Things you should know about how the NFL schedules TV games
Last week, the NFL raised a ruckus (certainly at the network where I work, NBC) by keeping the Baltimore-San Diego as the Week 15 Sunday night game on NBC, and keeping New England-Denver as a CBS Sunday afternoon game. Let me explain first why the league did that, then I'll tell you a few things about the gymnastics of which games go where.
When the flex schedule was established by the league for NBC's Sunday night package, it was done primarily to keep bad games (like some of the Monday-night clunkers we've seen) off of national TV on Sunday night. NBC paid for the right to flex out of a bad game. (More about why ESPN can't in a moment.) Flexing also gave teams rising from mediocrity (Detroit, for instance, eight days ago) the chance to play their way onto the Sunday night stage. And this is what NBC had hoped would happen when the league decided whether to keep the Ravens-Chargers as the Sunday night game or, as NBC wanted badly, to move the Patriots-Broncos, with the great Tebow story, to the night game, with Baltimore-San Diego moving to an afternoon start in San Diego.
NBC had a couple of good arguments. Denver had played its way into prime time, and Denver owner Pat Bowlen, a member of the NFL's Broadcast Committee, agreed. He wanted the game in prime time. New England is a big ratings attraction for NBC, and when the league flexed out of the New England-Indianapolis game a few weeks ago (understandably, obviously), NBC lost one of its two New England availabilities. Also, putting the game on CBS would mean it wouldn't be a national game. The New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Phoenix CBS affiliates will show their local teams' games and not Tebow-Brady. CBS, on the other hand, wanted to keep the game because of the Tebow factor and made its case to keep the game. And the case was a pretty good one: The Baltimore-San Diego game matched one team, following the Chargers' Monday night win at Jacksonville, that would enter the game one or two games out of the division lead, San Diego, against a team, Baltimore, likely to be tied for its division lead, in a dogfight with Pittsburgh. It didn't rise to the level of needing to take an A game to replace a B-plus game.
I can tell you this: The NFL would have moved Denver-New England to prime time if Jacksonville beat San Diego last Monday. There was still some internal debate to be had when San Diego won the game, but the NFL decided it couldn't justify taking the game from CBS.
Flex scheduling was designed with this primary objective -- to avoid a dog game. Baltimore-San Diego's not a dog at all. It's not Tebowmania, but those are the breaks.
Now, in the aftermath of the decision, it's been assumed that one of the league's powerful owners, Robert Kraft of the Patriots, had a major hand in keeping the game in the afternoon. An afternoon game in Mountain Time means the Patriots would get back to New England at about 2 a.m. If the game had been moved, their charter would return at about 6 a.m. Monday. With a Saturday afternoon game looming the following weekend, obviously the Patriots' preference would have been to play in the afternoon. I'm told two things reliably: Yes, Kraft did tell the league he wanted the game kept in the afternoon. No, Kraft did not strongarm the league in any way about it. "Categorically not,'' said a league source. "It's baloney. Whoever says that doesn't know what he's talking about.''
A few other network tidbits:
ESPN flex. Many of you have emailed and Tweeted to ask why ESPN doesn't have the same kind of flex schedule. Answer: It's just impractical. It's one thing to move a game back four or seven hours to Sunday night. It's another to move a game, 12 days prior to it, 31 hours back. The hotels, the airplanes, the plans, the fans (inconvenienced enough by the movement from day to night and vice versa) ... It's just too much.
Rulers. Who makes the final call on the Sunday night flex? NFL broadcast czar Howard Katz and commissioner Roger Goodell.
Protected game. In early October, FOX and CBS must designate five games in the first six weeks of flex scheduling (and no more than one per network per week) that cannot be flexed to NBC. The Denver-New England game was not protected by CBS; the Jets-Eagles game that weekend was.
Balancing act. There are 43 prime-time games per season -- 17 on ESPN, 18 on NBC and eight on NFL Network. The NFL cannot take more than 23 games per season away from either network. (CBS has AFC games and FOX the NFC games. In interconference games, most often, the road team dictates the network.)
