FMIA: Schedule No. 102,844 And The Nuttiness Around NFL’s Annual Slate

The 13th iteration of the 2021 NFL schedule was perfectly playable. It had been put through all the checks of the 70-game Key Games Chart and rest-disparity metric and the strategic placement of the asterisked Green Bay games and the early Brady-Belichick mega-game. But when the league’s six-person schedule team met by Zoom on Friday, May 7—every meeting of the team over the 17-week construction of the new slate was over Zoom—Senior VP of broadcasting Howard Katz told the group: “We got the weekend. Let’s take one more shot.”

The deadline: Monday morning, May 10. That’s when commissioner Roger Goodell would have to sign off on the final schedule for the Wednesday day-long leaking and prime-time release of the 272 games.

On Friday evening, league director of broadcasting Charlotte Carey, working from her New Jersey home, asked the league’s array of computers to fix several minor problems. Minnesota was due to open the season at San Francisco and at Arizona; two long trips, and Katz wanted one of them shorter, for fairness. The league hates to give teams three-game road trips, and this slate had only three of them. But Cincinnati’s three-gamer on the Friday schedule had the Bengals at Las Vegas, at Baltimore, at the Jets in succession, and Katz wanted a shorter trip than Vegas to start. Tennessee had trips to Seattle and the Rams in Weeks 8 and 9. Could one of those long trips be moved?

And one more: Katz wanted to avoid Denver making two East Coast trips to start the season—at the Giants, at Jacksonville.

The object, of course, was to fix those four little problems without creating bigger ones. And by the time the computer spat out new possibilities Saturday morning, Carey found several possibilities that fixed some or all of the Minnesota, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Denver issues. She emailed them to the team—Katz in New Jersey; Mike North in Westchester County north of New York; and Onnie Bose, Blake Jones and rookie Nick Cooney in New York City. By 8:30 Saturday evening, they began a 2-hour, 35-minute Zoom to pick apart the new slates.

There was one that kept Tampa Bay-New England in Week 4 and Green Bay-Kansas City in Week 9, kept the Key Games Chart intact, fixed the Vikings/Bengals/Titans issues, and didn’t exacerbate rest disparity. It wasn’t perfect, as you’ll see, but it was better than Friday’s.

On Saturday at 11:05 p.m., 36 hours before they’d go to Goodell for the okay, Katz and team settled on the schedule spit out by one of the NFL computers: the 102,844th schedule they considered over 124 days of planning.

In a Zoom call Thursday (fitting), Katz and VP of NFL Broadcast Planning Mike North explained how they arrived at Schedule 102,844.

“We throw away a lot of perfectly good schedules,” Katz said. “That’s just indicative of how far we’ve come in this process. A dozen years ago, we wouldn’t have thought twice about it—we would’ve played those schedules. That makes us feel good, that we’re doing a much better job not just for our television partners but across all 32 teams for trying to come up with what are fair schedules. No schedule’s perfect. And everybody’s got some gripe. But they were minimal this year.”

The Lead: NFL Schedule

Of all the overblown NFL events, the nuttiness around the release of the schedule is particularly stunning to me. Fans have known their 2021 opponents for four months. The order of the games, plus television details—that’s all that’s left. I lost count at 33 different hosts/analysts/reporters on NFL Network and ESPN covering the schedule release Wednesday night, and that’s after CBS and FOX morning shows broke down the Week 1 schedules for each network.

The order of the games, I don’t care about. But how the sausage is made, that interests me. That’s what you’ll learn today. First, a few words about the voracious expansion of the NFL calendar.

Mark Cuban is fond of saying that the NFL one day will have a day of reckoning for wanting to own every part of the year, and for being the 800-pound gorilla and crushing other sports. Could be. But I don’t see this tectonic shift of the NFL calendar over the last three decades getting tamer. How did we get here, to the point that the NFL gets boffo ratings to learn which weeks the Steelers play the Ravens?

Commissioner Pete Rozelle, in office till 1989, believed each sport had its season and didn’t mind the quietude of the NFL offseason, interrupted only by a spurt of coverage for the draft. But against the wishes of football traditionalists, Paul Tagliabue and some NFL executives like Joe Browne—particularly envious of baseball’s buzzy offseason—began to push for a more active offseason. Free agency kicked that off in 1993 (following a trial run of lesser lights, Plan B free agency, in ’89), and March came alive with football talk. The NFL Scouting Combine began to open up in the early 2000s; now it’s covered by 1,100 media annually. Media began covering the former sleepy business of Pro Days. The draft exploded, in part by Roger Goodell pushing it to be a road show, in part by making it a three-day orgy of hope. Last year, the NFL pushed the schedule-release date till after the draft, inventing another event to push. Off-season workouts have opened up more and more. And now the league is pushing for a July 27 Back To Football training-camp opening celebration for 28 of the 32 NFL teams

So the combine in February, free agency in March, the draft in April, the schedule-release in May, and players running around in shorts and T-shirts in May and June, camp opening in late July. Coverage City.

Kansas City Chiefs v Green Bay Packers
Patrick Mahomes vs. Aaron Rodgers? Chiefs-Packers is on the 2021 schedule in Week 9. (Getty Images)

“A new idea—even a brilliant one—is just that, and only that, unless the league has the ability to promote it and have it reach its full potential,” Browne wrote in an email to me. Browne retired from the league in 2016 as the EVP of Communications and Government Affairs. He was the longest-serving employee (50 years) in NFL history. “That’s where the cooperation among the league office, 32 clubs,, NFL Network plus the league’s partnerships with the networks and digital and social entities enable these ideas to be carried widely and successfully to NFL fans. It doesn’t hurt that pro football stars as number one in fan interest by a wide margin.”

It doesn’t hurt that fans have become schedule nerds, waiting intently for Schedule 102,844.

“This year,” Katz said, “was a little tricky because we weren’t sure when we began the process whether we were going to play a 16-game, 17-week schedule or 17-game, 18-week schedule. We decided we would start by building the 17-game schedule, because it was new and . . . we wanted to see what the pitfalls were. Right around the Super Bowl, we meet with all our broadcast partners. CBS and FOX basically tell us the games that they most want to keep on their [Sunday afternoon] schedule and NBC and ESPN give us the games that they would like to see on their [Sunday night and Monday night] schedule. Generally, those lists are pretty similar. Our challenge is really how we split the baby and how we allocate all of the top games . . . And then we just start running simulations and running over and over and over again.

