Amid the NFL’s effort to broaden interest in the game and showcase the league’s most marketable stars, convenience for the member clubs and players often gets lost in the fold. There has always been a massive discrepancy between cumulative travel distances for certain teams, like the Raiders in 2018 and ’19, who were so egregiously hosed that the league’s head of broadcasting offered as close to an apology as we’ll ever see from the NFL.
In 2018, Oakland traveled more air miles than three other teams combined. In ’19, its final season before moving to Las Vegas, the Raiders went from Sept. 22 to Nov. 3 without playing a game at their home stadium. And during that month-long stretch, they logged more air miles than almost the entire NFL. Compared to the comfortable business travel of their colleagues, Jon Gruden was essentially Eudoxus of Cyzicus.
Look at the AFC North this year, for example. The geographically tight division almost always enjoys convenient, short-range travel. This year, the Steelers will travel fewer than 6,500 miles. If they didn’t feel like flying to Atlanta, they could take a bus throughout the entirety of the season. They cross no time zones. This is an immeasurable advantage for breaking in a rookie quarterback who is already going to have his head spinning. Kenny Pickett could be stretched out in a Winnebago filling his gas tank hours before most of his kickoffs and still make it in plenty of time to arrive for the Instagram outfit reveal.
While this post will not exclusively be based on travel issues, everything has to be taken into account: rest time, overall opponent strength, number of difficult games in a row. Starting out the NFL season with a gauntlet is akin to taking off on a cross-country jaunt buoyed by a led balloon. We’ll also dive into what seem to be the politics behind prime-time games and where that leaves certain franchises.
Let’s begin with the six teams that can most make a case for getting hosed by the schedule-makers this season.
1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks win the Most-Traveled Franchise of the Year award, with 29,446 air miles, thanks to their home state and their date in Munich (Week 10, Nov. 13) against the Buccaneers. While their strength of schedule (based on last year’s winning percentage) is a relatively manageable 11th hardest, and their opening slate of games is survivable (Broncos, 49ers, Falcons, Lions, Saints and Cardinals during DeAndre Hopkins’s suspension), their post-Munich bye week stretch of games gets downright unforgiving. The Seahawks will rest a week after Germany before playing the Raiders, Rams, 49ers and Chiefs over five weeks, with a game against the Panthers serving as their only respite. The Seahawks don’t have it too bad from a rest standpoint, with a six-day rest period between Week 1 and Week 2, and one short-week turnaround between a Sunday game and Thursday Night Football, which takes place Dec. 11–15. All in all, the international game (which, being that it’s the first time Germany is hosting an NFL game, comes with some additional complications), combined with four significant cross-country road trips (Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Detroit and New Orleans ) make this an unenviable way to kick off the post–Russell Wilson era.
2 Cleveland Browns
To be clear, the Browns opted for this. We’re not saying they are hosed, per se, but we are pointing out a clear discrepancy in prime-time games for Cleveland versus other teams that made similarly significant roster moves this offseason. The Browns are slated for two such matchups: a Week 3 Thursday game against the Steelers and a Halloween home tilt against the Bengals on Monday Night Football. While the NFL has not released any information regarding a potential Deshaun Watson suspension, one has to wonder if the idea was to sweep the Browns’ prime-time games into the early part of the season—when Watson would be most likely to miss time— so that announcers did not have to spend three hours discussing the troubling details of the Watson allegations, a task certain commentators have struggled with before.
The Broncos, for example, play five prime-time games and a featured London game, which is also in an alternate time slot. Matt Ryan and the Colts have three prime-time games. I think we can say, with some confidence, that the Browns’ placement—almost exclusively in the 1 pm CBS slot—is an effort to avoid a long-term stream of criticism toward the league’s television partners for what could be a perceived inability to handle a sensitive subject. If you were a player who enjoys prime time, or a coach on the Browns’ staff hoping the additional television time would aid in your candidacy for a head-coaching opportunity in 2023, it is unfortunate to have just one network prime-time game and one streaming prime-time opportunity in 2022. Visibility in those positions matter.
