MLB is set to kick off its 60-game season in a few weeks. Teams play 40 games against their division opponents and 20 games against their mirror interleague division (e.g., AL West plays NL West). With an emphasis on geographic location, MLB is hoping to limit travel in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Whether this plan will work or not, it will make for quite an interesting baseball season.
The NFL, on the other hand, plans to commence a full 2020 season without changes to the schedule. They have already reduced the preseason to two games, but with the NFLPA voting to cancel the entire preseason last Friday, there is certainly cause for concern that the football season could be delayed and/or modified.
This article will take us down this quite plausible rabbit hole. If the Texans and the NFL are forced to play a reduced eight-game schedule, the league would be compelled to rework the opponents each team plays. There are several options the NFL could take to organize a reduced schedule.
- Option One: Mirror the MLB plan by playing four games against the other regional interleague division with one “natural interleague rival”. In the case of the Texans, they would be playing the NFC South with a natural rival in the New Orleans Saints.
- Option Two: Realign the divisions among four eight-team divisions, maintain AFC and NFC teams to minimize the amount of travel, and play a round-robin style schedule.
- Option Three: Mirror the NBA by identifying six cities as hubs similar to Orlando. The cities would be Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and Pittsburgh. Divisional and local games would be played to minimize travel in a dual round-robin and interleague rival system.
This post will be the first in a set of three articles outlining each option the NFL has.
Option One: All-South Schedule
In this scenario, the NFL cuts the season to eight games and pairs divisions based on geography. Though the AFC South is more scattered than a brain studying for the ACT, this plan is simple to follow, minimizes travel, and it’s the easiest to implement. You’d see revised divisions in the next option, but under a time-crunch for an easy solution, the NFL opts to simply pair divisions. Each AFC South team will play one game against every team in its division and five games against the NFC South. This maintains the percentage of games a team plays within its division and against the rest of the league. In this scenario, here are the seven teams the Texans would play:
- Jacksonville Jaguars
- Tennessee Titans
- Indianapolis Colts
- Atlanta Falcons
- Carolina Panthers
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- New Orleans Saints (twice, with a home-away series as interleague rival)
At first glance, this schedule would require a lot less travel than games in Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Florida isn’t the closest, but if Deshaun Watson can take a bus from Houston to Jacksonville, the rest of the team can. Selfishly, the Texans have had success against the NFC South, with a 11-10 all-time record against teams in that division.
The interesting wrinkle in such a proposed schedule is the eighth game against another team in the NFC South. If Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season was an indication of anything, more Texans-Saints games would be a welcomed sight for NFL fans. An alternative to playing a fifth game against a separate division would be to play one game against a regional opponent. This undoubtedly would be the Dallas Cowboys, but going that route would complicate schedule making and tie breaker rules (more to come on that later).
To extrapolate this idea across the rest of the AFC and NFC, here are the other rivalry games based on geography:
Houston Texans vs. New Orleans Saints
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tennessee Titans vs. Atlanta Falcons
Indianapolis Colts vs. Carolina Panthers
Moving along...part of the nuances of a reduced schedule would include a review of the tiebreakers that outline who makes the NFL Playoffs. NFL tiebreaker rules must be taken into account when configuring a shorted schedule. Here’s a quick overview of the most of the rules; you can click here for the full list of procedures.
- Head-to-head (best won-lost-tied percentage in games between the clubs)
- Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the division
- Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games
- Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference
- Strength of victory
- Strength of schedule
Because of this, there is less of a need for the eighth game to be played outside of these two divisions. A home-and-away game against one of the interleague teams would help solve for many of the issues caused by a shortened schedule. These tiebreakers can be tweaked, but consistency is key in what would ultimately be chaos of planning a new season.
Deciding the home and away template would be more of an art than a science. The best way to divide home games across teams is to reward 2019’s first and second-place team with two divisional home games. Any further compensation for the third and fourth-place team creates loopholes and issues among the home-and-away interleague series. Trust me, there’s an entire Excel spreadsheet that I created trying to make this fair for the third and fourth place team, but as far as I’m concerned, they should have just been better in 2019. They do get three o five home games against the other division, which is potentially more helpful against lesser-known opponents.
Cutting the number of regular season games in half would be a nightmare for the NFL. Billions of dollars lost in TV rights, stadium revenue, and sponsorships would impact the league for years. However, player safety has to be of the utmost concern. Reducing travel, along with reducing games, will be a major hurdle for the NFL in the impending season.
Tune in later this week as I outline the second scenario for the NFL and the Texans in a shortened season.