The process of building the NFL schedule used to be a painstaking one with executives such as Val Pinchbeck spending months slotting the games one by one on his board until there was a final product for the commissioner to approve.
Making late tweaks or looking at alternative options with a big game moving from early to late in the season weren't really possible for all the pieces of the complicated jigsaw puzzle to fit.
The 272-game schedule the NFL released on Wednesday took a completely different journey to completion with computers from Amazon Web Services negotiating the trillions of possibilities on what day, what time and what network to play each game and officials at the league looking at more than 80,000 of them before making a final choice.
“Now because we’ve got all the automation, we’ve got all the hardware, we’ve got basically 5,000 Vals,” said Vice President of NFL Broadcast Mike North. “Instead of Val building one schedule by hand. We’ve got 5,000 computers each building up schedules. So we’ve got 5,000 Vals out there.”
The schedule-making process starts as soon as the previous season ends and the opponents and sites are locked in for all of the games. The league seeks input from teams about requests as well as the five network partners.
The final piece of the puzzle is put in place after the Super Bowl with the champion hosting the Thursday night season opener. Tampa Bay was slotted to host Dallas in that game.
The league tries to whittle down the trillions of possibilities by starting with about 80 “seed” games for prime-time and other premium TV spots such as doubleheader windows and holidays into the schedule.
“If you start from zero, go to 100 and hit the button, we could have every computer on the planet and all the years in our lifetimes and we’d still never find the one,” North said. “We have to break the problem down into more bite-sized chunks.”