This time of year, there's normally a chorus of NFL fans asking the same question:
_"When does the schedule come out?!"_
On our Patriots Unfiltered radio show/podcast, it's become a running gag for listeners to pose this question to me in particular, because they know it's an easy way to get my goat. They know full well when, but just want to hear me sigh, roll my eyes, and say, "Mid-April, prior to the draft, like it does EVERY year."
In 2020, however, those same people might have a legitimate reason to ask yet again, because the predictable response might not be so clear-cut. More on that in a moment, but first, let's examine more closely what happened over the weekend that will have a lasting impact on how the NFL schedule is arranged in the future.
As you've likely heard by know, NFL players ratified, by a slim margin of 60 votes, the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) recently proposed to them by NFL owners. In addition to ensuring labor peace – i.e., no lockouts or work stoppages – for the USA's most popular pro sports league through at least 2030, the new CBA, parts of which take effect immediately, also ushers in a new era of 17-game regular season NFL football. This much we know today. What remains unclear for now is when exactly the first 17-game regular season will be played and how the added contests will be structured.
17 in '21... or later?
The newly-approved CBA provides a three-year window, between 2021 and 2023, in which the 17-game slate can begin. Which means that there will be at least one more season (this year) of the current format of four preseason and 16 regular season matchups. Why not simply implement the new schedule right away, you might be wondering?
It's important to note that the existing CBA, which had been in place since 2011, wasn't set to expire until a year from now, in 2021. Had the players not ratified the new agreement this past weekend, the league would have played 2020 under the existing CBA and been forced to revisit the issue again next year. Such a prospect would have led to considerable uncertainty surrounding both the future and the present, with respect to current free agent players looking to sign new contracts. But that has now been rendered a moot point.
Meanwhile, three of the NFL's four television network broadcast contracts (CBS, FOX, and NBC) don't run out until 2022. ESPN's Monday Night Football deal comes due in 2021. It's safe to assume that the league had hoped to have a new long-term deal with its players long before then – which it now does – in order to put itself in a better negotiating position with the TV networks when their current pacts expire.
If the NFL, armed with its new CBA, decides to pursue and sign new TV deals sooner than the current expirations dates, we could see 17 game regular seasons become a reality as early as 2021. However, this window gives the league breathing room in which to operate, should it need longer to work out broadcast rights with its TV partners. Bottom line, whether it's sooner or later, the advent of 17-game seasons is nigh. And that will impact the preseason schedule.
Whenever 17 games are eventually scheduled, the result will mean one less preseason game. But, as pointed out in an NFL.com article, where the fourth preseason now exists, the players will receive a week off from games prior to the start of the regular season – in effect, a bye week between the preseason and regular season.
Additionally, padded preseason practices will be slashed from the current 28 to just 16, and no more than three consecutive padded practice sessions will be permitted during training camp. What's more, under terms of the new CBA, teams must start training camp with five consecutive days of non-padded practices, up from the current two-day start to camp in such conditions.
Practices in full pads provide coaches their best opportunities to evaluate players at full speed in competitive situations, which means teams could place a greater emphasis on arranging to hold joint training camp practices with preseason foes, a practice that has become popular around the league over the past decade and which the Patriots have fully embraced whenever possible.
Furthermore, practice times will also be limited to 2.5 hours and players cannot be forced to spend more than 12 hours per day at team facilities.
Regular Season Rosters, Restrictions, and... Rotations?
As things stand, NFL teams can conduct just 14 full-pads practices during the regular season, with 11 of those having to come in the first 11 weeks. Those limits will continue with the new CBA, including when the 17-game season goes into effect.
To keep practices manageable, though, the league is allowing for more flexibility with rosters. Practice squads will expand from the current 10 players to 12 this year and 14 in 2022. And game-day rosters, now at 46, will jump to 48, with one of those extra spots having to be filled by an offensive lineman. Two practice squad players can also be promoted to the active roster during the week, effectively making it a 55-man, rather than a 53-man roster. This might give coaches more options from which to choose a 48-man game-day roster.
One other detail to be ironed out with 17 games is how that odd number will be balanced fairly among the 32 clubs. There's been talk of having all the teams in one conference – say, the AFC – host the extra games one year, and the other conference the next, or to make the 17th games international or neutral-site affairs. As yet, nothing has been decided in that regard.
Which brings us back to this coming season…
In a normal offseason, the NFL's schedule makers are in the thick of their process in March and early April, with some of the scheduling discussions taking place at the league's Annual Meeting in late March. Many of the key primetime matchups, particularly those on Kickoff Weekend, are decided at the Annual Meeting.
Yet, an element of uncertainty has been added to the equation this year, not because of the CBA, but the CVP… the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the league to scuttle its 2020 Annual Meeting plans. The bulk of the league's business decisions are generally made at this March gathering, but the league now plans to conduct those sessions at its previously scheduled spring meeting in May out in California, assuming no further cancelations are necessitated by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Whether or not the schedule-making committee will continue to go about its business in the meantime or delay its work as a result is unclear. However, with 2020 NFL free agency and the new league fiscal year starting as planned this week, it's possible we could still have a full 16-game regular season schedule – one of the last in NFL history – released as usual in mid-April. We'll keep you posted.
Meantime, the league announced Monday (Mar. 16) that the 2020 NFL Draft will go on as scheduled in late April and will be televised, but all public events previously planned for the city of Las Vegas have been scrapped as a result of COVID-19 precautions.