Commentary

Long trips force teams to try three-time-zone defense

In his weekly mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on the injured reserve system, the Jets' bandwagon, the Cowboys' defense and more.

Originally Published: October 8, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Jets-CardinalsAl Pereira/Getty ImagesStaying on the East Coast between consecutive road games against the Redskins and Jets didn't seem to help the Arizona Cardinals, who lost to the Jets 56-35.
One of the beauties of the four-team, eight-division format of the NFL is the ease of consistency in scheduling.

The schedule allows a team to see every team in football over a four-year period. Divisions rotate their schedules in a perfect cycle. This year, though, the division matchups have created a problem. The NFC West meets the NFC East and AFC East, and the AFC West faces the AFC East, creating an extraordinary number of cross-country games.

Overall, there are 41 games in which franchises travel across three time zones to play games. So far, the results have been mostly predictable. In the 12 times east has met west, the visiting team has won only twice. The New England Patriots, no surprise, beat the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday 30-21. The Carolina Panthers upset the San Diego Chargers 26-24 in the opener.

It may sound silly for a sport that reconvenes every seven days to have issues with travel. NBA, NHL and baseball teams grind through mazes of travel issues that top the NFL, playing almost every night and making tougher connections. Still, there is an impact that can't be ignored. It's tough to travel three time zones to a game and be able to win on the road.

The Arizona Cardinals tried to defeat years of road losses by spending a week in the Washington area after a game against the Redskins. Since 1998, the Cardinals haven't done better than 2-6 on the road in a season. But staying in the East turned into a disaster. After a close loss to the Redskins, the Cardinals were blown out by the New York Jets 56-35.

A more experienced Patriots team is staying in San Jose, Calif., this week between the 49ers game and Sunday night's game against the Chargers. If the trip is a success, they might do the same later in the season when they play at Seattle and Oakland in back-to-back weeks.

What we've seen this season is the problem of West Coast teams playing at 1 p.m. on the East Coast. Body clocks of West Coast players have trouble adjusting in the East. They are playing games at an hour when they are normally leaving pregame meals or heading to stadiums.

This already has caused an increase in blowouts. The Seahawks lost in Buffalo 34-10 and at the New York Giants 44-6 in early starts. The Bills lost quarterback Trent Edwards to a concussion in the first quarter Sunday and were blown away by the Cardinals 41-17. The Chargers were upset by the Dolphins 17-10 on Sunday in a game in which they were sleepwalking every time the Dolphins tried a direct snap to Ronnie Brown.

Some of the West Coast teams have suggested trying to get 4 p.m. East Coast starts for their travels to the east. Naturally, those thoughts have been rejected, because the home fans prefer the 1 p.m. starts and the teams don't want to lose home-field advantage.

With teams crisscrossing the country this season, expect more blowouts and wild outcomes. It will be interesting to see if the home-field advantage continues, too. The home team seems to have an extra advantage when the visiting team has to adjust their body clocks.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: To help teams with injuries, any chance of the NFL doing a modified IR system where a team can place a player on IR for only four to six weeks, during which time the team can sign another player?

Ed in Orlando

A: Years ago, there were short and long injured-reserve lists. For competitive reasons, the league felt more comfortable with a season-long injury list. Still, with the shortage of good replacement players on the street, this is an idea the league should consider. Baseball has short and long disabled lists and the sport has minor league teams to replenish rosters in times of injuries. If the league expands the season to 17 or 18 games, it might have to consider that. For years, some general managers have contended there aren't enough quality football players to stock 53-man rosters on 32 teams. It does seem silly to end a season of a good player by placing him on the injured reserve list for a six-week injury. It's time for the league to start thinking of ideas such as that. Good thought, Ed.