“The definition of insanity’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? That’s exactly what we do. Every day, Mike creates new seeds based on what we’ve seen and want to see. Then he puts those into the computer. The computer runs, spits things out. What the computer’s trying to do is solve our puzzle with the framework that we give it.”

What helped: Once the 17th game per team was official in late March, it added 16 games to be spread wherever the NFL wanted to put them. Instead of, say, FOX owning the games because they were all games with NFC teams as visitors, the NFL told broadcast partners that every game was a free agent. Thus, for example, Dallas at New England went to CBS, Green Bay at Kansas City stayed with FOX, Seattle at Pittsburgh went to NBC. That addition of some good extra matchups beefed up the Key Games Chart, the collection of all Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday games, special games (Thanksgiving Day, Christmas doubleheader) and CBS and FOX doubleheader games.

The major mileposts on the road to Schedule 102,844:

• The Green Bay dilemma. Once Adam Schefter reported April 29 on Aaron Rodgers’ desire to play elsewhere, the schedule team had 13 days to determine whether to wean the league off any of Green Bay’s five prime-time games, and several more as key doubleheaders games for FOX and CBS. “That got us a little nervous,” Katz told me. Katz asked around for inside info, but the story was so cloudy. No one knows Rodgers’ fate. I doubt even he does. When I saw the schedule, among everything, this jumped out at me:

Week 1: Green Bay at New Orleans, Sunday, FOX doubleheader.
Week 2: Detroit at Green Bay, Monday, ESPN.
Week 3: Green Bay at San Francisco, Sunday night, NBC.
Week 4: Pittsburgh at Green Bay, Sunday, CBS doubleheader.
Week 14: Chicago at Green Bay, Sunday night, NBC.
Week 17: Minnesota at Green Bay, Sunday night, NBC.

I said to Katz and North this looked pretty well-designed. Each network gets a piece of the Packers in the first four weeks, when they’re a fascinating story, with or without Rodgers. And those last two games—NBC has flex scheduling from Weeks 11 to 17. If the Packers are 4-8 with struggling Jordan Love at QB when that Bears game come up, the league could switch to Buffalo at Tampa, or Baltimore at Cleveland. Ditto Week 17, when Vegas-Indy or Miami-Tennessee could be plugged in.

After the Rodgers report, Katz said, “The Green Bay Packers are still the Green Bay Packers, with or without Aaron Rodgers. They’re a great team and a great brand. We started to think about some of the permutations of the schedule. Ultimately, when he didn’t get traded, we couldn’t solve for something we didn’t know. It was pretty deliberate the way we maxed out the Packers early in the season. You’re right that each of the networks has their bite at the Packers in the first month. That was deliberate.”

• “Aaron Rodgers” at Patrick Mahomes. The second-best matchup of the regular season might be the 72nd-best matchup if it’s Jordan Love or Blake Bortles at Mahomes. But the NFL is gambling, and FOX is praying, that the Pack and Rodgers do not get divorced. For a while in the scheduling process, this game was nestled as a FOX doubleheader game on Christmas weekend (Sunday, Dec. 26). But Katz thought it was too late. What if either team had clinched a playoff spot and might not play its full team for the full game? What if either team was out of contention by then? So it got moved to Week 9, the FOX doubleheader game on Nov. 7.

• The TomBill Bowl. NBC got the Week 4 mega-game—Bucs at Patriots in Tom Brady’s return to New England on Sunday night, Oct. 3. This was the game every network wanted badly, and NBC won it. “The only one we’ve ever done that I could compare it to was our first game—the Manning Bowl,” said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of Sunday Night Football on NBC since its inception in 2006. In Week 1 2006, NBC debuted its Sunday night package with Peyton’s Colts versus Eli’s Giants. “Such tremendous interest in that game. And this year, Tampa Bay-New England will be a story that transcends sports for the week before the game. It’s the game of the year, certainly. It might be the game of many, many years.”

I was interested in how early it’s falling. I thought the league might want the buildup to last for weeks into the season. But I get why they did it. Brady turns 44 in August, and he’s coming off off-season knee surgery, and at some point, isn’t it logical to think that a man of a certain football age won’t last a full 17 games? Plus, it’s logical to wonder if the Patriots’ 2020 struggles continue into this year. Playing it early is a hedge against the Patriots’ record, and a hedge against an old quarterback’s health.

“Each network lobbied for that game,” Katz said. “They lobbied hard. We played with that game at various stages of our schedule in different places. That game was not always on the Sunday night schedule . . . I would say by the latter part of April, we were pretty locked on the general format for the schedule and that game on Sunday night and the Green Bay-Kansas City game being as a FOX doubleheader.”

North said putting the game in Week 4 “is less about whether these teams are fighting for division races, playoff implications, less likely to have an injury, less likely to have weather. The story can be about Brady’s return. It would be different if Tom’s standing on the 50-yard line watching a tribute video in November in six inches of snow. Or, the later in the season we go, the more likely somebody’s injured. Getting in early, having that story told, made some sense.”

• Fixing some road issues. In 2017, the schedule had seven teams with three-game road trips; this year, there are three. In 2017, five teams followed road Monday games with road Sunday games; this year, there’s one (Miami, Weeks 16, 17: at New Orleans on Monday, at Tennessee on Sunday). Back to what got fixed in travel disparity in Schedule 102,844.

Instead of Minnesota traveling to San Francisco and Arizona in Weeks 1 and 2, the league shifted Week 1 to Cincinnati, saving the Vikings three hours of travel time round-trip in the first week.

Instead of the Las Vegas-Baltimore-New Jersey road trip for Cincinnati, the league subbed Detroit for Vegas, and moved Cincinnati’s trip to Nevada to Week 11. That saves the Bengals five hours, total, of travel time in the first weekend of the three.

Instead of the Titans playing at Seattle and at the Rams in Weeks 8 and 9, now it’s Indianapolis and Los Angeles trips back to back. Nashville to Indy: 55 minutes of flight time. Nashville to L.A.: four hours, 15 minutes.

