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The inside story of the Browns-Eagles preseason scheduling quirk

Aug 20, 2012 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi


The Morning Kickoff …

They did what?: I asked former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano what would be his reaction if he found out the schedule-makers pitted his team against the Philadelphia Eagles in the third preseason game – the traditional season dress rehearsal – and then again in the regular-season opener.

“Who the hell did that, David Modell?” he mock-exclaimed, referring to the son of former Browns owner Art Modell.

When Rutigliano was coach, the teams were responsible for lining up opponents for the preseason. That changed in 2002 when the league realigned to its present eight-division format. Since then, the league office schedules the first three games of the preseason. Teams are responsible only for the fourth, or last, preseason game.

Here is the back story of why the Browns and Eagles share this scheduling quirk and must play each other twice in the span of 15 days.

All about the Benjamins: When the preseason schedule was up to the individual teams, preseason opponents were scheduled based on potential ticket revenue. It stood to reason that small-market clubs would want to play in large-market stadiums because preseason gate receipts were shared 50-50. So there was a mad scramble to play the Giants, Jets, Cowboys, Redskins, etc. – teams with hearty fan bases and stadiums to accommodate them.

In order to “sell” realignment to teams having to leave a traditional division for a new one, such as the Arizona Cardinals, and thus losing big-market gates, the league made a change in how preseason revenue was shared.

Instead of the competing teams dividing the preseason gate 50-50, the league pooled all preseason gate receipts and divided them 32 ways. That way, it didn’t matter if teams played the New York Giants or the Carolina Panthers – every team received the same preseason revenue. The same was done to regular-season gate receipts, although they are split 60-40 in favor of the home team.

By putting itself in charge of scheduling preseason Games 1-3, the league then could meet the demands of its network partners. Preseason football was a tough enough sell to advertisers when starters played only one quarter. “At least give us Giants v. Patriots, instead of Jaguars and Seahawks,” the network suits squawked.

“The goal of the league handling the schedule was to make sure we could create the most compelling national television schedule while limiting travel as much as possible, taking into account traditional matchups and rivalries,” league spokesman Michael Signora affirmed in an email.

Teams do state their preferences for the preseason to the league office, but they often are ignored or are unable to be met. The league sets the preseason schedule first. About a month later, the regular-season schedule then is finalized. When a quirk such as the one the Browns and Eagles share is discovered, it is too late to fix it.

Explained Signora: “While it is unusual for teams to play in the preseason and then again very early in the regular season, there was no specific reason for it. Again, creating the schedule takes into account a variety of considerations, including working around stadium blocks and availability, honoring as many team requests as possible, making the national television schedule, etc.”

Why the fans suffer: Rutigliano said of the scheduling quirk, “I would be upset if I didn’t have the bigger problems that Pat Shurmur has.”

Meaning, bringing four or five key rookie starters up to speed, replacing three suspended or injured defensive starters, winning enough games to spare himself from a new owner’s desire to start fresh.Those are bigger headaches for Shurmur than hiding things from the Eagles in Friday's practice game.

Ultimately, the Cleveland fans will be robbed of seeing what typically is the closest preseason game to the real thing. Neither Shurmur nor Philadelphia’s Andy Reid will reveal much.

Shurmur, who broke in under Reid in 1999 and stayed 10 years on his staff, told me, “It will be a very vanilla game, I’m sure, for everybody involved. You’re going to see plays that they install on the first day of training camp, and the same from us.”

This is just the second time the Browns have opened a season against the same team they played in the third preseason game since the exhibition schedule was cut to four (or five) games in 1978.

The only other time it happened was in 1989 when the Browns played preseason Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- of all teams -- and played them again in the opener. For the record, the Browns, in Bud Carson’s coaching debut, annihilated Chuck Noll’s Steelers in the season opener, 51-0. It was and still is the greatest first game ever recorded by a first-time NFL head coach.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

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