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Producing the NFL schedule a long, hard task

Indianapolis Colts v New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 23: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts to a touchdown during a game against the Indianapolis Colts being held at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 23, 2011 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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The release of the 2012 NFL regular season schedule is met with great anticipation by some fans, but it’s met with a shrug by others, who wonder why it’s such a big deal that the league is announcing the dates of games, even though we’ve all known all year which teams are playing each other, we just haven’t known when.

But for those who wonder how big a deal it really is, Judy Battista of the New York Times has a good writeup of the Herculean effort undertaken by Howard Katz, the NFL’s scheduling czar, who has a computer spit out a number of potential schedules but then has to painstakingly go through all the potential scenarios, looking for pitfalls that could cause problems.

The problems can be significant, because NBC, CBS, FOX and ESPN all want as many games as they can get featuring the teams that draw the biggest ratings, and each NFL team has its own ideas about what constitutes an acceptable schedule. There’s really no way to placate all 32 teams, and Katz knows that when the final schedule comes out he’s going to have some teams mad at him, but he tries to choose the final schedule that’s most fair to the most teams.

A few considerations include: Every team gets a Thursday game, but teams don’t want long road trips to their Thursday games. And teams don’t want long road trips the Sunday after a Monday night game, either. Teams don’t want to play three road games in a row. The Florida teams don’t like hosting early afternoon games in September, as some of the locals won’t buy tickets if they’re going to have to bake in the sun all afternoon. The New York teams don’t like playing during the Jewish holidays. And so on.

Katz tries to set the schedule up so that the biggest and best games will be in the best spots on the schedule to be enjoyed by the most fans possible, but it’s impossible to know for sure in April how the league is going to look once the regular season gets underway. For instance, last year, when the NFL decided for the first time to have a prime time Sunday night game head-to-head with the World Series, Katz thought he had chosen the perfect game: Colts at Saints. Both teams should be near the top of the standings, Peyton Manning vs. Drew Brees was guaranteed to be a ratings draw, and Indianapolis and New Orleans are among the NFL markets that don’t have Major League Baseball teams, so there was no concern that the teams could be overshadowed by baseball in their home markets. As it turned out, Manning wasn’t playing, the Colts were winless, and it was the most lopsided game of the season, a 62-7 Saints win. (This year, Katz once again scheduled Manning’s team, the Broncos, against the Saints for Sunday Night Football to go head-to-head against the World Series.)

The job of putting the schedule together also requires an appreciation of NFL history. If Saints quarterback Drew Brees throws a touchdown pass in each of the Saints’ first five games, he’ll break one of the NFL’s oldest records, Johnny Unitas’s 47 straight games with a touchdown pass. So the Saints’ fifth game is on Sunday Night Football.

Putting the schedule together isn’t easy, but the reviews this year seem to be mostly positive. Katz can take a bow.