But fixing the Denver issue of two long trips to start the season couldn’t be fixed without creating bigger problems. Who knows? If Carey gave the computers more time, it’s possible a shorter trip could have been subbed for one of these. But this crew, collectively, has more than 70 years of schedule-making experience, and they doubted they’d be able to find a Denver solution. In the end, the league could fix most things, but not everything.

• A weird bye story. Four teams play in London this year—Jets-Atlanta Oct. 10, Miami-Jacksonville Oct. 17, both at 9:30 a.m. ET. The Jets, Falcons and Jags have byes following the games. The Dolphins don’t. They return from London to play a 1 p.m. home game with Atlanta the next week.

Turns out Miami asked to not have its bye the week following the London game. The Dolphins wanted a later bye … and though the Week 14 bye means they play their first 13 games without a break, I still think it’s better to have the bye much later than Week 7. Plus there’s this: It’s likely, barring travel snafus, that the Dolphins will get back from the London game by about 1:15 a.m. Monday. Miami plays at Las Vegas in Week 3, a 4:05 p.m. ET game. Barring travel snafus there too, the Dolphins should return to south Florida about 1:45 a.m. So Miami’s reasoning, I’m sure, was, Let’s not blow our bye early, especially when the London game is just like coming home from a West Coast game.

“Philly was in the mix to go with Atlanta to London,” North said. “They were more than willing to take a home game after London. Most of these teams now have been to London. Everybody’s really kind of figured it out.”

No byes till Week 6. That’s the first time since the league started giving byes that the weeks off have started that late. Teams just hate the early byes. “Don’t forget,” North said. “Tampa had a Week 13 bye last year. Everybody got healthy. They didn’t lose again.”

Regarding the social byproducts of the schedule release: Teams now use the schedule release to get cute on social media. The competition there is intense too. The Cowboys this year engaged Post Malone—Dak Prescott’s favorite artist—to make a schedule-release video with Jerry Jones. Denver got summer intern Peyton Manning to receive the schedule and print it out for the organization. And so forth.

Well, the Broncos may not be the prime-time darlings they once were, but their social team wins. As of 3 p.m. ET Sunday, the Manning video ranked first in the NFL in total views with 1.96 million. On Twitter, the Manning video was beating Post Malone, 674,000 to 666,000.

For better or worse, this is not Pete Rozelle’s NFL.

2021 Schedule Niblets


The 2021 schedule was released Wednesday. Here are a few things that stood out:

1. Denver Broncos. This was noticed in the Rockies, in a big way: Denver does not have a Monday night game, breaking the longest streak in MNF history. The Broncos had a 29-season run (1992-2020) with at least one Monday nighter. It is sobering for fans of the Broncos—on a four-season streak of losing seasons for the first time since the Nixon Administration—to be irrelevant nationally. Until they fix the quarterback in a division full of really good ones, the national profile of the Broncos will be diminished.

2. Miami Dolphins. If the Dolphins can survive a tough five-game start—at New England, Buffalo, at Las Vegas, Indianapolis, at Tampa Bay—they’ll have a forgiving final stretch. Miami has one road game in 56 days late in the season. If they start 3-2, the Dolphins will make the playoffs.

3. Philadelphia Eagles. Fans will grouse with only two prime-timers, but Philadelphia’s got a good chance to be a factor if it can survive the 49ers, Chiefs and Bucs in the first six weeks. The Eagles don’t play a team with a 2020 winning record in the last seven weeks of the season: at Giants, at Jets, bye, Washington, Giants, at Washington, Dallas. And they don’t get on an airplane in the last seven weeks either.

4. New stadia on display, nationally, early. Fans will be in two new venues in year two, and they’ll be shown to national audiences. Week 1: Bears-Rams at SoFi, NBC Sunday night; Ravens-Raiders, Allegiant Stadium, ESPN Monday night. Week 2: Dallas-Chargers at SoFi, Sunday afternoon, CBS doubleheader game.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger’s going to have to be great late for the Steelers to win big this year. Not only does Pittsburgh have a weighty nine of 17 games against teams that finished 11-5 or better last year, but four come in the final four weeks—Tennessee (11-5), at Kansas City (14-2), Cleveland (11-5), at Baltimore (11-5).

6. Indianapolis Colts. Not the biggest travesty, but the Colts don’t get much home prime-time love. Entering the year, per Warren Sharp of Sharp Football Analysis, they’d played nine of their last 10 prime-time games on the road. Add three more out of four this year. They’re home to the Jets on a Thursday night, but on the road for Monday night (Baltimore), Sunday night (San Francisco) and Christmas night (Arizona). So that’s 12 of their last 14 prime-timers away from Lucas Oil. More concerning to Frank Reich, I bet, is this opening quintet: Seattle and the Rams at home, then at Tennessee, Miami and Baltimore. All were double-digit win teams last year.

7. Buffalo Bills. Is the third game in 51 weeks against Kansas City a charm? Lost by nine at home last October, lost by 14 at KC in the playoffs, and now, on Sunday night Oct. 10, Bills at Chiefs is one of the games of the year.

8. New York Giants. Week one 2001 at Denver: Broncos 31, Giants 20. When the Giants landed back home from the Monday night game in Newark, players scattered to their homes, many walking in the door right around the time the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. This will be the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, and so the league scheduled Denver at the Giants in a Sept. 12 late-afternoon Sunday game. QBs Daniel Jones and Drew Lock were both 4 on 9/11.

9. Steelers on the road. Some attention’s been paid to the Steelers opening their season for the seventh straight year on the road; Pittsburgh at Buffalo is the highlight of the Week 1 Sunday early window games. Not sure why this is a flashpoint for Steeler fan anger. Pittsburgh’s 3-2-1 in the previous six road openers—with the two losses coming at defending Super Bowl champ New England. How I’d look at it: In those two seasons, you’ve got your toughest game of the season out of the way in Week 1. And in 2021, you’ve got nine home and seven road games after the opener. It’s just not that big a deal, where you open the season.

