Oct 12, 2020 - Sports

The NFL's scheduling puzzle

Illustration of shuffled football puzzle game
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The NFL's postponement of Week 5's Broncos vs. Patriots matchup has shifted the dates of eight games involving seven teams, creating the season's first true scheduling puzzle.

Where it stands: An 18th week of the regular season is reportedly "in play," but the league wants it to be a last resort.

The moves:

  • Broncos at Patriots: Week 5 → Week 6
  • Chiefs at Bills: Week 6 (Thursday) → Week 6 (Monday)
  • Jets at Dolphins: Week 10 → Week 6
  • Jets at Chargers: Week 6 → Week 11
  • Jaguars at Chargers: Week 8 → Week 7
  • Chargers at Broncos: Week 11 → Week 8
  • Chargers at Dolphins: Week 7 → Week 10
  • Dolphins at Broncos: Week 6 → Week 11

The backdrop: The NFL managing this mess while the NBA wraps up its flawless bubble makes for an obvious comparison, but it's not particularly apt given the vast differences between the two leagues.

  • Too many people: The NBA's expanded bubble rosters topped out at around 18 players, and only 22 teams made the trip. NFL rosters are about three times that size, staffs are much bigger and all 32 teams would have participated.
  • Full season: It was challenging enough for the NBA to pull off a three-month bubble; the NFL was staring at a full, five-month season.
  • Game frequency: The NBA fit all its games on a handful of courts with teams playing a few times a week, but NFL teams can't realistically play more than once every five to six days.
  • Add it all up, and unless you know of a facility with 10–15 NFL-grade football fields and lodging for 5,000 people, the single-site bubble was never an option.

Yes, but: While an NBA-style bubble was out of the question, market bubbles (teams living in hotels in home cities) or multiple bubbles (similar to the NHL but with more sites) were both feasible, so it's not like the NFL didn't have options.

  • The league went a different route, ultimately deciding that the non-bubble approach would suffice as long as it remained "flexible and adaptable," chief medical officer Allen Sills told Axios in June.

The bottom line: Sills has repeatedly said the NFL expected positive cases, and the league's protocol was formulated merely to contain the spread. That sounded much better before watching it play out in real time.

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