For the 2015 season, bye weeks are scheduled between week 4 and week 11 and, according to the NFL Operations website, bye weeks are possible through week 12. This season, just two teams have byes during week 4, while six teams sat out in week 4 of the 2014 season, including the two Super Bowl competitors. In 2012 and 2013, two teams rested during week 4 in each season.
There is no set number of teams that are required to be on break during each week, other than the Noah's Ark rule with multiples of two. Sometimes there are six teams on break. Sometimes, like week 10 of the 2010 season, there are zero. It all boils down to the scheduling calculus masterminded by NFL Senior Vice President of Broadcasting Howard Katz.
But why, oh why, does there have to be a week 4 bye?
The rules and requests surrounding schedule making are lengthy, bulky, and slightly hilarious.
Every fan knows the six divisional games, consisting of a home-and-home against the three other divisional rivals.
Then there are the eight games against one division in the AFC and one division in the NFC, with the division of choice rotating every season.
And the final two games are against the teams within the conference that finish the prior season in the same place in their respective division. For example, the division winner will face the other division winning teams in the same conference, while the last place team would face the other last place teams in the other divisions.
Those are the sixteen games that make up a franchise's future schedule. But when it comes time to arrange these games over a seventeen week football season, it starts to get a little messy.
The seventeen week season started in 1990 when NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue decided to stretch out the season for the sake of increased television exposure and money, with the mutual player benefit of midseason rest. In the spirit of the extended season, pretty much every scheduling decision comes down to television ratings.
Katz is the mad scientist that sprinkles in scheduling requests to create the most beneficial witch's brew for the NFL's key stakeholders: the broadcast networks, the NFL, and the franchises.
The upcoming 256-game season schedule might not be finalized until after week 17 due to the league's increased focus of divisional games closing out the season. Starting in January, teams, stadiums, and cities reach out to Katz to throw in additional variables like concerts, baseball schedules, and the Pope. In 2012, there were 70 days where teams couldn't play due to alternate stadium usage.
Katz tries to follow certain rules when structuring the season.
Southern teams like to avoid 1 PM games early in the year due to the heat, and would prefer stay at home later in the season when the weather is more palatable and fans are more likely to attend the game.
The New York teams try to play away during the Jewish High Holidays. West coast teams are preferable for Christmas Eve so the fans can have time to leave the stadium and to attend church after the game.
Franchises that share a market (Giants and Jets, Raiders and 49ers) can't play at the same time or network because the NFL bylaws require that these games be available for broadcast in the team's "territory".
Teams aren't supposed to have more than five prime time games (Patriots have five, with Thursday Night games against the Steelers and Dolphins, Sunday Night games against the Broncos and Colts, and a Monday Night game against the Bills). Patriots' owner Robert Kraft has specifically asked Katz for more 1 PM games because of how often New England has been featured in prime time.
No team should start or end the season with two road games (Patriots finish their season @Jets and @Dolphins, so this slipped through the cracks), and they're not supposed to have a three-in-a-row situation at any point in the season.
Also, teams shouldn't travel if they're coming off a short week after a Monday Night Football game (Patriots travel to Denver for Sunday Night Football after a Monday Night game against Rex Ryan and the Bills), and teams should rarely play multiple teams coming off of a bye of their own (Washington is coming off a bye in week 9 when they travel to New England).
This year, the NFL placed a focus on their 50th Super Bowl and gave Katz a new variable to work with as he tried to feature Super Bowl rematches throughout the season.
Katz and his team will scan through the schedules to highlight the key match-ups, like Tom Brady vs Peyton Manning, or Deflarthyism Revenge against the Colts, or Rex Ryan vs Bill Belichick, and will try and find prime time places for these games. This season included 50 "must-schedule" games.
With these games locked into time slots, a computer algorithm will spit out hundreds of thousands of permutations that meet all of the specified criteria. These options are whittled down based upon a week-by-week evaluation of game strengths. No one wants an afternoon slate where every game is a blowout, like what happened in week 3.
Once Katz finds a schedule he thinks will work, he brings it to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who provides his approval.
The schedule unfortunately fell into place where the Patriots had a week 4 bye. Changing their bye week would likely just create more issues for every other team. In true Kraft fashion, New England just had to bite the bullet for the benefit of the rest of the league.
But before Patriots fans rage against the NFL machine, it must be said that this isn't the case of the league being out to get New England. It's just their turn.
"If you look at recent history,'' One of Katz' teammates Michael North told Sporting News, "You see where the Patriots' byes have been. In 2014, Week 10. 2013, Week 10. 2012, Week 9.'
The Patriots had a week 7 bye in 2011. North explains that, per scheduling rules, the Patriots won't have an early bye in 2016.
Would the NFL be better off completely eliminating the week 4 bye (and probably the week 12 bye, too) from being an option? Is the week 4 bye week a necessity to make the scheduling work, or just an arbitrary inclusion? I haven't been able to find an explicit justification for it from Katz or any other member of the scheduling team, but with all of the variables included in making a schedule, I'm not going to say that a week 4 bye is useless.
Personally, I believe that bye weeks should pivot around the middle of the season during weeks 8 and 9, and extend in both directions to weeks 6 and 11.
But this is an outsider's perspective; I have no idea if it's even possible. Katz has been described by competing television executives as the NFL's "MVP". I trust that he's weighing all of the requests from every party and presenting the schedule that best promotes the league's bottom line.
It just is what it is.