10. Washington Football Team. Strangest end of year schedule. WFT plays one division game before Dec. 12. Then it’s nothing but NFC East tilts in the last five weeks: Dallas, at Philadelphia, at Dallas, Philadelphia, at Giants. In the span of 22 days, Washington plays all four games against its biggest rivals, Dallas and Philly.

Updates on 11

Eleven newsy NFL people and things:

1. OFF-SEASON WORKOUTS. Some teams are lowering the intensity of their voluntary off-season workouts at team facilities in order to get players to attend more of the practices and workouts, Dan Graziano of ESPN reported. “Every single player, especially the leaders on these teams, they’re now talking to these teams on their own and saying, ‘If it’s truly voluntary, this is what it needs to look like in order for us to show up,’ “ free-agent safety and NFL Players Association executive board member Michael Thomas told Graziano. The union is in a tough spot here. I can’t see the majority of marginal players and rookies skipping voluntary workouts. Those are the players, in all likelihood, who pushed the 2020 CBA over the finish line after so many big names and veterans campaigned against the deal because it added a 17th game to the schedule. The vote passed 1,019 to 959, and there’s no question the rank-and-file voted for it because of the increase to minimum salaries and benefits. The union can’t push too hard against the men who helped pass this CBA, but they can push for less intensity in the on-field work.

2. BLAKE BORTLES. Imagine you’re Blake Bortles, the recently signed Packer insurance policy at quarterback. Imagine Aaron Rodgers doesn’t show, and you win the starting job over Jordan Love in training camp. In the first month, you travel to the Saints in the big FOX doubleheader game, play the Lions on “Monday Night Football,” play at San Francisco on “Sunday Night Football,” then play the Steelers in a Sunday national game on CBS. Here’s what you must be thinking: I never played four games of this caliber in my Jacksonville career! Welcome to Green Bay, Blake.

3. THE PRESEASON BYE. Remember this about the schedule: There’s a bye before the season starts. The three preseason weekends are Aug. 14, 21 and 28, with the Sept. 4 weekend off. Coaches traditionally like to get their starters some significant time in the third preseason game, but with only three preseason games this year, who knows if coaches will now have their starters play a half in game two or three? If it’s game two, with game three left for end-of-the-roster guys trying to make the team, many players could have three weeks of no game action before the opener. Which is why the 10 teams with the earliest byes (Weeks 6 and 7) are probably not happy. The four Week 6 bye teams will play their last 12 regular-season games without a break.

4. JA’MARR CHASE. Eye-opening to see this from a Cincinnati Bengals’ area scout, Christian Sarkisian, in Paul Dehner Jr.’s interesting story in The Athletic about how the Bengals landed on Chase with their first-round pick: “He’s better than any of the guys last year.” And this from the Bengals’ director of college scouting, Mike Potts, recalling scouting a 2019 LSU game: “There’s a ton of really good receivers in the country, but the best one is right here at LSU, and he can’t even enter this year’s draft.” Chase wasn’t eligible for the 2020 draft, but after opting out of his true junior season in 2020, he entered this year’s draft. The Bengals made it clear by their draft board, and by the exalted words of their scouts to Dehner, that they’re convinced he’s better than former LSU teammate Justin Jefferson (88 catches, 1,400 yards as a smooth and explosive Vikings rookie last fall), Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb from the 2020 draft, and better than Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith this year.

2021 NFL Draft
Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. (Getty Images)

Stats don’t mean everything; reunited with Joe Burrow this fall, Chase has a chance to have an explosive rookie year. But I can’t see him having close to the 1,780-yard year he had with Burrow at LSU in 2019, or to the year Jefferson had last year. The words of their scouts put pressure on Chase to be great right away. And on a team with strong targets Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, it won’t be easy for Chase to justify those words. Burrow played 10 games last year, and he targeted Boyd and Higgins, collectively, 158 times with 112 completions. Burrow has a bond with Chase, but he’s also the ultimate team guy. He’s not going to forget two other very good receivers.

5. BYEMAGEDDON. That’s what some fantasy players (and networks missing big teams) are calling Week 7 of the NFL slate. It’s the only six-team bye week, and some boldface names will be off then: Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs (Buffalo), Dak Prescott, Zeke Elliott, Ceedee Lamb, Amari Cooper (Dallas), Justin Herbert (Chargers), Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen (Minnesota), and Ben Roethlisberger, Najee Harris and whatever Steeler receiver is hot. Big waiver-wire pickup week.

6. Davante Adams. Talking to star Packers wideout Davante Adams about Aaron Rodgers the other day—he was made available to media outlets by an Optimum Nutrition-sponsored initiative called Building Better Lives, which promotes fitness in underserved communities—Adams was careful about saying anything inflammatory. He did say he hoped things could get “back to normal,” between the Packers and the quarterback, which is a rational sentiment. What most interested me is Adams’ framing of the dispute between team and player. “It’s just something that’s part of the business—you’ve got to keep people happy,” Adams said. “And it’s tough because you have so much time invested in one place and you’ve done so much for one place you just hope to see that respect reciprocated, I guess you could say. And when it doesn’t work out exactly how you want, you have issues like this.”

That’s exactly the issue here, stated well (if very carefully) by Adams, whose own future in Green Bay—he’s a free agent in 2022—could be affected by where Rodgers plays in 2022 and beyond. It’s much more a respect situation than a contractual one. Rodgers feels like his opinion inside the building isn’t valued, and it’s been exacerbated by the team taking his supposed heir, Jordan Love, in the 2020 draft without informing him first. With no real deadline (including the mandatory June minicamp) approaching, there’s more reason to let this thing simmer down for a few weeks than to rush to a conclusion that might, today, be impossible to reach.

7. JA’WUAN JAMES. The Broncos cut the starting tackle after he sustained a torn Achilles in an offseason workout away from the Broncos facility. Denver doesn’t intend to pay James his $10 million salary for 2021 because he was injured away from team premises and placed on the non-football injury list. This is a line-in-the-sand issue for NFL teams after the players union advised players to stay away from voluntary workouts this offseason. James will likely use all avenues to try to be paid for the season—ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported James is strongly considering filing a grievance to make sure he gets his $10 million. He’d certainly claim that he was working out to stay in shape for the 2021 season, while the team would claim it isn’t liable to cover injuries suffered away from the team facility. It could be a litmus test for the NFLPA telling players to avoid working out at team facilities. Stay tuned.