Long-term balancing act. This is year six of the eight-year contract with the networks. By the end of year eight, CBS and FOX must be nearly identical in the number of games they lose to prime time. I'm told it's pretty close to even right now so that shouldn't be a major factor in which games are shown in prime time in the next two seasons.
Week 17. No network has the right to dictate time, and NBC is told which game will be on Sunday night. The NFL plots it to try to have a win-and-you're-in game as the last game of the year -- unless extenuating circumstances pop up. The Packers going for 16-0, for example; that might play a part in the league's decision.
Thursday night takeaways:
James Harrison should not be suspended, but he should be fined. I've watched his scary helmet-to-helmet hit on Colt McCoy 15 times now, and I've listened to his defense. Which is this, basically: Once McCoy tucked the ball under his right arm and began to run, and left the pocket, McCoy appeared to be a runner, and thus could be hit in the helmet by a tackler. (Crazy rule, that runners can be hit helmet-to-helmet in the open field and quarterbacks can't be if they exhibition any intention of passing.)
McCoy, by my count, took five strides with the ball tucked under his arm, and when he and Harrison were about one stride apart, McCoy quickly pulled out the ball and tossed it to a receiver for a completion. I agree with what Harrison said postgame -- when he was coiling to hit McCoy, the quarterback appeared to be a runner.
But the NFL rule does not refer to time when talking about hits on a quarterback. In other words, the rule doesn't say if a quarterback looks to be a runner and at the last second throws a pass, and then is hit in the helmet, it's perfectly legal. The rule simply says you cannot hit a quarterback helmet-to-helmet. And in this case, Harrison clearly had the chance to make his aiming point lower. He could have hit McCoy shoulder pads to ribs, but he chose to aim higher than that. McCoy didn't curl up either.
So while I do not blame Harrison for thinking McCoy was a runner, and I believe it is wholly unfair to indict him for this hit as a cheap shot, I do blame him for where he aimed and where he hit him. There was no need to aim for the helmet. None. The play should result in a good-sized fine -- but it does not rise to the Suh-stomping level of a suspension, even with Harrison's history of NFL fines and discipline.
The Browns should build around Colt McCoy, not draft a quarterback in 2012 to replace him. I'd seen snippets of McCoy flailing around this year, but hadn't watched every throw of a game. And so I watched Thursday night to get some sense of the near- and long-term prospects of the former University of Texas quarterback. And I came away thinking the Browns should stick with him and use a rich 2012 draft to finally build the kind of offense around McCoy that any quarterback would need to succeed.
Mike Holmgren is a disciple of Bill Walsh. I remember when Walsh was shown a few plays of Charles Haley rushing the passer at James Madison; he told his scouts he really wanted him. "If we see him make a few plays like this, we can coach him to do it all the time,'' Walsh said, and he was proved a prophet -- Haley became a top NFL pass-rusher for San Francisco and Dallas.
Well, on Thursday night, I saw McCoy, with limited help from grade-D skill players, make enough plays to convince me he's not the problem. Now, I realize he made two or three idiotic throws in the second half -- and you're not going to win doing that consistently. But one of the bad throws came after he was concussed and should never have been put back in the game. And those throws have to be addressed.
But he did enough good things that I came away thinking: Use the three picks in the top 40 next April (Cleveland has its own first- and-second-round picks, plus Atlanta's first-rounder from the Julio Jones deal last April) to help McCoy, not replace him. Three plays showed a mature quarterback making good decisions:
1. On the first series of the game, using play-action, McCoy set up, looked over his options and found tight end Evan Moore down the left side on a crossing route with a step on linebacker Lawrence Timmons. The high-arcing pass settled into Moore's arms. Gain of 33.
2. Also on the first series, Josh Cribbs found a gap downfield in the left seam and McCoy made a great touch pass over cornerback Ike Taylor. Gain of 25.