Short takes

To AB, who wonders if there will be a new Sean Taylor. Taylor was a great player. He had speed and hitting ability. Before his tragic shooting, he had his best year of offseason training and was emerging as a superstar. You can expect a great safety such as him about every five years. It's just sad we can't enjoy him now. … Joey in New York wonders why teams don't sign Shaun Alexander to help them in the red zone. Thanks to the influx of rookie backs and the use of direct snaps near the goal line, rushing touchdowns are at an all-time high. The 139 rushing touchdowns in the first 74 games is the best start since 1979. If Alexander is going to get a job, he needs to get one pretty soon. Time is running out fast. … To Anthony in New York, I think it is time for the Bengals to consider trading Chad Johnson. He needs a change, and the Bengals need draft choices, Still, I believe the Bengals need to beef up the personnel office to take better advantage of their draft choices. They continue to make mistakes and put Marvin Lewis in an impossible position of trying to manage a locker room that lacks talent and some character. Johnson was one of the best draft choices the team has had in the past decade, but it's time to rebuild. … Eric in Atlanta, the Vikings will sink or swim with Gus Frerotte at quarterback. There is no trade coming. There is no hope of finding something on the outside as far as a signing. It's Frerotte or bust, and so far, Frerotte has been a success. … Karl in Wailuku, the Steelers' coaches seem down on Max Starks, so it looks as though he won't play unless there is an injury at right tackle to Willie Colon. Starks will leave after this season, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he doesn't play a down. The personnel office wanted to keep him as a franchise player because it's hard finding offensive linemen in free agency or the draft. The coaches didn't want him, so he sits. … Joe in Rochester, N.Y., wonders if the Cowboys will move Roy Williams to linebacker. I doubt it. They are loaded at linebacker, so there wouldn't be an opening. Once he comes back from the broken forearm, he will be a two-down safety, but I think he's destined for the waiver wire after the season.

Q: John, I am officially on the N.Y. Jets' bandwagon after watching Brett Favre scorch the Cardinals recently. With their soft schedule and a defense that tends to play better as the season progresses, would it be far-fetched to consider them contenders in the AFC?

Greg in San Diego

A: As soon as they acquired Favre in the trade, the Jets became a wild-card contender. What no one expected was for the Patriots to lose Tom Brady for the season and make the AFC East an open division. Scoring is everything in this league, and I thought Favre gave the Jets a better chance to score points than a Bills team that I thought would make the wild card. That's why I picked the Jets over the Bills for second place in the AFC East and gave them a chance to get a wild card. Thanks to the 56-point explosion against the Cardinals, the Jets are averaging 28.8 points a game but are 2-2 because the offense wasn't as consistent during the first three games. The Bills are 4-1 with a 25.2 average. The Jets have a chance.

Q: John, can you explain the impact of the economy on the NFL as it will pertain to PSLs, ticket prices and the NFL Sunday Ticket exclusively being on DirecTV, and if the NFL or NFL owners will do anything to make the game more affordable during these hard times?

Joey in Rochester, N.Y.

A: The tough economic times ahead will force the NFL to consider some minor adjustments, but that will be determined by the marketplace. The NFL charges so much for its product because it can. Plus, games are played only once a week. It's not like baseball where a team has 162 opportunities to make revenue. The NFL has eight regular-season home games and eight regular-season road games to fund payrolls in excess of $100 million. The high fuel costs are on the minds of owners who have fan bases that need to do a lot of driving to get to games. But clearly, the NFL won't be giving away its product. Owners are good businessmen. They have a sport that has high ratings and filled seats. They will do whatever is necessary to satisfy fans and keep their business.

Q: I've been an Eagles fan since the days of Randall Cunningham, but I suddenly seem torn as a fan. At what point do you start to heavily question or criticize your home team? Especially this Reid/McNabb era, which has been the best in the history of the franchise, yet has come up short on so many occasions?

Devin

A: Cherish this time, and don't get too frustrated. Consider the alternatives of what might happen if Andy Reid were to leave and Donovan McNabb were to go elsewhere. It wasn't that long ago when the Eagles were consistently losing. It took Dick Vermeil to restore credibility to the Eagles back in the 1980s. With Reid as the coach and McNabb as the quarterback, the Eagles went to four consecutive NFC title games. Despite the two close losses to the Bears and the Redskins, the Eagles have a good chance to get to the title game again. This is a golden time in the history of Eagles football. Because of Reid, McNabb and an ownership willing to spend, the Eagles are always in contention.

Q: Dallas' defense has lots of talent, but their schemes seem very vanilla. DBs are always playing 10 yards off the ball and almost every play playing zone. When they rush four, which is most of the time, it seems they only let DeMarcus Ware bull rush or speed rush, as well as others … not much scheming. When the ball is snapped I can tell you where they're coming from. Ware never loops to center and shoots; they never disguise the blitz like Philly, Chicago and others. They have as much or more talent on D than the rest of the league, but [they're] so plain vanilla, and they repeat even if it's not working … your thoughts?

