Commentary

Schedules loom large in big picture

Originally Published: July 27, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

For weeks, I've been getting two or three questions a week about my theories regarding the NFL schedule.

Some readers think the schedule's impact is minimal because it's balanced leaguewide. They say teams in the same division play 14 games against common opponents and only two games against non-common opponents. Others say you can't project how a team is going to do before the season when you don't know what its opponents are going to do. Those points are valid.

Still, you can't argue with history. Several years ago, former NFL coach Dick Vermeil articulated what I have been trying to convey. He said, "It's not how you do against winning teams, it's how often you play them.'' How right he was.

For example, teams that play "down" divisions such as the NFC West or AFC West do well while those that play the AFC South or NFC East struggle. The more winning teams you play, the more injuries and the more adversity you face.

The teams with the easier schedules have a great chance of going at least 7-3 in non-divisional games. For example, last year the AFC East played both West divisions. The only team that didn't have a 7-3 or better non-divisional record was the Jets, who blew games in Oakland and Seattle.

The beneficiaries this season will be the AFC North (which plays the NFC North and AFC West), and the NFC North (plays NFC West and AFC North). The tough schedules go to the NFC South (NFC East and AFC East), and the AFC East (NFC South and AFC South).

Let's go to the mailbag.

From the inbox

Q: Why is Tony Romo being criticized for playing a little golf? Why does the national media expect him to do nothing but football? A couple rounds of golf here and there are probably good for the guy.

Shawn D. in Dallas

A: Great point. You win a prize. Players are entitled to have a personal life. Most quarterbacks I know are good golfers. Romo is just better than most. I'll stand by Romo. He's a great story. The guy was undrafted and patient. He waited his turn to get a starting job and then took over an offense that turned out to be one of the better scoring units in football. Sure, he made a mistake by taking a vacation before the playoff game two years ago, but players should learn from their mistakes. As a quarterback, you are also a leader. He's fine.

Q: I am a 49ers fan and think they have a good enough team to make the playoffs. I know the offense is not that good, but I think they can be good enough to win games like the Bucs and Ravens did when those teams won Super Bowls. If the pass-catchers (Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan) pick it up, I think they could go to the Super Bowl. Do you?

Chad in Wisconsin

A: Chad, take one step at a time. Make the playoffs first and then think Super Bowl. Even if the 49ers can top the Cardinals and Seahawks for the NFC West, it's still going to be hard for them to win a playoff game with the quarterbacking talent on board. They are going in the right direction. The offensive line is solidifying. They have a good running game. Coach Mike Singletary is establishing a physical mentality and good work ethic for this team. On paper, though, the Niners are third in the NFC West, but the gap is closing. What would help close the gap is a bounce-back season from Alex Smith, but he probably won't beat out Shaun Hill. Smith has more talent than Hill. To catch up in the division, the 49ers need a quarterback who can complete against Kurt Warner and Matt Hasselbeck. Smith could do that, but Hill has the edge at winning the starting job. I do like the wide receiving corps. They could use another pass-rusher, but the 49ers are at least competing, which is a step forward.

Q: I know you don't have a crystal ball, but is Anthony Gonzalez of the Colts poised for a breakout year? He has had quiet success with Peyton Manning, almost like Tom Brady and Wes Welker-type chemistry. Think this could be his huge year?

Dan in northern California

A: Clearly, his numbers should go into the 65- to 80-catch level and I think he should come close to 1,000 yards. Gonzalez showed a lot of improvement last season. Effectively, he was the team's No. 2 receiver because Marvin Harrison was the team's third-best receiver. Gonzalez will still work out of the slot in three-receiver sets. His adjustment will be playing the outside for the first time. He'll take over Harrison's role on the right side. He runs good routes and has the work ethic to do well with Manning.

Q: By moving the draft to Thursday, it seems like the NFL has completely forgotten about whom the draft is really about -- the college student-athletes. Most college school years are not over by the end of April. With many of the projected high picks on site in New York City or having various draft parties with family and friends, they will surely be missing class, exams, etc. Did the NFL even for a split second take this into consideration?

Mike in Detroit

A: Hate to tell you this, Mike, but most of the top draft choices skip a lot of classes during that time. Picks projected in the first two rounds usually make 10 to 12 visits to teams during the three weeks before the draft. Most of the picks start training for the combine in January. Plus, the NFL invites only six to eight players to New York anyway. We can debate whether a three-day draft is overkill, but no draft choice is going to get an incomplete in the classroom because the NFL moved the draft to three days.

Q: I am a diehard Bills fan, and there's just something that feels out of place regarding the O-line. I don't like the fact that all five of the Bills' starters are playing a different position than last year, and they have two rookies playing the guard spots. Also, seeing Langston Walker at left tackle makes me a little nauseous. Do you see the Bills making a move for a player like Tra Thomas, who seems expendable in Jacksonville, or Levi Jones?