8. Trey Lance. Really good piece by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, reporting from Marshall, Minn., on what turned Lance into the third pick in the NFL draft. Lance is a country kid from a prairie town 155 miles west of Minneapolis, the nearest high school football rival an hour’s drive away. So his dad and mom, Carlton and Angie Lance, thought he needed some motivation if he was ever going to have a chance to be a great athlete, Branch writes:

Trey and his dad were shooting hoops at the YMCA before Trey entered eighth grade. Trey was casually hoisting shots. Carlton wanted him to work more purposefully on his jumper. Trey resisted. Carlton angrily ended the session . . . Trey had recently started talking about playing a Division I sport in college. Angie spoke to him about the ticking clock as it related to recruiting. She suggested that he write down his goals and the steps he would take to realize them.

“That was a big day at our house,” Angie said. “It was, ‘Trey, you can do this, but there’s going to be a price to pay.’”

Trey responded by embracing his dad’s many mantras on competition and athletic success. One was “extending your day” — working when others weren’t willing to. Trey began by waking Carlton, often on pitch-black, sub-zero Minnesota mornings, for 5 a.m. workouts at the YMCA. Those sessions were punctuated by a fist bump and a reinforcing message: “You outworked someone today. The other guy is sleeping.”

9. FANTASY PLAYOFFS. I first learned on Twitter of the tens of millions of fantasy players being impacted by the 17-game season and the four week-14 teams on the bye. That’s the weekend, traditionally, that fantasy football playoffs begin in many leagues. Schedulemeister Howard Katz didn’t know either. “Not until you just said it,” Katz told me. ESPN’s Matthew Berry told me that ESPN leagues—with tens of millions of players—have four teams make the playoff in standard league, and those leagues are likely to have cumulative playoff matchups for Weeks 14 and 15, with stats totaled over eight quarters and two weeks instead of over one game. “The theory is that in a two-week period the best team will likely prevail,” Berry said. Then the two surviving teams would play another cumulative round for the championship—combining weeks 17 and 18. Berry didn’t think it’d be impossible to navigate. “Fantasy players are nothing if not adaptable,” Berry said. “Last year, we all had to deal with Wednesday afternoon football.”

10. Travis Etienne. Surprise: The Jags will use Etienne almost exclusively in off-season work at wide receiver. Seems like a good idea, seeing if the best back on many boards in April can be a more durable Percy Harvin/Le’Veon Bell in September and October. “Football’s a game of matchups,” said Etienne. “We’re just trying to get the best matchups.” I don’t see a downside here; even if Etienne doesn’t get flanked out much, the Jags would know at least if he can be the kind of versatile back to do Alvin Kamara things out of the backfield.

11. PLAYER NAMES. They are a-changin’. To wit:

• In the 2021 draft, there were players named Jaylen, Jaelan, Jalen, Jaelon and Jaylon.

• Players named Javonte, Javon, Jamin, and Ja’Marr, Jamar, Jermarr.

• Players named Jaycee, Joe, Jay, Jackson, Jeremiah, Josh, Joshua, Joshuah, Jacob, James, Jabril, Jordan, Janarius, Jamien, Jason, Jonathan, Jonathon, JaCoby, Jimmy, Jake and Jack.

• And one player named John: Boise State tight end John Bates, picked in the fourth round by Washington.

Quotes of the Week



“We want him back in the worst way.”

—Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur, on Aaron Rodgers.


“I’m not really sure what the deal is with Rodgers — what is upsetting him. In my opinion, you can’t be in a better place. Everything there is geared toward the player. Everything they do is about the player. That’s the greatness of that franchise. To me, that’s why it’s been so successful. It’s about playing football. That’s all. It’s not about any other thing. It’s not about going to some owner’s wife’s tea party, to this affair or that affair. It’s about playing football and being a professional football player. That’s all it is. That’s really the greatness of the Packers. You can’t top that anywhere.”

—Hall of Fame GM Ron Wolf, who built the great Packer team of the nineties, to Tyler Dunne of Go Long With Tyler Dunne, on Aaron Rodgers.


“The 2022 Pro Bowl will be played Sunday, February 6th, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. I will be there two weeks in advance, to prepare.”

—“Monday Night Football” play-by-play voice Steve Levy, hosting ESPN’s NFL schedule release show Wednesday night.


“Brady is coming to town. He’s coming here to beat Belichick. He’s coming here to beat Bob Kraft. He’s fighting for truth, justice, and the Tompa Bay Way.”

—Columnist Dan Shaughnessy, in the Boston Globe.


I’m sort of fascinated by Chase McLaughlin. Remember him? Remember the 2019 Monday-nighter, Seahawks at Niners, that the undrafted rookie kicker from Illinois, in his debut as a Niner, played such a huge role in? More about that in a moment. But McLaughlin, signed last week by Cleveland, is notable because he’s had nine NFL stops in the last 20 months. Check out his path to Brownsville:

Teams: 8.
Stints: 9 (Vikings twice).
Games: 15.
FG: 22-28 (.786).

High point: Nov. 11, 2019. (San Francisco.) Made a 47-yard field goal with one second left in the fourth quarter against Seattle to send the game to overtime.

Low point: Nov. 11, 2019. (San Francisco.) Missed a 47-yard field goal in overtime against Seattle. ‘Hawks went on to win on a last-second field goal.

King of the Road


Consider this your summer-travel warning: You’re going to need some extra time at airports. My wife and I flew out of JFK Airport in New York on Friday morning, bound for Oakland to see family for a few days. We had a 6:50 a.m. flight to Salt Lake City. Arrived in an Uber at JFK at 5:55 and found a huge line snaking toward the Delta terminal, a Friday-before-Christmas-at-JFK kind of line. The terminal, stuffed with people. Baggage lines, 100 deep. No time to check bags. TSA Precheck line, 50 deep. Get to gate at 6:43, and luckily other people were way late too. We would have deserved to miss the flight, because we arrived just 55 minutes before it. But I’d gotten used to the rhythm of the quiet airports, and just walking in and walking on, basically. No more. I think we’re back, or close to being back.

