The rumors about starting the NFL season with four weeks of AFC-NFC crossover games were not reflected in the actual schedule released on Thursday night, but those types of scenarios were discussed by the league’s schedule makers, a source told NBC Sports Chicago.
As you can imagine, pretty much everything was on the table as the NFL tried to put together a 2020 schedule that they aren’t even sure will be played in its entirety. Even in non-pandemic years, the complexities of the schedule are enormous. Trying to please television partners while dodging local scheduling conflicts is not easy. Teams like the Green Bay Packers, who own their own stadium, have much more flexibility than the Chicago Bears, who have concerts, soccer games and high school/college football games to contend with at Soldier Field. Teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens play in stadiums that share parking lots with the baseball stadiums next door. Thus, those NFL teams can’t have games played on the same night as their Major League Baseball neighbors. In the case of the Eagles, the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers are also next door.
That is one of many reasons why it was in the NFL’s best interests to get a schedule out – even if the league doesn’t know if it will stick. The schedules for MLB, the NBA and the NHL are all up in the air. At least the NFL schedule is on paper now.
In the end, the NFL chose to run with a relatively normal schedule that only has a few built in contingency plans. For example, all Week 2 opponents share the same bye week, allowing those games to be pushed back if necessary. ESPN’s Adam Schefter also reported that early season games could be rescheduled to after Week 17.
If that is the case, it could work in the Bears' favor. The first four opponents on their schedule — the Lions, Giants, Falcons and Colts — had a combined record of 21-43 last year, although the Colts figure to be improved with Philip Rivers at quarterback. Theoretically, if those games were moved to January, it would soften the backend of the Bears schedule, which currently includes games against the Vikings, Texans and Packers — all of who made the playoffs last season.
One thing is clear: Commissioner Roger Goodell seems determined to play a full 16-game schedule, but that may ultimately be decided by the flexibility Tampa has in hosting February’s Super Bowl. The larger window Tampa can provide, the more the season can be delayed.
If any games are chopped off the schedule, the NFL could start with the two cross-divisional games that are determined by the previous year's standings. That would work against the Bears, who finished in third place in the NFC North last season. They would lose games against the Giants and Rams, while the Packers would lose games against the Eagles and 49ers, and the Vikings would lose games against the Cowboys and Seahawks. Essentially, the strength of schedules within the NFC North would even up. All 14 opponents would be the same for all four teams.
No one really knows what our world is going to look like on Sept. 10 when the Chiefs are scheduled to kick off the 2020 NFL season against the Texans in Kansas City, but there is a significant chance the Bears’ opener in Detroit will be played in an empty stadium. Consider that an advantage for the Bears. Even though fans from Chicago always infiltrate Ford Field, it is a dome stadium that gets quite loud in key moments of the game.
Of course, New York Giants fans are probably saying the same thing about their Week 2 trip to Soldier Field.
Looking further ahead on the Bears’ schedule, it might actually be in the Bears’ best interest to have fans in the stands by Week 7. That’s when they head to Los Angeles, where at least 40 percent of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was filled with Bears fans last year. This year, the game will be played at the brand new Sofi Stadium, but you can still expect a big Bears presence if fans can attend. Travel might be limited, but there is a large number of Bears fans who live in Southern California. It’s worth noting, however, that California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been especially resistant — and perhaps realistic — when it comes to the idea of large sporting events.
Two weeks after visiting Los Angeles, the Bears head to Tennessee, where fans literally drank some bars out of beer the last time they visited Nashville for a regular season game. That was 2012, the same year Bears fans invaded Jacksonville for another pseudo home game. This year’s trip to Jacksonville is Dec. 27, during the holidays, so Northeast Florida could very well be invaded by Chicagoans once again.
All of this would certainly be the case in normal years, but it is in doubt now.
One advantage the NFL has is waiting to see how sporting events are executed by Major League Baseball and the NBA if they are able to resume their seasons. So far, Goodell's attitude has been to stick to its schedule and adapt as necessary. It worked for free agency. It worked for the draft. And now it’s working for offseason programs.
But executing games this fall will be the biggest challenge yet.