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NFL can, and does, impact competitive integrity with scheduling process

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In six simple words, NFL V.P. of broadcast planning Mike North inadvertently pulled back a pretty important curtain, when it comes to the competitive integrity of pro football.

They kind of owe us one.

Before North uttered that phrase in reference to the Jets’ 2024 schedule, few had focused on the question of whether the NFL might be misusing the awesome power it has to make things easier, or harder, for a given team based on when their games are played.

The Jets, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2010, have done nothing to earn high-profile games. But they got plenty of them last year after trading for Aaron Rodgers. This year, the Jets got seven standalone games in the first 11 weeks because, as North said, “They kind of owe us one.”

So the Jets get a more challenging configuration of games, with three in 10 days to start the season, because they failed to deliver in 2023? That makes no sense, and it cuts against the league’s general approach of competitive balance from one year to the next.

The “good” teams should have the more screwy schedules. The “bad” teams should be playing the bulk of their games on Sunday afternoons. As TV money has increased, however, the league has decided to pick teams based not on whether they’ve earned the burden of playing so many games with less rest and/or greater scrutiny.

The Chiefs, obviously, have earned their hopscotch schedule. And they’ve thrived with that obligation in the past.

They’ve been our bell cow for a while, right?” North recently told Adam Schefter. “They’re kind of used to carrying our water for some of these unique kind of opportunities here.”

Still, in that same interview, North also admitted that (contrary to those who think everything is rigged for the Chiefs), the league handed the two-time defending champions a very tough assignment.

“We maybe gave the Chiefs the hardest schedule in the league,” North said. “I suspect they’re gonna be there come playoff time.”

The Chiefs likely will be, but it won’t be easy. It also won’t be easy for the Jets, for reasons unrelated to their recent on-field accomplishments.

The broader point, which didn’t dawn on me until North said “they kind of owe us one,” is that the league has MASSIVE influence over the competitive integrity of a season based on how the games are scheduled. They can (and do) give some teams a hard schedule — and they know it.

There should be a formula based on how teams perform the prior year. The final four teams should face the biggest burdens when it comes to limited rest due to primetime bingo or rest imbalances that come from facing teams that are emerging from bye weeks. The non-playoff teams should play the bulk of their games at 1:00 p.m. ET (or 4:05 p.m. ET) on Sundays.

Instead, the league does whatever it wants, with no guardrails. While the apparent goal is to create the most compelling slate of standalone games, plenty of other biases and agendas can creep in. Last year, for example, it seemed that the teams that dared oppose the Thursday night flexing option were more likely to end up with multiple Sunday-Thursday games.

Here’s the broader takeaway, for anyone who is inclined to wager on win totals, division titles, or the Super Bowl champion: Wait.

Specifically, wait until the schedule is out before making any bets like that. Placing wagers before then makes those bets even more of a crapshoot than they already are.

In recent years, some have marveled at the attention given to the announcement of the schedule, since it simply adds the “when” to the “who” and “where” of the 272-game slate. The “when,” however, means everything. Especially since the process is becoming less and less random and structured and more and more strategic and deliberate.

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