2024 NFL schedule quirks: Did league consider Taylor Swift?

ByBrooke Pryor ESPN logo
Thursday, May 16, 2024

Nobody loves drama like the NFL. That much was apparent with the league's 2024 schedule release Wednesday night. An AFC Championship game rematch to start the season? Sign us up.

Of course, there's always a handful of quirks that come with assembling a 272-game schedule -- the final version spit out by the league's computer models at 4 a.m. Sunday morning -- and assigning them to a growing list of broadcast partners. The New York Jets, for example, have a whopping six prime-time games -- all before their Week 12 bye. That would be considered unprecedented for a squad coming off a 7-10 finish in which it missed the playoffs. But those squads didn't have Aaron Rodgers. These Jets do, and the league said in a conference call Thursday that Rodgers' team "owes us one" after the quarterback's Achilles tear four snaps into the 2023 season caused him to miss the rest of the season -- including five prime-time games.

Not only did the league address the Jets-heavy prime-time slate in their hourlong conference call Thursday, they also addressed some of the other biggest lingering questions:

Did the NFL arrange the schedule for Taylor Swift?

Yes, the NFL did consider Swift's blockbuster Eras Tour when creating the 2024 schedule, but the league said it didn't purposefully make it easier for Swift to watch her guy on the Chiefs.

Three NFL stadiums will host the final nine US shows of Swift's tour, rendering those venues unavailable for those dates. The teams affected -- the Miami Dolphins (Oct. 18-20), the New Orleans Saints (Oct. 25-27) and the Indianapolis Colts (Nov. 1-3) -- are all scheduled to be on the road when the Eras Tour rolls into their cities. But as for the idea that the NFL scheduled the Chiefs to play at the Buffalo Bills on Nov. 17 -- a mere 111 miles from Toronto's Rogers Centre, where Swift will be performing six shows between Nov. 14 and 23 but conveniently not on Nov. 17 -- for Swift, that is purely a coincidence. Really.

"We certainly considered the tour dates that hit NFL stadiums," Mike North, the NFL's vice president of broadcast planning, said. "I think she's in Miami, maybe New Orleans, Indy. We certainly considered those. One thing we didn't consider, I saw a lot of conspiracy theorists talking about Kansas City at Buffalo in the middle of the season, right when Taylor's playing Toronto. That one definitely did not hit our radar screen."

Why aren't some of the biggest homecoming games on prime time?

Two years ago, Russell Wilson's season-opening return to Seattle as a member of the Denver Broncos was the most-watched Monday Night Football telecast since 2009. This time around, Wilson, now a Pittsburgh Steeler, will return to face his former team in Week 2. But it won't be televised in its own window. Instead, that game is slated for CBS at 4:25 p.m. ET.

That's not the only grudge match/homecoming game without the prime-time treatment. Sean Payton's return to New Orleans will be carried on Thursday Night Football, butKirk Cousins' Week 14 trip to Minnesota will be a Fox 1 p.m. ET kickoff andStefon Diggs' Week 5 reunion with Buffalo on his new home turf in Houston will be at 1 p.m. ET on CBS.

While the NFL loves a juicy storyline, they're not going to force it into a prime-time slot if it simply doesn't fit in the giant jigsaw puzzle.

"There's something about those reunions that we really like, and as we're creating the schedule, we're looking for those storylines," Hans Schroeder, the NFL's executive vice president of media distribution, said. "If we can have a schedule that comes together, we love games that feature that, but we're not going to solve for it. And so yes, the Kirk Cousins game back in Minnesota is a similar one to Russell. It's not going to a national window. We still think that's a great story. Still think it's a great opportunity for a partner to really make a fun storyline there with a lot of interest. And if it hits the right schedule, we love it, but it's not something we actually force in and solve for."

Even without Wilson's return to Denver, Week 2's prime-time games are pretty juicy: Bills at Dolphins (TNF), Caleb Williams' Bears vs. C.J. Stroud's Texans (SNF) and Cousins' prime-time debut with his new team at the Eagles. And if the Bills played a prime-time game against the Texans in Week 5, they would have a whopping four consecutive prime-time games.

In Week 14, audiences will be treated to Rams at 49ers (TNF), Packers at Seahawks (SNF) and a MNF doubleheader of Bears at Vikings and Falcons at Raiders.

Why don't the Patriots have a bye after playing the Jaguars in London?

Blame it on time travel. Or perhaps more accurately, time zones and routines. The New England Patriots will play the Jacksonville Jaguars in London for a Week 7 game that kicks off at 9:30 a.m. on the East Coast. After the game, the Patriots will hop on a transatlantic flight, which typically clocks in just shy of seven hours, and likely land stateside before the conclusion of Sunday Night Football thanks to the six-hour time difference. Because of the relatively early arrival back home, the NFL said, some teams now prefer to keep on a regular weekly schedule after an international game in order to push their bye later in the season.

"There were challenges for us all, and the bye coming back just kind of seemed like a must-have," North said of the previous tradition of scheduling byes after international games. "It was really only after a couple of years where our teams started to realize that if you're playing in the afternoon in Europe and you're playing in the morning over here in the States, quite often you're getting back to your airport, you're getting back to your facility maybe even earlier than if you were playing for an East Coast team, a game on the West Coast. They're back in their buildings from a London game earlier than they'd be back in their building from a game in Seattle.

