The Green Bay Packers head to Minneapolis to play the Minnesota Vikings to open the 2022 season. It is, to put it mildly, a huge game. That’s an issue.
Scheduling in the NFL can’t be easy. Any professional sports league has plenty of logistical issues they need to work out. The Athletic recently interviewed the person who created the NBA schedule, where each team plays 82 games. Even with the extra regular-season contest added last year, the NFL has significantly fewer games than other leagues, increasing the gravity of each one. And, of course, the league always wants to put its best foot forward to its massive TV viewing audience.
Unfortunately, this often leads to scenarios that put teams in bad positions. The NFL is synonymous with American culture and thrives on capitalistic values. It will prioritize the best product, sometimes regardless of competitive circumstances, to draw as many viewers as possible. Their strategy works, but it often puts teams in compromising positions.
The annual London games are a perfect example. Roger Goodell’s crusade is pushing American football in the country that hosts the world’s most popular football (soccer, if you must) league. The cost of this for NFL teams is massive. The travel burden is so far beyond anything the teams would normally endure in an already exhausting 18-week season.
Locally, we see this greed take the form of shoddy revenge games and the continual placement of the Dallas Cowboys on national television. It also manifests in the form of early-season divisional matchups like the Vikings-Packers season opener. Division rivalries are some of the best showdowns in all of sports. Still, placing them this early in the season has a hefty cost.
That’s bad for several reasons. Perhaps the most obvious one is that most teams aren’t firing on all cylinders in Week 1 — and early-season games, in general. This is exacerbated when there are significant personnel changes in the offseason, which both the Packers and Vikings will be working through this month. True competitors desire to play and defeat teams when they are at their best, so throwing a couple of squads out there as they are still working things out is likely to yield inaccurate results.
The Vikings have a brand-new head coach and general manager. There’s plenty of cautious optimism in Minnesota, where the locals have visions of reclaiming the division title this year. Still, it’s not exactly an evidence-based theory yet.
Green Bay also went through many changes, and the completely retooled receiving corps is the most obvious point of concern. This early divisional game doesn’t give Aaron Rodgers any live-game action to get acclimated to his new pass-catchers. With the stakes as high as they are, these young players will have to learn on the fly, perhaps more quickly than they’d prefer. Throw in the recent news that Allen Lazard is dealing with an ankle injury and may be on the sideline alongside rookie Christian Watson, and the day could get ugly.
It’s all the more concerning when discussing a key divisional matchup in Week 1. Minnesota is likely the only true competitor in the NFC North with any hope of dethroning Green Bay. A tilt of this magnitude should seemingly only come when both teams have had some time to work out their issues, but that does not fall in line with the business of the league.
Of course, there are unpredictable results in football all the time. That’s a big part of the NFL’s appeal. The shortened season and single-elimination playoff structure work to create a great deal of variance. However, as sports continue to become more analytically focused, it is hard to defend any notions that hinge on variance. Victories seem to trump any and all debates anyway, so when the best team doesn’t come out on top, it creates quite a conundrum.
If the game winds up with a result that feels random, that could have catastrophic effects on the divisional race. To have an effect of that magnitude predicated on a scheduling mishap is egregious. Still, it wouldn’t be out of place in a league that thrives on monetizing its variance.
Ultimately, the NFL is in the entertainment business. That often supersedes any commitments to competitive integrity. Early-season divisional games will yield extremely high ratings and, therefore, massive income. The Week 1 clash between the Packers and the Vikings comes at an inopportune time for both teams, with massively high stakes. But that’s the nature of the league. At the very least, it will incentivize both teams to be as ready as they can for this pivotal matchup.