By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — NFL schedule release day, unquestionably the most absurd “event” in all of sports, is finally over. But if you thought the 24/7 hysteria and excitement surrounding the schedule might die down after that 24-hour window, then you underestimate the NFL’s desire (and ability) to dominate the sports world’s conversations 365 days of the year.READ MORE: Revolution Win Supporters' Shield For First Time In Franchise History
With that, Mike North, the NFL’s vice president of NFL broadcast planning, and Charlotte Carey, the director of NFL broadcasting, joined “Good Morning Football” on Thursday to discuss the fun twists and turns of the upcoming schedule. And there was a certain note about the Patriots that stands out.
With the Buccaneers’ visit to New England in Week 4 being essentially the highlight of the NFL’s entire season schedule, North explained that certain factors — less of a chance for injuries to key players like Tom Brady, a better chance to avoid bad New England weather, etc. — played into the NFL’s decision to schedule the game early in the year.
But one particular line from North really stood out about the decision.
“It just felt like the right time,” North said (around the 4-minute mark here). “You know, you’re not too far down the road where either of these teams’ stories are already told.”
It’s an interesting tidbit, no doubt, as it not-so-subtly suggests that the NFL had some concerns that a late-season return to Foxboro for Brady could come against a Patriots team that isn’t in playoff contention.READ MORE: Hurley: It Was A Great Run But ... It Feels Like The Red Sox Kind Of Blew It In ALCS
Is there some reading between the lines there? Sure. But consider the rest of the Patriots’ schedule.
They’re scheduled for just three prime-time games: vs. the Bucs, in Atlanta on Thursday night, and at Buffalo for Monday Night Football in December. A year ago, the Patriots had the most prime-time games scheduled in the league with five. They’ve been a massive draw on national TV for two decades. But they have just three late games this season, the fewest scheduled prime-time games for the Patriots since 2011.
The Patriots also have 10 games scheduled to kick off at 1 p.m. ET, with one game’s kickoff time yet to be declared. That includes 1 p.m. kickoffs for the final three weeks of the season, plus the yet-to-be-determined start to the Colts game in Week 15. As North noted in his GMF interview when talking about the Bucs-Patriots game, the league makes sure to put the most appealing games in national windows, so as not to bury them in the 1 p.m. window.
“We’re not doing our jobs if we put that game on a 1 o’clock window with eight other games going on and Tampa-New England is only available in 22 percent of the country,” North said. “So you knew that game was going to be a national television game somewhere.”
The Patriots’ early-to-midseason 1 p.m. kickoffs include home games vs. the Jets, Browns and Titans, as well as road games at the Jets, Texans and Panthers.
Of course, the NFL is being cautious, as the Patriots are coming off a 7-9 season in their first year without Brady. From a TV perspective, big-time quarterbacks drive ratings, and the Patriots don’t have that big-time quarterback right now in Cam Newton or rookie Mac Jones. (The fact that the return of Newton to Carolina, where he’s the best quarterback in franchise history, got a 1 p.m. kickoff speaks to that reality.)MORE NEWS: Red Sox Season Ends With 5-0 Loss In Game 6 Of ALCS In Houston
So it’s not a case of the NFL doing anything except hedging against putting too much Patriots on America’s televisions throughout the season, which is what happened last year, with some prime-time duds against the Rams and Bills standing out in particular. And that approach helps explain why we’ll be seeing Tom Brady return to Foxboro so early in the season, before the story of the Patriots’ season is “already told.” The NFL is simply concerned that the Patriots’ “story” might not be particularly compelling by the end of the year.