Schedule-makers strive for fairness
Mailbag: Is it time for Bears to draft QB? Can Chargers contend in 2013?
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.
Nick in Hartford, Conn., I don't see the Washington Redskins making a move for Charles Woodson. They could fit him under their cap, but I don't think there is interest. Jason in New Orleans wonders what the Saints will do in the draft and whether they would trade up. They need draft choices, so trading up isn't an option. I think they can get a good player for their 3-4 defense in the middle of the first round. No need to trade up. Jarrett in Seattle is a Ravens fan but he's worried about the team next season. He sees needs at safety, linebacker, wide receiver and along the defensive line, all of which can't be fixed in the draft. He is onto something, but similar things can be said about some of the other teams at the top of the AFC. That still gives the Ravens a chance to make the playoffs and win a game. I don't see them going back to the Super Bowl. Very few teams can repeat. Y.P. in Washington, D.C., is a big Bengals fan and wanted the team to do more in free agency. He wants upgrades at wide receiver and running back. I'm not as worried. That can be handled in the draft. They do need to get Andre Smith re-signed at right tackle. Smith isn't getting the $9 million-a-year contract he coveted, but the Bengals need to find a way to get him signed long term. Kevin in Temple Hills, Md., the reason the Steelers matched the Patriots' offer to Emmanuel Sanders is they didn't want to replace Mike Wallace and Sanders in one draft. Sanders is a good receiver. What would be nice is if they could get him to sign an extension for between $4 million and $5 million a year. But that might not happen. Not having Sanders and Wallace would make Ben Roethlisberger's job that much tougher. Still, they contemplated just taking the third-round pick for him. Jamie T. in Wichita, Kan., knows the Falcons are saving up to give Matt Ryan a big contract extension, but he wonders what else the Falcons are going to do this offseason. They have to get help at cornerback and maybe find a young pass-rusher. It's also not out of the question for them to get a little more depth at linebacker. I think cornerback is the biggest priority. What they don't fix in the draft will be worked on in free agency. Bryan in Chicago wonders where Brian Urlacher will end up. All we know is that his days are over in Chicago. Urlacher has to hope that a 4-3 team looking for a middle linebacker can't find the right solution in the draft. Tim in Phoenix knows the Chargers are looking to draft a left tackle with the No. 11 pick. He wonders what they do if the three top tackles are gone. That could leave them with the chance to a draft a pass-rusher. Matt in Fair Lawn, N.J., wonders if the Jets should trade or dump Mark Sanchez. They have no choice but to keep him. There is no trade value for him because of his $8.25 million base guarantee. Also, why pay him $8.25 million to go and then have to pay another quarterback or two to replace him? Bill in Neptune, Fla., suggests the Jaguars sign Tyson Clabo at right tackle. That would be a good fit, but I think they will draft Eric Fisher, so it eliminates that option for now. If they don't take a left tackle with the second pick in the draft, then Clabo would be a great option.
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.
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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.