Philadelphia Eagles fans are probably upset that they will barely get an up-close look at Chip Kelly's remade roster early on, with the team on the road for three of its first four regular-season games. Well, blame the Phillies. And the Pope.
The Eagles share parking lots with the Phillies, making September -- and sometimes October -- an annual source of scheduling conundrums. But this year, the NFL received an additional (and unusual) request pertaining to the Eagles' slate -- from the Archbishop of Philadelphia. He asked that the Eagles not be scheduled for a home game on the third Sunday of the season, Sept. 27, because Pope Francis is scheduled to deliver Mass outside the city's famed art museum to an expected crowd of two million people. The demand for city services -- from transportation to police -- would be too great to also host a football game. The Eagles endorsed the request. And so they will visit the New York Jets on that day.
That is just one of the quirks that went into the 2015 NFL schedule, the pasting together of which gets more complicated each year because of the increasing number of demands (the three 9:30 a.m. ET games from London were another new wrinkle for this season).
Remember how the Pittsburgh Pirates were the darlings of the sports world last autumn? Well, the NFL scheduling department did not find them so dear.
The recent rise of formerly also-ran baseball teams -- in places like Pittsburgh, Oakland and Baltimore -- has created more complexity for the people charged with formulating a schedule that does not have the Steelers playing a prime-time game at the same time as the Pirates might be hosting the National League Championship Series (the stadiums are mere blocks from each other along the Allegheny River). For years, those baseball teams weren't good enough to merit much of a thought. But as the 2015 schedule came together, the fear that Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium could be fighting each other for parking, or that the Raiders and A's could be co-hosting in O.co Coliseum in September/October, became issues to contend with.
Add to that the increasing sophistication of teams when it comes to scheduling, and the rise in the number of requests has complicated an already byzantine task.
Howard Katz is the NFL executive who oversees scheduling. He says his colleague, Michael North, calls finding the right schedule "looking for a needle in a haystack." And Katz adds: "We spend the first two months of the process just looking for the haystacks."
A few other interesting nuggets about this year's schedule ...
1) The L.A. effect
None of the three teams that could potentially relocate to Los Angeles in 2016 will play at home on the final Sunday of the regular season. That is perhaps a very fortuitous coincidence, but more likely it is no accident that the Chargers, Rams and Raiders will be spared the possibility of awkward goodbyes as lame-duck teams.
It now seems almost certain that at least one of those teams, perhaps two, will be in Los Angeles for 2016 -- and NFL owners have been told that there could be a vote at their meeting in early December on which team(s) will move. The Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis was blocked from the Rams' use by another event in Week 17. But the NFL seriously considered having the Chargers-Broncos game -- which will take place in Denver on the final day of the season -- be played in San Diego. The final decision, though, avoids what could be a painful day in multiple markets.
2) Kickoff Game runner-up
The Patriots have a weak slate of home opponents this year -- Pittsburgh is the only visitor that made the playoffs last season. The Steelers are a very reliable big-ratings draw, too, and that game will be a good test of two rebuilt secondaries. But the Eagles, who have had one of the league's most dramatic roster makeovers, were ultimately shelved for the domino effect having them play the opener would have had: The NFL wanted the Eagles-Patriots game for a FOX double-header later in the season (Week 13).
3) On the road again (... and again and again)
Four teams have three-game road trips this season: the Falcons, Bills, Dolphins and Jaguars. Atlanta's stadium, the Georgia Dome, hosts the SEC Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 5. So the Falcons' preferred to be on the road the next day. They might not have preferred it if they realized it was the start of three games away from home. The Falcons have it relatively easy, though -- those three road games are at Tampa Bay, Carolina and Jacksonville.
Teams also have indicated a willingness to stay on one coast if they have back-to-back games there, rather than traveling home and back again, making those schedules less onerous. The Ravens could get plenty of practice at it: They open at Denver, with a game in Oakland the next week; a month later, they play at San Francisco and at Arizona back to back.
4) Must-see TV
Some of the regular season's most intriguing games (scheduled for Sunday afternoon, unless otherwise noted):
» Tennessee Titans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 1): This is likely to be the debut of Jameis Winston, assuming the Bucs select him first overall in next week's draft. Might it also be Philip Rivers' debut for Tennessee?
» Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills (Week 1) and New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills (Week 2): Should provide an early answer about whether the Bills, with Rex Ryan and LeSean McCoy, are going to be any more of a competitor in the AFC after all.
» Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers (Week 2, Sunday Night Football): By which time the Packers might be over the horror of that playoff loss. (Probably not.)
» San Francisco 49ers at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 2), San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals (Week 3) and San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers (Week 4): Welcome to head coaching, Jim Tomsula! Five of the 49ers' first seven games are against 2014 playoff teams.
» New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (Week 6, Sunday Night Football): Reprising the AFC Championship Game and giving us an early indictor if the Colts have closed what was a significant gap in that game.
» New York Jets at New England Patriots (Week 7) and New York Jets vs. Buffalo Bills (Week 10, Thursday Night Football): In the first game, Darrelle Revis returns to Foxborough in his old role as Pats nemesis. In the second game, Rex Ryan returns to MetLife in his new role as Jets nemesis. (Mark your calendar, Jace Amaro.)
» Green Bay Packers at Denver Broncos (Week 8, Sunday Night Football): Because the NFL no longer avoids playing a game opposite the World Series on a Sunday, it instead schedules a blockbuster matchup of two of the greatest quarterbacks in history.
» Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts (Week 9):Peyton Manning returns to Indy, perhaps for the final time.
» New England Patriots at Denver Broncos (Week 12, Sunday Night Football): There won't be many more Tom Brady-Peyton Manning games, so we better enjoy them while we can.