By the way, lovely new Delta terminal at the Salt Lake airport.

Tweets of the Week


The Twitter account of the Kansas City franchise, with its best Tweet of all time.


Mark Pahlow, of Seattle.


Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.

Some more thoughts in Ten Things, but, in short: Exactly, Kurt.


Cleverish Twitter site of the Los Angeles Chargers.


Sherman is a baseball writer for the New York Post.


Brady plays quarterback in the NFL.



Reach me at, or on Twitter.

Niners overexposed. From Jeffrey Pollard: “Why do the 49ers have so many prime time slots? They were 6-10 last season and even if Jimmy G can stay healthy there’s no guarantee they’ll be a playoff team.”

The NFL is gambling a bit on the Niners, with their five prime-time games. But I’m sure the league feels San Francisco is a good bet to be closer to 13 wins and a conference title (2019) than six wins (2020) with a bunch of injuries. I agree. I also think the Niners are a compelling story right now, with all the offseason noise around the quarterback and then the drama around the one they drafted.

Eagles underexposed. From Jeff Zelinske: “Eagles fan here, Peter. Local guys were talking about how surprised they were at only two prime-time games for the birds. Is this punishment for the ‘tanking game’ last year?”

Well, I see why the fan base would think the Eagles are taking a bad rap in scheduling this year. But to me it’s pretty easy. Philadelphia and Miami have two prime-time games because they’re coming off non-playoff years with iffy quarterback situations. How ironic. Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, Tide teammates before Hurts lost the job to Tua and chose to transfer, are the two quarterbacks of those franchises that the NFL is saying, “Prove it”.

Schedulenerdness. From Ray Stallone: “With the Steelers and Browns playing on MNF in Week 17, one would assume their Week 18 contests (Cleveland vs. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh vs. Baltimore) are off-limits for the Saturday, Jan. 8 ESPN doubleheader. That should be a relief to their travel secretaries.”

Excellent point, Ray. And you’re right. The NFL will not ask the Steelers or Browns to play on a short-rest Saturday in Week 18. Now, it’s still possible that one of the teams could play Sunday night. But they would definitely not be moved into either of the Saturday slots.

COVIDland. From Corey Livermore: “Near the top of your column, you seem to support being able to cut players for not getting vaccinated, and you do this in the interest of player safety. I’m assuming your thoughts are leaning towards player safety, primarily because you have advocated for safety not just during the pandemic, but lately because of it. You even went so far as to state that you think players might get cut for not getting vaccinated, but that this reason would end up getting covered up. (I’m paraphrasing.) Later in your column, you blasted De Smith over a tweet he put out there about potentially negotiating another player opt-out due to COVID this year. Your exact words were ‘but this takes things way too far.’ What I’d like to know is how you can approve of eliminating a player’s livelihood/career because he makes a personal choice to not get vaccinated, but then speak out against the players and their union wanting to have the option to not play voluntarily if they don’t feel safe doing so. If both are done in the interest of player safety, how do justify saying it’s okay for owners to make the decision but not players?”

Fair question. My feeling is simple: As with many colleges across the United States, I believe the people who run the college have the right to say, “If you want to attend our school, you’ve got to be vaccinated.” Now, in the NFL, the league has decided to NOT make it mandatory, and that’s not because they’re being wonderful and enlightened human beings. It’s because they know that not every player would get vaccinated. What if the league ruled that every player had to be vaccinated in order to play, and three or four star quarterbacks said they would not take the shot? Those teams are in big trouble, and the league would possibly face a lawsuit or two over it.

No team is cutting a great player over the vaccine. But if holding camp without COVID restriction or masks is being held up by one marginal player who won’t get the vaccine, and the team believes that opening up to the 2019 normal is a big deal for the team, I don’t see an issue with cutting two or four vax-holdouts to accomplish that. My point, and I should have been clearer, was about the lower-rung guys.

As for De Smith’s attempt to get players to have the ability in a second straight season to opt out, two things. One: If you’re worried about getting the virus, there’s a way not to—take the vaccine. Are you so dead-set against taking the vaccine that you’re willing to risk your career over it? And staying away from football for two years is going to cause the majority of players opting out to be forgotten and eventually get cut by the team. Two: Let’s say you’re against the vaccine but your team would welcome you back. You’d have to live by all the COVID protocols but you could come back. If you don’t want to, my feeling is the bus is leaving the station and if you’re not on it, we’re parting ways. In what other walks of life, months after every adult in those pursuits is eligible to get the vaccine, can you not follow the rules to work at that business? I don’t know of a single one. Time to move on.

On reading comprehension. From Justin Quis Quis, of Valley Center, Calif.: “Nobody thinks Ben Dreith is a clown for his description of the Marty Lyons unnecessary roughness call. As a longtime NFL viewer/fan, I remember Dreith quite clearly and he was a great ref. In fact, it’s one of the greatest if not the greatest sound bites of a ref in history. It was so pure and it showed he was a human in his description. Not some lame robot like we normally see. And it certainly wasn’t ‘sad’ for crying out loud. Poor choice of words to describe that.”

I’d recommend you read what I wrote again. I did not call him a “clown.” In my item last week on the death of Dreith, Justin, I said he had an illustrious 31-year officiating career in the AFL and NFL, and it “seems sad” that he is remembered most notably for his humorous call on Marty Lyons. It is inarguable that the moment of Dreith’s career that he is remembered for is the call on Lyons; in fact, when WNBC-TV made note of his death on the evening news last week, they show that clip of the “givin’ him the business” call.

On Pujols v Mays. From Kenn Fong: “You get my hustle award for the stats on Willie Mays’ durabilty. Great research. However, I must dispute your comparison of Albert Pujols and Mays. Pujols didn’t have the durability that you ascribed to Willie. He also played for the Angels in the American League, which gave him more offensive opportunities because of the DH. I don’t mean he played most of the games as a DH, but without doing a Jamesian deep-dive, I have to believe he had a greater chance for RBIs and TBs in a lineup with the DH. Still, this does not diminish my admiration for Pujols.”

True, Kenn. And duly noted. Thanks. I went back and looked at Pujols’ numbers, and he had a lot more games (572 games) at DH than I had thought. That’s 29.3 percent of his major league games not playing the field. It’s a lot. And I should have mentioned that.

