The good news for those charged with the ever-complex task of assembling the NFL schedule this year was there was no mammoth open-air Mass by the Pope to work around. Beyoncé wanting to add tour dates? That was an issue.
The schedule that was released Thursday -- one week earlier than usual, in part because the league wanted to give teams a chance to add those extra Queen Bey dates in their stadiums -- was No. 43,066 spit out by the league's computers. It hung on the wall as the leader in the clubhouse for eight days, the favorite because, among other things, there were no dud weeks for television, just two teams (Washington and Green Bay) were stuck with three-game road stretches and only one (the Giants) has to play a road game the week after a Monday night game on the road.
Still, the scheduling department kept looking at possible schedules as late as 11:30 p.m. Tuesday -- the computer produced 332 more contenders -- before being convinced a better schedule would not be found. After the scheduling department walked Commissioner Roger Goodell through the slate on Wednesday morning, it was done. (No, the schedule makers did not glance back at what they had come up with for the Los Angeles Rams after the Rams made their mammoth trade for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft Thursday morning, hours before the release.)
Every year, the league receives dozens of scheduling requests from teams. Few want to play in Florida in September, and an equally small number want Lambeau Field in December. There were no outside-the-box requests this year, besides those reflecting the craving for additional Beyoncé dates. Teams submit to the league lists of dates that are blocked in their stadium by other events, and mega-concert tours from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift are the norm. This year, the schedulers had to tell teams they could not accommodate up-front all the requested blocked dates, and that they would have to wait for the schedule to come out to know if they could slot Beyoncé in for added shows.
"The biggest change this year was the number of teams playing multiple cross-country trips, and their preference to double them up and stay out there and practice," said Michael North, the NFL's senior director of broadcast planning and scheduling. "We had to teach our computer software, Pair them up if you can, but if you can't, then spread them out so they are not ping-ponging back and forth."
The end result: Five teams (Atlanta, Carolina, San Francisco, Miami and Oakland) are playing back-to-back cross-country games. Giving them time to find hotel accommodations and practice facilities for a week on the road between games was another factor in pushing ahead with the schedule release.
None of this is getting any easier with the ballooning number of quirks in the NFL schedule. The Monday night game in Mexico between Oakland and Houston necessitated that the two teams be at home the following week because of the schedulers' desire to be conservative with the effect of altitude on the teams, and to allow for potential complications in getting through customs with equipment.
And yes, there have already been internal discussions about how the schedule will have to be constructed to accommodate a game in China in 2018.
"None of this is fun," said Howard Katz, the senior vice president of broadcasting. "It's a fascinating challenge, but 'fun' is not a word I would use."
A few points of interest about the schedule:
1) The Kickoff Game ...
... is a blockbuster. There were plenty of options for an opponent against whom the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos could begin their title defense -- the team's home schedule is packed with marquee matchups, and Houston and Indianapolis were both considered. But the NFL went with the no-brainer choice, the Super Bowl 50 rematch against the Carolina Panthers. If last season's title game provided the perfect ending to Peyton Manning's career, this game will offer our first look at whatever Broncos general manager John Elway comes up with to replace Manning.
Incredibly, it is the first time since 1970 that the NFL has a Super Bowl rematch in Week 1, North said.
2) Barely time to unpack
The peripatetic Los Angeles Rams won't have much time to get comfortable in their new home after moving from St. Louis. The Rams play three of their first four games and five of their first seven away from L.A. That includes a "home" game in London against the New York Giants. Why? A few reasons. The NFL had to work around the availability of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and that means adjusting for more than just USC home games; for instance, there is a music festival scheduled for the park near the Coliseum. And the Rams asked to play on the East Coast the week before their game in London to cut the long trip from the West Coast in half. So the Rams will play in Detroit in Week 6, then continue overseas for the Week 7 London game against the Giants. Why send teams from the two biggest media markets in the country to London?
"Our international brethren were looking for exciting, good and compelling matchups that sell tickets in London," Katz said.
3) Some games do indeed merit more scheduling attention than others.
The Vikings are opening a new stadium that will host the Super Bowl in 2018, so they were given the Week 2 Sunday night game against the Packers because, Katz said, the NFL wanted an opponent that would elevate the game. Another matchup went into the schedule early and was never moved: the Week 3 Monday night game in New Orleans that marks the 10th anniversary of the reopening of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The NFL didn't force Cleveland's trip to Washington into Week 4, but the league was happy it landed so early in the season, so that the return of new Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III to his old home stadium may be a storyline. And as soon as the Houston Texans signed Brock Osweiler, the schedulers knew his return to Denver took on added significance, so it got the Monday night of Week 7 slot.
This may come as a surprise to fans, but the schedulers do not look at potential discipline when making the schedule. So Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict's three-game suspension was not weighed when making up the Bengals' schedule (which is probably why they don't play Pittsburgh in Week 4). Likewise, the still-lingering possibility of a suspension for Tom Brady was irrelevant in shaping the Patriots' schedule.
4) Like Christmas ... on Christmas.
With Christmas falling on a Sunday this year, the NFL is playing the bulk of the Week 16 slate on Saturday, Christmas Eve, with all but one of those games starting at noon or 1 p.m. local time. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was in 2011, and that year, the NFL played a game on Christmas night. This year, in addition to playing a Sunday night game again, the NFL added a night game on Christmas Eve and a late-afternoon game on Christmas Day.
There were a limited number of facilities and teams willing and able to host a game on Christmas Eve. Cincinnati will travel to Houston for a 7:25 p.m. CT kickoff with the Texans on Christmas Eve. And on Christmas, Baltimore will be at Pittsburgh at 4:30 p.m. ET, while Denver will be at Kansas City for the regular Sunday night game, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. CT.
5) Binge watching
For nostalgists, the schedule presents a gaping hole: There is no Tom Brady-Peyton Manning game to circle on the calendar. But as we move on from the Manning era, here is the early read on what will be the season's most compelling games:
» Cleveland at Washington (Week 4): Will it be Robert Griffin III returning to face the team that forsook him, or will it be a quarterback to be named later -- like at the draft in a few weeks? If it is Griffin, this will be portrayed as a referendum on Washington's choice of Kirk Cousins over the man Cousins was once supposed to back up.