Will the Bucs emerge from their own stadium tunnels on opening day, or be sent on the road for the fourth straight year?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got a taste of what their 2006 schedule will hold last week, when the NFL announced its Thanksgiving Day schedule and the Bucs were tabbed for the traditional game in Dallas. On Thursday, they'll get the full feast.
The NFL will reveal its complete 2006 schedule at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, once again using the NFL Network to make the highly-anticipated announcement. Buccaneers.com will release Tampa Bay's schedule at the same time.
In other words, the wait is almost over, as answers will soon be revealed for such questions as:
- Who will be the Bucs' opening-day opponent? * Will Tampa Bay open at home after three straight road openers from 2003-05 * Will the Bucs return to prime time this year, and how often? * Where will the team be on the two final Sundays of 2006, Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve? * Will the schedule once again be back-loaded with most of the intra-division games at the end of the year? * Are late-season cold-weather games in store against Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh or the New York Giants? * When will the defending NFC Champion Seahawks visit Tampa? * What's the date for the home game against one of the Bucs' most bitter rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles? * When will Tampa Bay get its bye week? * What games will come before and after the Thursday contest in Dallas?
It is the all-at-once avalanche of answers that makes schedule-release day one of the most exciting junctures on the NFL's offseason calendar. This year, however, there will be some games and dates that remain uncertain even after the full schedule has been released.
That's because the league has finally inserted into the schedule the long-discussed element of "flexible scheduling." In order to ensure marquee matchups on Sunday nights late in the season, the specific games that will be played in that slot in Weeks 10-15 and Week 17 will not be determined until later in the year, sometimes as late as two weeks in advance.
During those seven weeks, the NFL will list all of its game as starting at 1:00 p.m. ET, except for games played in the Mountain or Pacific Time zones, which will be listed at 4:05 PM ET or 4:15 PM ET. The NBC Sunday night time slot for "flex" weeks will list teams as "TBD."
As the season progresses and the playoff races reveal themselves, one of the Sunday afternoon games will be moved into the evening in each of those six weeks. Games played on Thursday, Saturday or Sunday nights will not be eligible for moving to Sunday night.
Flex scheduling is a nod to the fact that it is impossible to fully predict which of the league's 32 teams will turn in strong seasons each fall. Matchups that look good on paper in April could turn into relatively meaningless contests by late November. In addition, teams that "surprise" by winning more games than expected – the Buccaneers, who went from 5-11 in 2004 to division winners in 2005 could have been considered in this category last year – are often left off the prime time schedule completely.
Last year, for instance, the Week 14 Sunday night game pitted Detroit and Green Bay, two teams who were well out of the playoff race. New Orleans at the New York Jets in Week 12 also pitted two non-contending teams on Sunday night, and the Minnesota-Baltimore contest on Christmas night could have easily been replaced by Dallas-Carolina, Washington-N.Y. Giants, Atlanta-Tampa Bay or San Diego-Kansas City.
Teams that are being moved from Sunday afternoon into the prime-time slot will be given a minimum notice of 12 days. For example, a game scheduled for Sunday, November 26 could move from a 1:00 PM ET kickoff to an 8:15 PM start, but the change would be made and announced no later than Tuesday, November 14. Teams are already somewhat familiar with this process, as the league has long switched 1:00 and 4:15 games on late-season Sunday afternoons in order to highlight games with greater playoff implications. That process will also continue.
Games that move from Sunday afternoon into the evening will also be switching networks, as the afternoon packages are controlled by CBS and Fox while the Sunday evening game will now be on NBC for the first time. CBS and FOX will each be able to protect a total of five games in the seven weeks of flexible scheduling, but not more than one game in any week.
As appealing as the idea of flex scheduling is, the league didn't rush into it. During the 2005 regular season, the NFL conducted a study with mock flexible scheduling. An eight-person task force consisting of team executives, one from each division, was consulted on a weekly basis. In addition, television network partners and the NFL's broadcasting department participated weekly in the process.