Commentary

An easier path for four stragglers

Road schedule paves way for Bucs, Browns, Bills, Texans to set sights on .500

Originally Published: April 27, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

One of the early themes of the offseason is how some of the worst teams in football are angling to get to .500.

The 2014 schedule, released last Wednesday, could give some of those teams even more hope. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans have a shot. One of the reasons is their nondivision road schedule.

Winning on the road in the NFL is tough. Those four teams had combined road records -- division games included -- of 5-27. During my training camp tour, I remember telling a Cleveland coach how the team could be better on the field but not improved with their record. My reasoning was that the Browns last season played seven road games against teams with 2012 records of 8-8 or better.

They went 1-7 on the road.

Schedules are opportunities. Look back at the Kansas City Chiefs. Last year, they played a nondivision road schedule of teams that went 32-48 the previous season. I know that previous years' records aren't supposed to mean anything, but if you got to the extremes, you can make predictions. Based on the schedule, it was easy to forecast that the Chiefs could be an improved team. They were, going 11-5 and earning a wild-card berth.

Lovie Smith might find himself in a similar situation after taking the Bucs job. The teams on Tampa Bay's nondivision road schedule went 30-50 in 2013. None of the Bucs' eight road games are against teams that had winning records last season (two of them, Pittsburgh and Chicago, finished .500).

Smith's Bucs signed 13 unrestricted free agents. They revamped an overpaid, underachieving offensive line and added Michael Johnson as a pass-rusher. But the move to sign quarterback Josh McCown to be the starting quarterback tipped off the plan for the Bucs to try to get to .500 a year after going 4-12. At this stage of his career, McCown is considered more of a backup quarterback, but he's a good backup. Elite quarterbacks can get a franchise to 12 or 13 wins. Good backups might get a team to eight wins.

An easy nondivision road schedule gives a team a chance. Winning three of those five games gives a team a solid chance with the help of home games to have a 6-4 or 7-3 record outside the division.

[+] EnlargeFitzpatrick
Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsRyan Fitzpatrick comes to Houston with 77 career starts over nine seasons with Tennessee, Buffalo, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Go back to the Browns. Their only 2013 road victory was against the Minnesota Vikings, a playoff team in 2012 that dropped off to 5-10-1 last year. Cleveland was overmatched in nondivision road games, going 1-4. This year, the Browns have a chance. Their nondivision road schedule is against teams that went a combined 33-47 in 2013. If the Browns find the right quarterback, their offense might have a chance to improve after finishing 27th in scoring at 19.3 points per game last season. They play nondivision road teams that gave up 23.8 points a game last season.

You can also expect a significant improvement of the Bills offense on the road. In a 34-46 nondivision road schedule, the Bills face defenses that give up 26.7 points per game. Coach Doug Marrone added Mike Williams to the receiving corps, and there is a good chance the Bills could add a talented receiver in the draft, giving EJ Manuel a chance to improve in his second season.

The Texans are another team with a chance to bounce back. They are more talented than their 2-14 record. They face a nondivision road schedule of teams that went a combined 31-49. They brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick -- like McCown, a backup type -- to buy time as they consider drafting a quarterback.

On the flip side, the Denver Broncos face a significant challenge. Their nondivisional road schedule is the toughest (51-29) in the NFL based on 2013 records. Peyton Manning lost only six regular-season games over the past two years, but Denver will be challenged to go 3-2 in this season's nondivision road games. The schedule might lower the Broncos' win expectations from 13 to 11.

From the inbox

Q: Can you compare the QBs in this year's draft to 2011? There was a run on QBs as Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder all went in the top 12. Will that happen again this year, or have teams learned their lesson?

Matthew in New Jersey

A: I think the 2014 quarterback class is much better than 2013's, somewhat better than 2011's and worse than 2012's. Newton is better than any quarterback this year, but I think Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater are better than any of the other 2011 quarterbacks. The question is going to be how much better? I see a lot of good things ahead for Manziel. I like his strong arm and ability to improve. I don't know if he'll get be as good as Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and maybe Robert Griffin III, but at the very least I think he can come close to RG III. Give Bortles a year and I think he can become a very good QB. He needs work on his footwork. He's a very good athlete. Bridgewater is the one most ready to play, and I do see him being better than Blaine Gabbert, who never looked comfortable. But if you recall, the three teams -- Tennessee, Minnesota and Jacksonville -- that went for quarterbacks after Newton in 2011 either don't know what they have now or are still looking for quarterbacks.

