Mailbag: Tough to improve the NFL schedule

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Matt McMahon from San Francisco writes: I have a question for you on scheduling. I have always thought the end of the regular season is anticlimactic. Whereas in other sports the tension increases as the regular season draws to a close, in the NFL, more often than not everything is locked in by the time the 15th and 16th games are played.

What are your thoughts on ending the season with head-to-head division games like baseball? Wouldn't teams playing their last three games of the season against division opponents increase league-wide tension and excitement at the end of the season, not to mention ensure that the division winner is always validated?

For 2009, here are the last five opponents for each NFC West team (with number of division games in parenthesis):

49ers (3): Seahawks, Cardinals, Eagles, Lions, Rams

Cardinals (2): Vikings, 49ers, Lions, Rams, Packers

Rams (2): Bears, Titans, Texans, Cardinals, 49ers

Seahawks (1): 49ers, Texans, Bucs, Packers, Titans

As a result of the scheduling, aren't the Seahawks in an interesting position to either have a serious run or flop at the end of the season -- based on events completely out of the control of their division opponents?

Wouldn't this be better for the last four games (one geographically close rival three division opponents):

49ers: Raiders, Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams

Cardinals: Chargers, 49ers, Rams, Seahawks

Rams: Chiefs, Seahawks, Cardinals, 49ers

Seahawks: Broncos, Rams, 49ers, Cardinals

Mike Sando: There are only 12 division games in a season (per division). That's one product of having four-team divisions. There simply aren't enough of these games to go around. I like having some division games early in the season. We get 49ers-Cardinals and Rams-Seahawks in Week 1 this season. I'm looking forward to those games. At the same time, sure, I'd like to see more division games at the end of the season.

Last season, NFC West teams played one NFC West-only game per week over the first three weeks of the season, then none until Week 8. Week 11 was the only week with more than one NFC West-only game (Rams at 49ers, Cardinals at Seahawks). The schedule featured one such game per week in Weeks 14, 15, 16 and 17 to close the season.

Even those late-season division games wound up being largely meaningless: Rams at Cardinals in Week 14, Seahawks at Rams in Week 15, 49ers at Rams in Week 16 and Seahawks at Cardinals in Week 17.

I think it's important to distribute these division games throughout the season. In some ways, they have a higher chance of feeling relevant if they're played earlier in the season.

Ted from Pearl City, Hawaii writes: Mike, I have to agree with Oz from Ft. Lauderdale regarding why there isn't much Cardinals fan participation on the blog. There are just not many questions to ask.

One question I do have, though, is what is Alan Branch's status with the team? Does he have a chance of becoming the starting nose tackle? Personally, I don't think he should be playing the nose. I think he would be better at Antonio Smith's defensive end spot. I also think he is not a practice-type player but a game-time player, which probably doesn't sit well with the coaching staff.

Anyway, would like to hear any thoughts you may have on the subject.

Mike Sando: Branch has yet to start a regular-season game even though injuries have slowed Gabe Watson. That's a bad sign for Branch and the Cardinals. The position can be a thankless one. Not everyone has the right mentality to play the position.

Nothing I've heard about Branch leads me to think he's on the verge of a breakthrough. He has also played in the 330-pound range. That doesn't project well to defensive end, even in a 3-4.

One more note on Branch: Each of the 32 players drafted ahead of him in 2007 has started at least one regular-season NFL game. And of the top 50 players drafted that year, Branch and running back Kenny Irons are the only non-quarterbacks without at least one start (joining Drew Stanton and Kevin Kolb).

Greg from Seattle writes: The Cards will barely be challenged? They were more than "barely challenged" last year despite major deficiencies across the board for the other NFC West teams. Both the Niners and the Hawks have a reasonable expectation of improvement this upcoming season.

If the Cards can return to their postseason form, they would have to be the heavy favorites in the division. But that's a very tall order. They were only mediocre through the last regular season despite staying remarkably healthy.

With a potentially up-and-coming Niners team and a potentially resurgent Seahawks team in the division, this is no gimme for the defending NFC Champs -- not to mention the Cards' turnover at the coordinator positions, the Super Bowl hangover and, of course, the Madden Curse working its magic on Larry Fitzgerald.

This division looks wide open to me, though it wouldn't surprise me to see any one of three teams run away with it.

Mike Sando: I think it's hard to run away with a division unless you've got an excellent quarterback or a competent one backed by a truly exceptional defense. Perhaps someone else has done the research on that.

Dan from Dallas writes: Are people at all worried about Mike Singletary being TOO much or going TOO over the top with his coaching style?

Mike Sando: That was a natural concern during the early days of Singletary's tenure as interim head coach. I think he has learned to pace himself a little more. He's going to be fun to watch, that is for sure. We'll have an idea based on how physical his training camp practices become and whether he demonstrates an ability to control his emotions during/after games.

Jeff from British Columbia writes: Hey Mike, to me one of Tim Ruskell's major shortcomings as Seahawks general manager has been an inability to draft well for special teams. Do you think the poor special teams in Seattle last year was only personnel or was coaching the major issue? And what are your thoughts for this year?

Mike Sando: The Seahawks haven't had much of an identity on special teams since Isaiah Kacyvenski was running through walls. Ruskell drafted Owen Schmitt and Josh Wilson, but as I look back through his Seattle drafts, I'm not seeing a long list of top-flight special-teams players. Some of that is a function of which positions a team targets in the draft. Missing on a snapper in the draft
doesn't look good.

Lance Laury, D.D. Lewis, C.J. Wallace, David Hawthorne, Jordan Babineaux, Will Heller, Wilson, Will Herring and Schmitt were among the core special-teams players last season. Ruskell brought Wilson, Herring and Schmitt to Seattle through the draft. That might help answer your question.