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Monday, April 22, 2013
Schedule-makers strive for fairness

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

No schedule can be perfect, but I give the NFL credit for trying.

Thursday's release of the 2013 schedule once again showed the league is fixing some past problems. Only two teams -- the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles -- are subjected to the dreaded three-game road trip. No team goes on the road after playing a road game on "Monday Night Football."

How did this happen?

The NFL has a four-person scheduling team consisting of Howard Katz, Michael North, Onnie Bose and Jonathan Payne. The team has developed a scheduling software package with a company out of western Canada called Optimal Planning Solutions.

Written into the scheduling software are 18,000 rules involving matchups. Those rules steer the results away from potential problems.

For years, teams complained about three-game road trips. In 2010, five teams played three-game road trips. In 2011, the number went to seven. Last year, only the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans had three consecutive games on the road. This year, it's only the Titans and Eagles.

Katz put a high priority on making the schedule better for teams playing on the road on Monday night. Coaches often complain about having a short week of preparation after playing Monday night. To come back with a road game is even tougher.

By putting a penalty into the program for such result, any team playing away for Monday night doesn't have to worry about going on the road the next week.

It will be interesting to see what Optimal might be programmed to do in the future. This is the second year the NFL has gone to an entire season of Thursday night games. Those configurations need to be studied to see if there are any problems.

West Coast teams may ask for help on 1 p.m. Eastern time zone starts. The Seahawks, despite advancing into the divisional round of the playoffs last season, have five 1 p.m. ET starts, three against 2012 playoff teams. Over the past four years, the Seahawks have a 5-12 record when they play at 1 p.m. ET.

I'm not advocating overdoing 4 p.m. ET starts for West Coast teams. Fans on the East Coast like their 1 p.m. starts, but elite teams have earned the right to get later starts. The 49ers, for example, went to the Super Bowl and earned the right to have only two 1 p.m. ET starts. The San Diego Chargers have six. The Oakland Raiders and the Seahawks have five each.

What's nice to see is the league has a tool that can fix a problem if it is identified. It makes for optimal scheduling.

From the inbox

Q: Is this the year for the Chicago Bears to draft a quarterback high? Jay Cutler is in the last year of his contract and is taking the Joe Flacco route for negotiations. If he fails, shouldn't the Bears have a quarterback in waiting to take over?

Maurice in Merrillville, Ind.

A: Drafting a quarterback high would point Cutler out the door. It wouldn't make sense. If Cutler has a great year and gets an $18 million-a-year contract, then the Bears wasted a high draft choice on a quarterback. The best scenario is to play it out, see how Cutler does and then make the decision. I think it's pretty clear the Bears brought in an offensive head coach to determine if Cutler is the right person to lead the franchise. They have to let it play out.

Q: I think the San Diego Chargers are the mystery team of the AFC. They have some good players but for some reason something is missing. We need the offensive line to improve.

Paul in San Diego

A: I don't doubt Philip Rivers' ability to carry the team on his right arm and get them in position to be a sleeper. Mike McCoy, the Chargers' new coach, should come up with a scheme that makes life easier for Rivers. There is still enough skill-position talent to have a good offense. You are right about the offensive line. That part of the team is scary. I look at the left side of the line and don't really see a solid starter. I worry about age in the middle of the line. But I don't doubt Rivers. If he gets hot, the team can win.

Q: The Detroit Lions have a serious need for O-line help. What is their plan? I know they brought in Brandon Moore, but they haven't signed him yet.

Alex in Midland, Mich.

A: Their hope is Eric Fisher drops to the No. 5 pick, but I don't see that happening. They have to make a decision whether to take Lane Johnson at No. 5 or go with a pass-rusher (Ziggy Ansah) and then try to take an offensive lineman in the second round. Because it is a deep draft for linemen, they have the flexibility of waiting to get the right guy or two. If they don't get the right guard, they could sign Moore after the draft.

Q: I am a longtime Cleveland Browns fan, and if CB Dee Milliner is not on the board, I am willing to reach at No. 6 for TE Tyler Eifert. He looks to be a game-changer. So much talk about trading down and obtaining a second-round pick just doesn't seem worth the risk of losing out on Eifert. Thoughts?

Mike in Orwigsburg, Pa.

A: If Milliner isn't there, LB Dion Jordan (if he slips) would be a perfect fit for the new 3-4 defense in Cleveland. Eifert isn't the sixth-best player in the draft, so that wouldn't work. If they could trade down twice in the first round, that would make sense. No doubt, the Browns could use Eifert. He's a perfect fit for the offense, but not at No. 6.

Q: I used to love watching the draft on Saturday and Sunday. I would make a weekend of it. Now that the draft is Thursday through Saturday (and I have to work nights), I could care less. Is there any way the NFL would go back to weekend drafts?

Kim in Gainesville, Texas

A: Unfortunately for you, the move to two prime-time nights has worked for ratings. This draft doesn't have as much buzz as the past couple, so it will be interesting to see how it affects ratings. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his staff thought moving the draft to prime time would add more viewership, and he was right. I don't see it going back to weekends.

Q: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones tends to like the early-round splash in his drafts, but the weak foundation (line play) has finally caught up to this team. Has he finally learned a lesson?

Alan in Lubbock, Texas

A: He may have. This year, it seems pretty clear that they need a defensive lineman in the first round to help the transition to a 4-3. That's not a splashy type of pick. Sure, many of the moves over the past couple of years have been shaky. The team has been too far over the salary cap and several of the drafts have been poor. But Jones has drafted well in the first round for a couple of years. Let's see if it can continue.