Mathematics and the Making of the NFL Schedule


And you thought making the NFL schedule was easy. 

After securing a three-year research grant, researchers from the University of Buffalo - led by Mark Karwan, Ph.D. professor of operations research - will assist NFL executives with the making of the league's annual schedule. The 2019 schedule is to be released later this week.

Karwan's interest in the NFL schedule was piqued when he noticed his hometown Buffalo Bills seemed to be at a disadvantage. It appeared the Bills played more games against teams either coming off a bye or coming off a Thursday night game. In either case, the result is an opponent that had a distinct rest advantage over the Bills.

The reality of the situation was that Buffalo did indeed play more of these games than most teams in the league. Between 2002 and 2014, the Bills played twice as many of these games as most other NFL teams. That had to change and in order to do so, it would take the unique skills of Karwan and his group of mathematicians.

Karwan believes his team can produce a much fairer and disparity-free schedule using their skills in the field of mathematics. Karwan has worked on problems that take the supercomputer 12 hours to solve. That is a big problem. The NFL schedule is an even bigger one. 

In the universe, the number of atoms is a large number (10 to the 80th power). The possible number of NFL schedules is an even bigger one (10 to the 300th power). One would assume that because of all the different possibilities nuances in the schedule would work themselves out. Things like three consecutive road games or several weeks without a division game would seem to be unusual occurrences. Karwan found otherwise.

Preparing the 2019 schedule was difficult, but Karwan and his researchers believe they have come up with a better system. The idea is to narrow down the possibilities in such a way that the NFL's computers find better possibilities. In doing so, things like the three-game road trip would be eliminated. 

Further exacerbating the problem are the 40 to 50 games that the NFL wants locked in. The league, and fans for that matter, like to see games like Pittsburgh-New England and Dallas-New Orleans. The schedule also has to take into account a myriad of venue requests. Stadiums around the country will block off times for concerts, baseball games, and such. Another consideration in the schedule making process are the television partners of the NFL. 

With all that information, Karwan and his team as well as executives from the NFL have developed the 2019 schedule. The hope will be that the quality of games will be noticeably different this season because rest disparity will be minimized. The 2019 NFL schedule will be released on Thursday, April 18.