The NFL began instituting bye weeks in the league schedule in 1990, a way to squeeze 17 weeks of TV contracts into a 16-week season. The only motivation for creating the bye week system was money – pure and simple. At the time, the league had 28 teams and clustered the bye weeks according to division – the top four teams in the five-team divisions would have the same bye week, as would the four fifth-place teams. But there was a problem from the outset – the teams coming off of bye weeks didn't play each other. As Brad Childress is wont to say, it created a competitive advantage for the rested team that could be the difference between winning and losing.
Back when it was the Vikings and Packers routinely fighting it out for the NFC Central Division title, having the two meet with Green Bay coming off its bye and the Vikings coming off a hard-fought road game during the Packers' bye week meant that one team was healed up and rested and the other was playing this critical division matchup with a short week and no rest. Because of the league's bye-week system, division titles could be won or lost thanks in no small part to the league's schedule.
The bye weeks still exist, but fortunately the short-lived system that briefly allowed two bye weeks a year was quickly scrapped. But the bye week has taken on a life of its own.
The bye week became something of a farce when the league made the short-sighted decision of adding Cleveland to the NFL by itself in 1999. In the two previous NFL expansions, two teams were added – Tampa Bay and Seattle in the 1970s and Jacksonville and Carolina in the 1990s. But the addition of Cleveland gave the NFL 31 teams. The problem was clear – you can't have an odd number of teams and have everyone play each week. Someone had to sit. The solution? Have teams on bye every week.
This plan was clearly a failure. The NFL got in the prediction business, trying to project what team wouldn't have a chance to make the playoffs (usually someone like Cincinnati) and giving that team a Week 17 bye. It created the potential that if a team made a one-year jump like the Saints and Bears of recent years, a team could have back-to-back bye weeks and go 21 days without playing a game before getting its first playoff game.
When Houston joined the NFL and the divisions were realigned, the NFL had the perfect opportunity to fix its flawed bye-week system. It was now capable of having eight bye weeks for the league, giving all four teams in a division the same bye and having them meet the following week. There would be no advantage or disadvantage to any of the teams. However, that hasn't been done. In the first few years of the new alignment, the league has mixed teams from different divisions and both conferences to share bye weeks. There have been some complaints about the plan, but it has yet to completely change. However, that may be changing.
This season, 10 of the league's 32 teams (including the Vikings), will have a shared bye week and then meet one another when both return from their bye. When the Vikings come off their bye to play Houston, both teams will be coming off their bye week. The others who will have the playing field leveled are Tennessee, Kansas City, the New York Giants, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta and Seattle.
This is a system that can be streamlined to make it so one team isn't given longer to prepare for an opponent than the other. The Giants, for example, don't get an advantage of being more rested than their opponent coming out of the bye, yet they face two teams the week after their own bye week without the same advantage – Cleveland in Week 6 and Baltimore in Week 11.
The 10 teams meeting after byes is a league high since the inception of the scattered bye week system. It's a start. Hopefully, the league will figure out that any advantage, where it is additional rest or filming other teams' defensive signals, creates an advantage that can and should be avoided. This year it is 10 teams. Hopefully within a year or two, the league can finally make it so all 32 teams meet one another when they come out of their bye weeks.