10 Things I Think I Think

1. I think this was a curious find:

• For the Patriots’ October home game against the Jets, Vivid Seats is selling two upper-deck tickets in section 307, row 10, for $287 each.

• For the Patriots’ October home game against the Bucs, Vivid Seats is selling two upper-deck tickets in section 307, row 13, for $4,752 each.

Wonder why.

2. I think I really like the low-cost deal Kansas City GM Brett Veach made for injury-plagued Minnesota cornerback Mike Hughes. The Vikings traded Hughes plus their seventh-round pick in 2022 to KC for a sixth-round pick in 2022. Hughes was the 30th pick overall in 2018, the third cornerback selected. Look at the trade this way, using 2021 draft numbers. The Vikings moved up from the 242nd overall pick (in 2021 draft numbers) to 215th overall. GMs will tell you that, when you get to this point of the draft, the pick you’d have made at 215 will still be available at 242 maybe half the time. So the Chiefs take a one-year flyer on Hughes, and if he’s good, he becomes part of their corner rotation and maybe finds a home. There is no downside. Nice deal for KC.

3. I think, as suspected, most if not all rookies attended minicamps held by 29 teams over the weekend. The agent for one rookie draftee told me his guy was pressured by one veteran on the team to not attend the team’s rookie camp. The agent told me his client said he respected what the veterans are trying to do, but there was no way he’d skip the camp and start his career off on the wrong foot with his team. Hard to imagine many if any rookies staying away.

4. I think one thing I neglected to use in my top last week about the Dolphins draft is something in retrospect I wish I’d used. It’s coach Brian Flores talking about why the organization was so high on Jaylen Waddle—Miami’s top pick in the draft—from the scouting process. Flores told me:

“I view it more from a defensive perspective. It’s numbers to me. I think he requires two people to cover him. When you can add that type of player, and that player can move around within an offense, that causes defenses a lot of problems. And he does that because of his speed, his quickness, his explosiveness. Any time you’re gonna add a player like that, on offense or defense, which potentially, he and, hopefully, [pass-rusher and fellow first-round pick] Jaelan Phillips is the same way. Defenses have got to direct more than one person to handle them.

“Just from my scouting background, that’s one thing that always kind of stuck out to me. Those players who you’ve got to pay that type of attention to, they only help your offense or defense. That’s taking away from their focus on other guys.”

5. I think I don’t get too bothered by Tim Tebow taking up one of 90 training-camp roster spots in Jacksonville. As to how it’s going to impact the locker room, as many have pointed out, the Jaguars are a team that likely will have more than half the roster turned over this year from opening day last year. They were 1-15. This is a new day, with a new coach, and yes, Tebow would be able to get one of 90 slots with only one coach, Urban Meyer. But seriously: Who cares?

6. I think Tebow probably won’t make it. But if he does, I can tell you Meyer understands the ethos of the locker room. Tebow will not make this team, if he does, as a coach’s pet. And say he bombs out and is cut this summer, and you’d say, “What if an undrafted free-agent tight end, 10 years younger and with much more experience at the position, had been given Tebow’s chance?” There’s nothing to stop Jacksonville from signing an undrafted tight end, and had they liked one enough the night of day three of the draft, they certainly would have done so.

7. I think I’d say this in response to the Raiders’ belief that the Ravens were lying in wait for tackle Alex Leatherwood to get past mid-first-round so Baltimore could pick the Alabama tackle late in round one: My belief is the Ravens had a round-three grade on Leatherwood. So they’d never have considered him late in the first.

8. I think I give Jimmy Garoppolo credit for being so welcoming to Trey Lance in San Francisco. Lance said Garoppolo told him it would be “awesome to have another FCS guy in the room.” That’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision; Garoppolo played at Eastern Illinois, Lance at North Dakota State. My money’s on Jimmy G, if healthy, holding off Lance for most if not all this season. Lance can learn a lot from him.

9. I think this is disgusting to the point of near-vomit-inducing. I watched it twice. I was so taken aback by the first viewing that I felt I needed to watch it again, to be sure I’d seen what I saw. There is only one thing to say about this: The coaches running this drill, and particularly the one who woo-hooed at the big hit, should never be allowed to coach a child again. Ever.

10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:

a. Story of the Week: Del Quentin Wilber of the Los Angeles Times on a man held hostage in Iran four decades ago, and how baseball helped in the past and today to keep him sane.

b. Barry Rosen, one of the hostages, is 77 now. It’s long past the 444 days he was held captive, but he’s still benefiting from one of the after-effects. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave the 52 Americans released from captivity what he called “golden tickets,’’ free admission to any major-league baseball regular-season game for the rest of their lives.

c. “Baseball rescued me, and continues to,” Rosen told Wilber.

d. Rosen grew up in Brooklyn, and his fondest childhood memories were going to Dodgers games with his dad. As a young adult, he became the press attache in Tehran when it was overrun by students angry that President Carter had allowed the hated former Shah of Iran into America for medical treatment. Wrote Wilber:

For more than a year, Rosen and 51 other Americans were threatened, beaten and held in rough conditions, including in solitary confinement. They didn’t know if they would live or die. At one point, an Iranian held a gun to Rosen’s head and forced him to confess to being a spy. He lost nearly 40 pounds and couldn’t sleep. His only escape was baseball.

For hours, he would sit and meditate about going to Ebbets, transporting himself to the halcyon baseball of his youth. “Baseball kept me sane,” he said.

He fantasized for hours, re-creating games down to the pitch, the fans sitting next to him and his father in the right-field stands, the lunches his mother packed them. He especially enjoyed his detailed replays of Carl Furillo — the “Reading Rifle” — handling caroms off the wall and firing balls home, for an out. “It was the way to calm myself down and try to get into another world and the world of my childhood,” Rosen said.

e. And then Rosen came home and needed baseball again. You’ll enjoy what happened next.

f. Wildlife Story of the Week: The one about the endangered condors with the 9.5-foot wingspan that landed on a southern California woman’s deck and left quite a mess, including concrete-like excrement, from Johnny Diaz of the New York Times.

g. Condors were verging on extinction until a breeding program helped stabilize their numbers, and now it’s thought there are more than 400 in the United States. And about 15 or so centered around Cindy Mickols’ home in southern California. Writes Diaz:

As they were reintroduced to the wild, the birds, scavengers by nature, also became habituated to humans by lurking around campsites and making themselves at home on people’s properties. The [state] Fish and Wildlife Service said that … [the] house is in a historical condor habitat “where natural food sources occur” and that “unfortunately they sometimes perceive houses and decks as suitable perch locations.”