From a scheduling standpoint, there is an absolutely brutal stretch of Cleveland’s schedule from Week 5 to Week 12 (Chargers, Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins, Bills and Buccaneers).
3. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals’ schedule is wickedly front- and back-loaded, with the only identifiable soft spot coming in the late September, early October stretch of the season. Arizona opens the season at home against the Chiefs and then travels to Las Vegas for the Raiders’ home opener under Josh McDaniels. After that? Hosting the defending Super Bowl champion Rams. The Cardinals follow a short-rest swing (Oct. 16–20 in games against the Seahawks and Saints, respectively) with a difficult stretch that includes a game in Minnesota, a trip to Los Angeles to face the Rams, an eight-day rest before playing the 49ers in the brutal, high-altitude Mexico City tilt, which is then followed by a short, six-day rest turnaround to host the Chargers at home. After that Chargers game on Nov. 27? It’s Patriots, Broncos and Buccaneers. Best of luck to Cliff Kingsbury and Co., who came into this season knowing they would have the second-toughest strength of schedule. While the Cardinals’ short-rest games are fairly balanced, they, unlike other international teams, don’t have a bye after leaving the country. I would be curious to hear the NFL’s take on this. Yes, Phoenix to Mexico City is only about a 3 ½-hour flight, but it’s a trip into unforgiving terrain, elevated 2,000 feet higher above sea level than Denver. Also, according to other metrics provided by NFL Stats and Information, the Cardinals have one of the least advantageous rest to short rest breakdowns in the league this year.
4 Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are tied for the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL this coming year, which means we have no obligation to feel sorry for them. That said, the way their schedule opens is difficult, with only one clearly winnable game between the season opener and Halloween. Dallas begins the season with home games against Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, followed by a pair of divisional games against the Giants (Monday night Football) and a short-rest game against the Commanders. After facing a talented Washington defensive line, the Cowboys travel to Los Angeles to face the reigning champs, then skate back across the country for a divisional game against the much-improved Eagles in Philadelphia, a 1,200-mile flight followed by a 1,300-mile flight. A Mike McCarthy rivalry game against the Packers looms not too far after that unenviable stretch. It’s worth pointing out that the preseason strength of schedule tells us next to nothing about an upcoming season if the out-of-conference games are layered in a somewhat difficult fashion. So often, for example, NFC East teams tend to play down to their intra-divisional opponents and lose in-season games they should not.
5 New Orleans Saints
I’m always curious to hear what teams think about the need for a bye week after international travel. The Saints, who cross the second-most time zones in the NFL this year (30), do not have a bye after coming home from their Vikings matchup at Tottenham. In fact, they go from England to a home game against the Seahawks, to a home game against the Bengals, to a four-day turnaround Thursday night affair against the Arizona Cardinals. That’s prickly from a logistical standpoint, but some coaches prefer to keep playing if their perceived momentum is headed in the right direction. I think there is an expectation of rest after international travel, but whether or not it gets complained about depends directly on recent performance. The Saints don’t have their bye week until early December. I think coaches with veteran quarterbacks prefer later byes for late-season injury maintenance, but with Jameis Winston, I wouldn’t want to wait that long for an opportunity to self-scout a famously erratic passer, especially without Sean Payton on board.
6. Green Bay Packers
The award for least advantageous rest schedule goes to … the Packers. According to the NFL’s data science department, Green Bay has the most lopsided rest days gained vs. rest days lost breakdown among all NFL teams. This will be worth looking at because Aaron Rodgers has, in the past, expressed his frustration with how the Packers approach certain travel logistics. In order to reclaim some of the lost recovery days the Packers are going to have to be smart about certain stretches, like their early season London trip, which is preceded and followed immediately by home games. The Packers’ schedule is also notably backloaded, and features a season-ending game against the Lions, which may be significant given Detroit’s emergence as a trendy playoff pick this year. The Lions have the most advantageous rest breakdown of any team in the NFL this year.
More NFL schedule coverage:
• How the NFL Built (and Rebuilt) the 2022 Schedule
• Ranking the 10 Best Games of the Year
• Analyzing Each Network’s Prime-Time Games
• Five Best Games to Bet