3. In the third quarter, on third-and-eight, down 7-3, McCoy faced a five-man rush and moved up in the pocket. Feeling pressure, he threw the ball about five feet to the right of tight end Alex Smith, because that was the only window open to make the throw -- Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and William Gay converged on Smith and seemed ready to pancake him. But the throw was zipped in perfectly, Smith made a diving catch, and the Browns had a first down. Good judgment, great throw.
Of course, we wouldn't be talking about any of this if McCoy didn't make some brain-fart throws. But I believe he can be coached out of those -- it's what Bill Walsh would believe, watching him -- and I believe some of that stems from the fact that the Browns are a poor offensive team as a whole.
McCoy has holes. He also has a coach, Pat Shurmur, who can correct those, and is in an offense he's so well-suited to run. He's well-liked and respected in the locker room. If I'm Browns GM Tom Heckert, I'm looking for an offseason upgrade at wide receiver (the Browns need two), guard, running back and tight end ... before I even think about replacing the quarterback.
Mike Tomlin has a tough call this week on Ben Roethlisberger, who certainly will not be near 100 percent healthy after suffering that grotesque-looking high ankle sprain Thursday night. The Steelers, of course, did win the Super Bowl six years ago by winning three playoff games on the road (Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver) and one at a neutral site (vs. Seattle, at Detroit). And the Giants repeated that herculean task two years later, as did the Packers last season. But those postseason runs are more freaky than normal, obviously, and Tomlin has to think about the Steelers' upcoming playoffs while determining whether to risk playing Roethlisberger a week from tonight at San Francisco.
Because the Steelers have to finish ahead of the Ravens to win the division -- they're tied at 10-3 with three games to play -- Tomlin has to figure out if it's worth it to play a gimpy Roethlisberger next week against San Francisco, or potentially sacrifice the game by using Charlie Batch and resting Roethlisberger. I'm sure Tomlin figures he can go 1-1, minimum, playing Batch or Dennis Dixon in the next two weeks (at San Francisco, St. Louis at home) while Roethlisberger rehabs and gets ready to play Cleveland in Week 17. If Tomlin sits Roethlisberger and tries to get him healthy for January, Roethlisberger would have 22 days between Thursday night's injury and the Jan. 1 game to get mobile. Then, that would put Pittsburgh on a January path of a road wild-card game, a road divisional game and likely a road conference title game.
What would that path look like? Wild-card: at Denver or Oakland, possibly. Divisional: at New England. Championship: At Baltimore. Maybe. And of course, the whole thing could get messed up with Houston staying hot with a third-stringer, or some unlikely team running the table and barging into the AFC playoff party. But in any case, Tomlin has to choose whether he plays Roethlisberger in an all-out attempt to win one of the top two seeds in the playoffs and a first-round bye, or plays it more conservative and rests him now.
My guess: Tomlin doesn't agree with me. If Roethlisberger can walk next Monday, he'll play.
Finally, some praise for a cautionary tale.
John Branch's three-part series in The New York Times about the life and death of hockey enforcer Derek Boogaard (and about the effects of repeated blows to the head in Part III) is one of the best pieces of sports journalism I've ever read.
It follows Boogaard from birth in the plains of Canada, to learning how to fight, to making the NHL because he could fight, and then to his precipitous decline in mental and physical health -- in large part, almost certainly, because of the fighting.
I was especially interested in the story because of the piece I just finished for Sports Illustrated on the mental and physical health of the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals a quarter-century later. And I believe the Branch series does have football implications, because of all the times players' heads are hit in each sport. If you read one thing this week, please take time to read the Branch series. It's unforgettable.
The Times ran a great letter to the editor Sunday from a Jeffrey Prescott, of La Jolla, Calif.: "I have been going to hockey games for more than 40 years. I watch hockey on television every night, all season long ... I will never look at a hockey fight in the same way again. We used to think smoking cigarettes was O.K. We used to think hockey fights were O.K. The N.H.L. commissioner can stonewall all he wants, but for him and the league's governors, the blood is literally on their hands. The fighting must end.''