May 29, 2024
Thousands of computers run millions of simulations to plot a full and fair NFL season schedule each year.

Have you ever wondered who decides where the 49ers play their season-opening game?

Or why they won’t face division rival Seattle until Week 12 this season, or how the Red and Gold play multiple games on the East Coast back-to-back, allowing the team to stay out East for the week in between?

It’s all thanks to a team of people at the NFL offices who spend months building out the perfect schedule, trying to create as many appealing matchups as possible while also trying to keep all 32 teams and fans as happy as possible.

For years, the NFL schedule was created by hand. Tags with team names were plotted — and re-plotted — across a massive wooden board as each week’s matchups were determined. Schedule makers now input data and run simulations using Amazon Web Services and 4,000 cloud-based computers to cull down the trillions of scheduling possibilities into one 18-week, 17-game slate for each team.

The only constant in creating the current NFL schedule is that there will be 272 games utilizing 576 potential time slots. The NFL’s scheduling team — senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz, vice president of broadcasting Michael North, senior director of broadcasting Blake Jones, director of broadcasting Charlotte Carey, vice president of broadcasting Onnie Bose, and broadcasting senior coordinator Lucy Popko — then must consider myriad and complex factors, leading there to be what Carey described as “north of 20,000” rules in the scheduling system.

The schedule must get the approval of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell before it’s released to the fans, an event that has increasingly become a significant event in the NFL offseason.

As a starting point, each team plays six games against divisional opponents (the NFC West in the 49ers’ case), four against teams from two other divisions (one from each conference), two against teams from the two remaining divisions in its own conference, and one against a non-conference opponent from a division that the team is not scheduled to play.  Also part of the equation is that each team must face the other 31 at least once every four years.

Then come the variables, including division rankings from the previous season, travel considerations as well as old schedules. There are traditional NFL events to consider, such as the Lions and Cowboys always hosting on Thanksgiving. Schedule makers also incorporate every prior conflict there could be, including concerts and teams sharing their facilities.

For example, Ed Sheeran is playing at Levi’s Stadium on Sept. 16, which will keep the 49ers on the road in Week 2 after their opener in Pittsburgh.

Some NFL teams, including the Raiders, share their stadiums with area college teams for regular season games as well as playoff or bowl games. Several Major League Soccer teams utilize NFL stadiums, including the Sounders in Seattle and Charlotte FC.

Even high school football championships can force NFL schedule makers to get creative. The Dallas Cowboys have to play a mid-December road game while all of Texas’ high school title games are played at AT&T Stadium.

The NFL is, more than anything, a television company, working to find the right matchups and timeslots to get the biggest ratings possible. The schedule is optimized to get the most compelling matchups into the best broadcasting windows possible.

Last season, that included having Russell Wilson’s return to Seattle, after being traded to the Denver Broncos, on Monday Night Football in Week 1, and putting the first 49ers-Rams game after their epic battle in the NFC title game the year before on Monday Night Football in Week 4.

There’s also, famously, the meeting between the Patriots and Tom Brady after he left for the Buccaneers, which was on Sunday Night Football back in 2021.

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Of course, there are no shortages of marquee matchups on this year’s schedule. Former Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers’ first game with the New York Jets was slotted on Monday Night Football in Week 1 against the Bills. When Buffalo’s Damar Hamlin, who last season during a Monday Night Football game suffered cardiac arrest on the field after making a tackle, returns with the Bills to Cincinnati’s Paycor Stadium in Week 9 that will be the Sunday Night primetime game.

Four weeks earlier in the Sunday Night Football slot will be the 49ers-Cowboys game in San Francisco in a rematch of last season’s second-straight dramatic playoff showdown.

But for all the work that goes into creating the perfect schedule, some developments — breakout players or teams, injuries, late player movement — can’t be predicted. The NFL has a plan for that, too, creating Flex Scheduling parameters that shifts games into primetime broadcasting timeslots.

After all the data crunching, will 2023 turn out to be the perfect NFL schedule? You’ll have to follow along to find out.