Q: I have a question regarding draft-day trades. If the Vikings find a suitor to move into the No. 8 pick, does that team need to tell the Vikings whom they will be selecting before the trade is made? What happens if the team that switches places with the Vikings gave them false information and grabbed the player that the Vikings had been targeting at their lower spot?

Jason in Fergus Falls, Minn.

A: Normally, the team acquiring the pick will tell the trading team so that team doesn't get embarrassed. It's not a mandatory demand. Sometimes a team won't say, and the trade doesn't come down. Trading into the top 10 is a little different than later trades. If a team moves down too far, it realizes that it doesn't matter what the team acquiring the pick is going to do. A top-10 player isn't going to fall down too far, so the trading team might not ask. For example, if the Vikings move down to the 12 to 15 range in the first round, they might not ask. They will know that players they might have targeted who could go in the top 10 aren't likely to fall to them.

Q: Marcus Trufant signed a one-day contract to retire with the Seahawks. It reminded me how obscure these kinds of contracts really are. There are no details released about them, leading me to ask the question: Are there any details at all? Is there any sum of money given to a player who signs a one-day contract? And is there any contractual obligation that must be fulfilled? Or is it all just for show with no money or service of any kind involved?

Miles in Seattle

A: It's a very simple process. Trufant signs a one-year, $955,000 contract that counts $570,000 against the cap because it's under the minimum-salary-benefit program. The base salary is based on his years of experience. The next day, Trufant goes on the reserve retired list. His contract is terminated. He receives no money. The team breaks the obligation to him. But for life, he is officially listed as having retired as a Seahawk, which is what Trufant wanted. It happens all the time.

Q: I am totally confused on how the defending Super Bowl champs get one prime-time home game all season and it's the obligatory opening game. Is this a serious East Coast bias coming out? Some of the best prime-time matchups have been in Seattle the last couple of seasons. What's the NFL's angle here?

Casey in Seattle

A: The Seahawks were a victim of their success and their schedule, not bias. Their two biggest home games after the opener are against the Broncos and 49ers, and CBS and Fox protected them from being moved to prime time. The other options were Dallas, Oakland, the New York Giants, Arizona and St. Louis. The Rams game is in Week 17, when no game is selected for prime time until late in the season. There is no interest in Raiders-Seahawks, and no one was willing to take a chance on Giants-Seahawks with New York coming off a poor season. The Dallas game could be problematic because the Mariners control the October schedule in Seattle's SoDo district and could force the Seahawks to move an October night game if the Mariners make the playoffs. That leaves the Cardinals, but NBC decided to take that matchup in prime time when it's in Arizona, because the Cardinals theoretically would have a better chance of making it a competitive game at home.

Q: I just went over the 2014 schedule, and I'm a little confused. On Thanksgiving, there isn't one AFC team playing. It used to be that Detroit and Dallas would switch each year, rotating between NFC and AFC opponents. What changed?

Barry in North Canton, Ohio

A: The change is cross-flexing. NBC has had the ability to flex a Sunday afternoon game to Sunday night. The cross-flexing element involved CBS and Fox, the two networks that control the Sunday afternoon schedule. Fox has the NFC games, and CBS has the AFC games. To put better games in better slots, CBS and Fox can trade games. It was that type of a swap that created an all-NFC Thanksgiving Day. The idea is to create better matchups, which is a solid move. In some weeks, particularly when there are byes, Fox or CBS could be missing several good teams. Cross-flexing is a way to fix that.

Q: With all the talk about expanding the playoffs to 14 teams, why is the league set on seven teams per conference? I suggest giving the two teams with the best records a first-round bye, regardless of their conference. This will add even more excitement to the last few weeks of the season.

Ryan in Green Bay, Wis.

A: Unless I'm missing something, the playoffs are pretty exciting under the current format. The past two NFC Championship Games have been decided on a key play or two late in the fourth quarter. In 2012, the Broncos lost a home divisional playoff game after a long completion by the Ravens sent it to overtime. Playoff games are closer than ever. To give byes to the two teams with the best record regardless of conference would cause too much chaos that I don't think is needed. The conference playoff format is working. You can count on a 14-team playoff with one first-round bye per conference in 2015.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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