To encourage the birds to leave without causing them harm, the Fish and Wildlife Service suggests using water hoses, yelling, clapping or shouting. As of Wednesday morning, Ms. Mickols said, the condors that been on her house had moved on to a tree on her property, though she said she hadn’t seen them since then.

Her daughter joked that “they’re just waiting until she leaves again to throw another party.”

h. Perspective of the Week: From former major-league third baseman Kevin Youkilis, to Ian Browne of, on becoming a youth baseball coach in California:

“Before the game, I’ll help get the field ready. So we drag the field, like the old way of doing it, by hand and chain and taking that thing around the infield and raking up a little bit, watering down the field, putting the chalk lines down. To me, it’s soothing. I love it. It brings me back to my younger years of playing baseball when it wasn’t about money or fame or all the craziness that happens [when you] get to the Major League level. It is really for the love of the game. And I love it. I mean that’s, that’s why I played baseball. I played baseball because I absolutely loved it. It brings you back to your pure love of the sport, and that’s what I love about chalking and doing all that stuff.”

i. I coached girls softball for 17 years in New Jersey. Some of the most enjoyable times were hustling to the field after a rain, raking and smoothing the dirt and then lining the field. Strange to say that, but it was a task that needed to be accomplished, and in 90 minutes you created something that two teams and a lot of parents could enjoy.

j. Football Life Story of the Week: Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, with an interesting Q&A with former college coach Chris Petersen.

k. Petersen, highly successful coach at Boise State and Washington, was always talked about as an outside-the-box, very human NFL coaching candidate. Reading this talk between him and Feldman—it’s a conversation as much as an interview—I wonder if Petersen will coach again. And if not, good for him. Says Petersen:

“In the coaching world, we have these scoreboards. You have society scoreboard, and it’s about wins. It’s about money. It’s about fame. It’s about promotion. It’s about status. It’s about approval. It’s about rank. That’s the world we live in. That’s what you’re getting reinforced for every day in the arena we live in. It can (be) pretty powerful but it wears off quickly in terms of fulfillment. But you got to win, or you get a new job or more recruits and all that kind of stuff. And that scoreboard continually gets big and blown up.

“But on the other hand, we have this personal scoreboard that some of us are only kind of aware of; the ones that are probably more adjusted and healthy, understand what this is all about, and that’s our personal scoreboard. It’s about relationships with your family, your colleagues, your friends. It’s about your purpose in life. It’s about your values. It’s about living authentically. It’s about growing. It’s about balance. It’s about fitness, physical and mental. Those are just some of the elements that are on a personal scoreboard and that’s all intrinsic. That’s the stuff that’s really going to drive and fulfill a person. But it’s so hard to fight that battle in the arena that is the sporting world of college athletics. I felt that and it just, it really bothered me.

“. . . It’s the busyness of life. We put too much on our plate, and we keep taking more and more on in our life that’s really not gonna matter. But actually, it does matter. It’s going to matter the wrong way.”

l. I bet about 900 coaches could read that and say, “Oh my gosh. Chris Petersen is sending me a lesson.”

m. Want to feel old? Ed Whitson turns 66 Wednesday..

n. Want to feel older? Reggie Jackson turns 75 tomorrow.

o. Older still? Bobby Cox turns 80 Friday.

p. Good luck to Kent Babb of the Washington Post on his important book project, “Across The River: Life, Death and Football in an American City.” The book comes out in August. It’s about how high school football, and a New Orleans high school football coach, endeavors to teach his players life and survival skills before they age out of school. I’m lucky enough to be halfway through a galley copy, and it’s riveting and scary and really educational about how tough it is for kids to get out of situations like that with a good chance at a good life.

q. I’m not into restaurant reviews, really, but I know what I like. And we had a fantastic dinner Saturday night (my birthday dinner, 11 months delayed) in San Francisco at a fairly new spot, Ernest. I love imaginative people like the chef and owner, Brandon Rice. Imagine this creation: Pineapple upside down cake made with shaved ice. Genius.

r. Saved the best for last: Congrats, Dana and Robert Klemko, on the birth of your first child, Jack Alexander Klemko, Friday night in Maryland. Asked my old buddy from The MMQB what it was like to be a dad. “Like, too much power and responsibility,” he said. There’s more coming, Robert. Lots more.

The Adieu Haiku


“Cooking with Kickers.”
NFL could get ratings
with that. Guaranteed.

9 responses to “FMIA: Schedule No. 102,844 And The Nuttiness Around NFL’s Annual Slate

  1. The nice thing about ‘Cooking with Kickers’ is that it could be the same when you reverse it as ‘Kicking with Cookers!’

  2. I think you missed the point of Steelers fans being disappointed by this being seventh straight year of the season opener on the road. People are so excited about the season starting that the opening game of the season is a big deal. Everyone knows it’s 50/50 if it’s at home but when it is its exciting as heck. 7 years is a long time to wait for a home opener. Seems unfair. Not going to change the superbowl odds or season record. Just blah.

  3. Is the third game in 51 weeks against Kansas City a charm? Lost by nine at home last October, lost by 14 at KC in the playoffs, and now, on Sunday night Oct. 10, Bills at Chiefs is one of the games of the year.


    Neither of those games were as close as the final score indicates. Buffalo’s defense had no answer for KC in either game. The first game KC outgained Buffalo 460-200 and in the second game KC scores on like 7 straight possessions.

    Also, the KC defense did a pretty good job in both games. There was a pretty wide gap between those teams last year.

  4. I am amazed that my search for the words “beer” and “coffee” both came up dry. At first I thought that something was wrong with me when I did not recall seeing anything on either subject. That doesn’t change the fact that this week’s edition was a great read, as usual.

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