Thomas

A: You're right in the sense that the Cowboys' defense has underachieved. They have too much talent to be giving up 22 points a game. I think a lot of that is the teams that they've played. The Cowboys have played teams with a 47-33 record from last year including two teams that made the playoffs, the Redskins and Packers. When they left Lambeau Field with a victory over the Packers, everyone including myself proclaimed them the top team in the league. The schedule gets softer in the second half, and that's when the defensive numbers will start coming down. Wade Phillips runs a nice version of the 3-4. He's doesn't limit his defensive linemen to two-gapping 60 plays a game, so the linemen get to shoot through gaps and attack the quarterback. To me, it doesn't look as though they will fix their coverage holes at safety until next year when they move Anthony Henry to full time. Terence Newman can't shake injuries this season. Adam Jones is rusty after being suspended last year. Plus, he's not as comfortable in zone coverages yet. Mike Jenkins is a rookie who is still learning. I'm a little concerned about a lack of dominance at the nose tackle position. But overall, they will be fine.

Q: Are Dre' Bly and Champ Bailey the most overrated players in the NFL? I'm a huge Broncos fan, but I have a bad feeling about our defense this season moving forward. Is it the players or the schemes that have caused us so many problems in our first five games?

James in Sanford, Calif.

A: Champ Bailey isn't overrated. He's still one of the best corners in the game. He can make plays on blitzes and he can still cover. But the Broncos were expected to have problems all season on defense. They lack speed at safety and have been patching the position with older veterans. They don't have much of a pass rush. The problem is the talent, not the scheme. Years of poor drafting and constant coaching changes have drained the Broncos' defense. I was interested to see if the changes made in the Tampa Bay game will stick. The Broncos went to more Cover 2 looks and didn't allow big plays. I'm wondering, though, if the Broncos' success in that game on defense was more Brian Griese's struggles, but it was the first positive step on defense this year. Mike Shanahan knows he has to win on offense. The defense is going to be a work in progress all season.

Q: Ed Johnson was released by the Colts a couple of weeks ago. Any chance somebody like the Raiders, who need D-line help, would bring this guy in to help on the line?

Eric

A: It might be a consideration, because the Raiders don't have much behind Tommy Kelly and Terdell Sands. The loss of Johnson was a big blow to the Colts. He was a very talented run-stopper as a rookie. With Johnson cut and Quinn Pitcock retired, the Colts haven't come up with any solutions to help their run-stopping unit. It's sad that a good, young success story such as Johnson cost himself a job in Indianapolis because of some off-the-field problems. The Raiders may look at him down the line.

Q: How can Al Davis accuse the Patriots of tampering when he made the Randy Moss trade? Wouldn't your team do better in a trade if the other team thinks the player being traded for is more valuable? If he didn't want to move him he didn't have to -- he had the rights to him.

Mike in Augusta

A: Al Davis said some crazy things during the Lane Kiffin press conference, but the tampering charge was unfair and wrong. The Raiders shopped him close to the draft, and only two teams were interested -- the Packers and the Patriots. Had Davis not made the trade, Moss might have gotten out of the game. He was bored in Oakland. He couldn't take the losing. He needed a new challenge. It's always great to hear Davis' thoughts. He needs to have more press conferences, not one every six months. But if anyone has any remorse for trading away Moss, it's the Raiders. They lost a great player.

Q: John, I wish that the reporters (including you) at ESPN would actually watch some tape on the Colts' defense. Though you are right in your assessment of the smallish defensive line, their problems are much more because of the poor play of the LBs. Poor tackling, poor technique and tons of missed assignments by that group have been the primary cause of the Colts' defensive problems against the run. Watch the tape and you'll see this, too.

Rob in Indianapolis

A: I have watched the tape, and they are trying to cover for a lot of problems, but the biggest problem is at defensive tackle. They don't have run-stopping tackles, and that's going to be a problem. Bill Polian would love to make a trade, but there isn't anyone available. You watch. Starting next year, the Colts will start drafting and signing bigger defensive linemen. The NFL isn't calling many holding penalties, which makes it tougher for smaller defensive tackles to have an impact. They will get better when Bob Sanders returns from his ankle injury in a month. Still, the run defense will be a problem all season.

Q: How come the offensive skill players are not charged with a face mask or hands-to-face penalty when they are stiff-arming defenders but they are called on almost every other position (O-line, D-line, etc.)?

Anthony in Seattle

A: One point-of-emphasis change this offseason was to call offensive players who stiff-arm defenders, so those calls are coming. Safety is a big concern in this league. The NFL felt offensive players were getting away with too much. Running backs will be penalized for using their arms as a weapon. Let me know in a few weeks if you see it or not.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer