will play the AFC South and the NFC West, as well as the Patriots and the Chiefs, who – like the Steelers – finished first in their divisions. In theory, that should provide a bit of variety although New England and Indianapolis seem to have found a way to finish the same in their divisions most every year, so their game is an annual ritual. (NE-IND may be great TV, but the same system can also give you years of BUF-CLE/CIN and WAS-DET.)

For the purposes of this discussion, I shall assume that the basic 14 games stay the same. It’s not broken, Roger, don’t mess with it. I shall also pretend that the 18-game schedule will be in place for 2011. It won’t, but it allows me to use real 2010 standings to illustrate the possibilities.

I refuse to consider the possibility of adding “rivalry” games that distort the symmetry and fairness. That may work in baseball where there is a 162-game schedule which is large enough to dilute the inherent unfairness, but in the NFL a system designed around yearly Giants-Jets, 49ers-Raiders, Redskins-Ravens and Browns-Lions TV games seems really stupid. These should stay in the preseason, together with the Missouri, Texas and Pennsylvania state championships.

Besides, what do you do when these teams are scheduled to play each other in the normal course of business?

There are two logical ways to add the two games within the conference.

1. Scrap the idea of playing teams based on the standings and simply play two divisions in your conference instead of one. It is simple, symmetric and fair – fair in the sense that everyone in the division plays the same opponents. It does however reduce the advantage that the NFL would like to give to the bottom teams. And it may add mostly bad games to the TV schedule.

2. Keep the system as it is, but count the first and second-ranked teams together and the third and fourth-ranked teams together. This gives TV a few more good games while preserving the general idea of matching teams by rank. After all, how different were the Steelers from the Ravens in 2010? This system would have the Steelers and the Ravens both matched up against the Patriots and the Jets, as well as both the Chiefs and the Chargers. The Browns and the Bengals would play the bottom two teams in those two divisions.

Here too there are two simple options, both based on ranking and both leaving the 15th and 16th, ranking-based conference games (Steelers-Patriots and Steelers-Chiefs) as they are now.

3. Play a game against the teams ranked the same, from two non-conference divisions. There is a bit of asymmetry in that there is only one division that you don’t play this year, didn’t play last year and won’t play next year, so you will end up with one non-conference team on your schedule in two consecutive years.For instance, in 2011, the Steelers play the NFC West. One game would be against the Bears, who won the NFC North, which the Steelers played in 2009 and 2013. The other would be against the Falcons (2010) or the Eagles (2012), which would result in playing that team in consecutive years.

4. A more elegant – and perhaps the best — solution would be for the first two teams in the division to play the first two teams from the non-conference division last seen two years previous. That way, the 2011 Steelers and Ravens would play the Bears and the Packers, last seen in 2009 and next seen in 2013. The Browns and the Bengals would play the Vikings and the Lions. That eliminates the “consecutive years” issue.

This last system would give you two ranking-based opponents in your conference (the Patriots and the Chiefs) and two partially ranking-based opponents in the other conference. The Steelers and the Ravens would have a harder* schedule than the Browns and the Bengals by virtue of the two non-conference games, but the Steelers schedule would also be harder than that of the Ravens (and the Browns’ harder than that of the Bengals) based on the two conference games we have now.

This seems to me to be symmetric, fair and simple once we get used to it. Not to mention potentially really great TV.

Among other attractions, it would significantly increase the odds of a Super Bowl rematch and/or a Super Bowl preview during the regular season.

* I use the word “harder” advisedly, since we really have no idea if last year’s top teams will be harder opponents this year. But that is the logic being used now, so there is validity in using it in the new structure.

Thanks to Israel for putting this together. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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  • JJ Cooper

    Nice work Israel. Great job on the Steelers Lounge’s first ever guest post.

  • GlennW

    Good work Israel.

    I’m not crazy about any of the schedule proposals which for a 1st-place team (for example) add two more games against 1st- and/or 2nd-place teams (from either conference) in addition to the two existing games against conference 1st-place teams. That just seems like too much schedule imbalance over the four games that differentiate schedule between division rivals. Back when the NFL had three divisions per conference, in a 5-team division a 1st-place team’s conference schedule featured two 1st-place teams, one 3rd-place and one 4th-place team from the other two conference divisions. That just seems fairer, as schedule disparity is a pretty big factor especially if/when you move to four non-common opponents.

  • DC in ATL

    Nice work. I think the league is better off with 16 games, but if they must go to 18, one of these scenario’s will likely be very close to the final scheduling solution.

    However, on #2 and #4 instead of 1st and 2nd playing 1st and 2nd etc., how about this:

    1st playing 1st and 2nd,
    2nd playing 1st and 3rd
    3rd playing 2nd and 4th
    4th playing 3rd and 4th

    This results in a harder schedule if you finish first, but gives 2nd place a theoretical break versus 1st, and gives the Bengals and the Browns of the world something to point to for the next season.

    • Anonymous

      Also good, if you don’t mind a bit more complexity. This may placate GlennW below.

      It also answers the matter of “second isn’t always so different from third” – see NFC South.

  • CircusDad

    Thanks so much. I really really don’t want 18 games. I will actually be ticked if they do it. That said, before now, I thought it would also screw up the beauty of the scheduling system and you have shown me that it does not need to. Some of your suggestions are actually pretty good (if you absolutely have to do it).

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