Garren in Clifton Park, N.Y.

A: Let's share a personnel office together. I thought once the Bengals cut Jones, he was going to Buffalo. The Bills never called. Jones could have allowed Walker to stay at right tackle and minimize some of the change. I'm not against the two rookie guards. They have a chance to be good players. But the Bills are asking a lot by trying to juggle five changes on the offense line. Quarterback Trent Edwards isn't very mobile, and it is vital that the Bills excel in run-blocking. The Bills have been living on the edge this offseason. They were aggressive in signing Terrell Owens. Good move. They were passive when it came to the offense line. That's a gamble, I agree.

Q: I have a quick question about Reuben Droughns. What happened to his career? I just saw that he got cut from the Giants and was wondering if any team would have any interest in him, as he was a productive back two or three years ago.

Ethan in Cleveland

A: Droughns suffered the age-old problem that hits NFL running backs -- age. He is now 30, and he's coming off unproductive years. He didn't get a carry in 12 games last season with the Giants. His rushing average dropped from 3.4 in 2006 to 3.2 in '07. Most teams aren't looking at him as a fullback anymore. He's being judged as a running back. He's available for teams that might suffer an injury in the backfield, but he's not on the radar to be in camp any time soon.

Q: The Bears' receiving corps has been getting a lot of attention, but the real question for the '09 Bears is the defensive line. Why Adewale Ogunleye, Dusty Dvoracek, and Mark Anderson are still on the Bears roster is beyond me.

Nathan in Coralville, Iowa

A: General managers know everything can't be fixed in one offseason. The move to get quarterback Jay Cutler was a great one, but the receiver position is open to criticism. Here is my problem: I love Devin Hester as a talent. I don't like his playing more than 50 percent of the offensive downs at wide receiver because it makes him ineffective as a returner. He needs to play less than 50 percent of the offensive snaps for the team to get the most of his abilities. The guy had 11 touchdowns on returns in his first two seasons. Forcing him to be stretched that thinly hurts the receiving product. You are right about the questions along the defensive line, but the Bears do have volume at those positions. They have options. The options are thin at wide receiver, hence the criticism. That still doesn't mean they aren't going to make the playoffs. I have them in contention.

Q: John, as a longtime Pats fan I am worried about the health of Tom Brady. I see him taking a lot of hits this season -- thanks to the four-wide receiver and empty-backfield sets. Thoughts?

James in Toronto

A: Every fan has to worry about the health of their quarterback, but Brady should be fine. Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers bounced back from knee reconstructions and did fine. Palmer and Jake Delhomme came back from major elbow problems and are fine. Remember, Bill Belichick is the best coach at making sure players are in position to succeed. He knows the strengths and the weaknesses of players. He won't let Brady be too vulnerable.

Q: John, last year at this time, everyone (including myself) thought my beloved Browns were solid at most positions. Obviously, they did not meet expectations. Now, I'm seeing and hearing a lot about how terrible their O-line is going to be. They got rid of their weak link in Kevin Shaffer, signed some solid veterans to provide depth, and brought in a stud rookie center in Alex Mack to take over for an aging Hank Fraley. What are your thoughts on their moves on the offensive line?

Brandon in Bryan, Ohio

A: Brandon, you bring up my concern. The problems were on the right side of the line, but what bothers me is the idea of changing body types. The left side of Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach is one of the best in football. The Browns rode that to a 10-win season in 2007. Steinbach fought some shoulder problems last year. I'm wondering if it's a bad idea to make these two players add 10 to 20 pounds of muscle when their game is more athletic and geared more toward pass-blocking. The good news is that the talent is there for the Browns' offensive line. I would worry about other positions. The Browns have to make sure they don't mess up a good thing on the line.

Q: What do you make of the Saints' offseason moves. I love the secondary upgrades, but why no significant moves in the front seven? Derrick Brooks is still a stud for maybe a year or two; why doesn't Sean Payton make him an option? Is it money? Seriously, who thinks the Saints' LB corps other than Jonathan Vilma scares offenses. I thought the name of the game was to try to have impact players on both sides of the ball?

KD in New Orleans

A: The linebacking corps needed to stay together for continuity. Vilma came on last year and it's better to have experience and stability instead of constant change. There has been constant change in the secondary, but now the team has depth to create better matchups. I like the idea of having a tall cornerback such as Malcolm Jenkins to match up against the tall receivers in the NFC South. I like what I see of Tracy Porter, last year's rookie who looked good before being injured. I have concerns about the defensive line in the first four games because Will Smith and Charles Grant will be suspended. However, the Saints were smart in signing Paul Spicer and Tony Hargrove. The best signing was safety Darren Sharper. He's a playmaker even though he's in his 30s.

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