Thousands of computers run millions of simulations to plot a full and fair NFL season schedule each year
Have you ever wondered who decides where the 49ers play their first game of the season?
Or how the Red and Gold play multiple games on the East Coast back-to-back, allowing the team to stay out East for the week in between?
It’s all thanks to a team of people at the NFL offices who work for months to create the perfect schedule, attempting to create as many appealing matchups as possible while also keeping all 32 teams and fans as happy as possible.
The NFL schedule was created by hand for many years. As each week’s matchups were determined, tags with team names were plotted — and re-plotted — across a massive wooden board. Schedulers now input data and run simulations on Amazon Web Services and 4,000 cloud-based computers to narrow down trillions of scheduling possibilities into a single 18-week, 17-game slate for each team.
The only constant in the current NFL schedule is that there will be 272 games spread across 576 possible time slots. The NFL’s scheduling team, which includes senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz, vice president of broadcasting Michael North, senior director of broadcasting Blake Jones, director of broadcasting Charlotte Carey, vice president of broadcasting Onnie Bose, and broadcasting senior coordinator Lucy Popko, must then consider a plethora of and complex factors, resulting in “north of 20,000” rules in the scheduling system, according to Carey.
Before it is released to the public, the schedule must be approved by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, an event that has grown in importance in the NFL offseason.
To begin, each team plays six games against divisional opponents (the NFC West in the case of the 49ers), four games against teams from two other divisions (one from each conference), two games against teams from the two remaining divisions in its own conference, and one game against a non-conference opponent from a division that the team is not scheduled to play. Another factor is that each team must play the other 31 at least once every four years.
Then there are the variables, such as division rankings from the previous season, travel considerations, and old schedules. There are traditional NFL events to consider, such as the Lions and Cowboys hosting Thanksgiving games every year. Schedule makers also account for any prior conflicts that may exist, such as concerts and teams sharing their facilities.
For example, Ed Sheeran will perform at Levi’s Stadium on September 16, keeping the 49ers on the road in Week 2 following their opener in Pittsburgh.
Some NFL teams, including the Raiders, share stadiums with local college teams for regular season, playoff, and bowl games. Several Major League Soccer teams, including the Seattle Sounders and Charlotte FC, play in NFL stadiums.
Even high school football championships can force NFL schedulemakers to think outside the box. The Dallas Cowboys must travel in mid-December, while all Texas high school championship games are held at AT&T Stadium.
The NFL is, above all, a television company, working to find the best matchups and timeslots to maximize ratings. The schedule is designed to fit the most compelling matchups into the best possible broadcasting windows.
Last season, that included putting Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle on Monday Night Football in Week 1 after being traded to the Denver Broncos, and putting the first 49ers-Rams game since their epic battle in the NFC title game the year before on Monday Night Football in Week 4.
There’s also the famous meeting between the Patriots and Tom Brady after he left for the Buccaneers in 2021, which aired on Sunday Night Football.
Of course, there are plenty of marquee matchups on the schedule this year. Aaron Rodgers’ debut with the New York Jets was scheduled for Monday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1. When Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest on the field during a Monday Night Football game last season after making a tackle, returns to Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium in Week 9, it will be the Sunday Night primetime game.
The 49ers-Cowboys game in San Francisco four weeks earlier on Sunday Night Football will be a rematch of last season’s second-straight dramatic playoff showdown.
However, despite all of the effort put into creating the ideal schedule, some developments — breakout players or teams, injuries, late player movement — cannot be predicted. The NFL has a strategy in place as well, with Flex Scheduling parameters that shift games into primetime broadcasting timeslots.
Will 2023 turn out to be the perfect NFL schedule after all of the data crunching? You’ll have to keep reading to find out.