"The majority of our clubs now are starting to look at these international games as truly routine. They used to go over for the whole week, and now they're kind of going over for Friday, Saturday and just really staying in their routine, coming back to a home game and looking for that bye to slide even later in the season. So clubs are given the option if they want the bye to tell us, and we'll do what we can to accommodate that."

The Patriots return from London to host the New York Jets, and New England's bye doesn't come until Week 14, though the team has a mini-bye after the Week 3 Thursday night game.

Other teams with international games:

  • The Eagles and Packers have home games in Week 2 after opening in Brazil on Friday, Sept. 6.
  • Following their Week 5 game in London, the Vikings opted for a Week 6 bye, while the Jets will host the Bills on Monday Night Football.
  • Even after spending back-to-back weeks in London, the Jaguars aren't returning to a Week 8 bye. Instead, they'll host the Packers and take their bye in Week 12.
  • The Giants and Panthers will take a bye week after facing off in Germany in Week 10.

Which team had the biggest schedule glow up?

Houston has four prime-time games -- plus a 4:30 p.m. Christmas Day game against the Baltimore Ravens. That's a significant increase from the zero the team had in 2023. For the first time in the regular season, an exclusive-window audience will get to watch C.J. Stroud go to work.

"From a scheduling perspective, teams play their way into prime," Schroeder said. "They play their way into bigger windows. We saw that last year with the Lions as another sort of team coming on the heels of what they had with 'Hard Knocks.' They had a great season, end of the season two years ago, went into Green Bay, and Week 18 having already been eliminated from the playoffs and knocked 'em out. So we put 'em on kickoff last year, and they went all the way to the NFC Championship Game with a great story throughout.

"So a team like the Texans, the teams really determine how much they're in prime time by the seasons they have, and they had a great year with a great exciting young quarterback, got to the divisional round of the playoffs and there's a ton of excitement around the Texans. We're going to see 'em early with the Hall of Fame game starting in the preseason, but it's really a testament to the Texans and the season they had and everything they did on the field last year."

Why isn't either Eagles-Cowboys matchup a prime-time game? And why is one of those matchups on CBS?

Remember how the league's scheduling gurus said they weren't going to force reunion games in prime time? That logic also applies to Eagles-Cowboys, even though at least one of those games in each of the past 20 seasons typically gets the national treatment. This time though, each is in the 4 p.m. ET window. In Week 10, the Cowboys will host the Eagles in a 4:25 p.m. game on CBS, and in Week 17, the rematch in Philadelphia will kick at 4:25 p.m. on Fox.

"I think it's important to remember the biggest window of our week typically is the 4:25 game," Schroeder said. "So people tend to sort of gravitate just to prime time as being this additional level of exposure. It's great. It's under the lights. It's fun, I think, for our players to be back playing in prime. But 4:25 is every [bit as] big a window. ... We really try to be equitable going to all our partners. Let's think about 4:25 just like we do with the prime. Let's think about a game like that going to CBS, just as we would equally go to NBC. And so enabling more flexibility, just making sure it gets into a big window. That's our focus now."

Even stranger is that CBS is carrying one of the games for the first time in more than three decades, something made possible after the NFL's push to schedule conference games across the networks, rather than the traditional model of NFC games on FOX and AFC games on CBS.

"One of the elements of the new media extensions we did back a couple years ago gave us a lot more flexibility with how we schedule games," Schroeder said. "One of the ways that is coming to life is you'll see a Philadelphia-Dallas game at 4:25 on CBS. I think that's the first time CBS has had that game since they had the NFC package in 1993."

And finally, are there any nonnegotiable rules the NFL says can't be broken in creating the schedule?

Only one -- or at least one big one. And, let's be honest, it's subjective: "Competitive fairness," Schroeder said.

"Even if we love the TV [component] with everything else, it has to start with the game, the game's the most important thing, and making sure we're doing the right thing for all 32 clubs," Schroeder said. "... Can't solve for everybody every year, but at least in all our diligence, the first thing, is it competitively fair? Are we being fair for 32 [teams] that they're going into the season with an equal chance? That's probably to me the number one rule."

North added that the subjectivity of it all is perhaps the most difficult part of creating the schedule. The challenge for us is really defining, what's the line you won't cross," North said. "I'm not sure that's a hard and fast line. I mean nobody should play four consecutive road games. I think we all acknowledge that. Think about the long travel trips, whether you're ping-ponging back and forth across the country doing a three time-zone trip, throwing in an international trip as well. I'm not sure those are things that we'd ever feel comfortable with. I think you really kind of have to trust the data. We all have emotional reactions to our schedules and should we play this three-game road trip or is this rest disparity fair or not fair? But what does the data really say?"

And to get that data, the NFL leans on Mike Lopez, the NFL's senior director of football data and analytics, to quantify unfairness and tangible scheduling impacts. North pointed out that the teams with the biggest gripes about negative rest disparities last season included the 49ers, Rams, Chiefs and Eagles -- all teams that made the playoffs, and two of them made the Super Bowl.

"Is negative rest disparity unfair? Is a three-game road trip unfair? Is a Monday, Sunday, Thursday unfair?" North said. "I know there's an emotional reaction, but I think we've got to rely on the data. Mike Lopez and his team working with the competition committee, obviously front of mind for the commissioner, to make sure that we are solving for the things that truly are unfair and maybe not spending too much time worrying about the things that maybe we shouldn't be."

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