This is that bittersweet time of year when we prepare to bid farewell to 20 of our frustrated franchises, meaning next Wednesday you’ll be treated to 12 Questions, aka The Return of the Dirty Dozen.
The teams which don’t qualify for the playoffs will be left out in the cold, and I’d like to get a jump on the proceedings by drop-kicking the Panthers to the curb.
The Panthers (2-13) clinched the first pick in the 2011 draft last Sunday, three days after they summoned a performance for the ages – The Dark Ages – in a 27-3 defeat to the Steelers. Carolina gained 119 yards in that Thursday night thrashing at Heinz Field and will assume the position one final time at the Georgia Dome this Sunday, allowing the Falcons to secure home-field advantage in NFC, before skulking off into an offseason of uncertainty.
It’s fair to say that more than a few people saw this coming – if by “more than a few” we mean everyone. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson set up his team for short-term failure a year ago when he decided to ride with coach John Fox for a final season before making a change, then allowed his best player (defensive end Julius Peppers(notes)) to bolt via free agency without making any significant attempt to upgrade his roster.
An owner trying to give his team the best chance to win in 2010 would have either a) concluded that he wanted Fox to stick around and, at the very least, attempted to negotiate a short-term extension to affirm that fact; or b) pulled the cord, cut a $6-plus million check to pay off the final year of Fox’s deal and searched for a qualified successor.
By doing neither, Richardson put the Panthers in obvious lame-duck mode, something which typically results in disaster in a league in which players are asked to summon a pronounced degree of emotional commitment. From Bill Cowher’s final year in Pittsburgh to Marvin Lewis’ lost 2010 season in Cincinnati, this type of arrangement tends to suck the life out of an organization and engender a going-through-the-motions vibe.
That’s why such situations are so rare in the NFL – and I believe Richardson’s emotional attachment to the impending lockout is to blame. Richardson, you’ll recall, is the one who gave the fiery speech to fellow owners last March imploring them to shake down the players for a better deal.
It stands to reason that someone so invested in winning a labor war wouldn’t be prone to throwing big money at a high-profile coaching candidate like Cowher, who, incidentally, lives in North Carolina. Coming off a disappointing 8-8 season that followed up a 12-4 campaign in ’08, the Panthers were at an apparent crossroads, and I believe that in past years Richardson would have been predisposed to act boldly.
Instead, he sat back, allowed Fox’s ninth season to play out in all its underwhelming splendor and focused his attention on winning the battle he really cares about: NFL vs. NFLPA.
I can’t prove that I’m right, but I know plenty of powerful people in football who share this opinion – and. like me, they probably hate to see the Panthers rewarded with the No. 1 overall pick.
Luck was the runner-up in this year's Heisman Trophy voting.
(Jason O. Watson/US Presswire)
But here’s the thing: High-level NFL talent evaluators are becoming increasingly convinced that Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the slam-dunk top selection, is strongly leaning toward playing another collegiate season, which would take a whole lot of luster off of the Panthers’ selection.
I happen to think Luck is nuts for contemplating such a move, given the likelihood that a new collective bargaining agreement will include a rookie wage scale, which could literally cost him tens of millions of dollars in guaranteed money should he wait until 2012 to turn pro. And on a personal note, my blue-and-gold-bleeding friends and I don’t need to see any more of this nonsense in our lifetimes.
Yet a small part of me would view the quarterback’s decision to stay as poetic justice for Richardson’s apparent willingness to tank the season. In my view, Carolina fans deserve better – and he’s one owner who deserves to be un-Lucky.
Now here are our 32 queries, beginning with the beasts of the Northeast and ending with You Know Who:
1. New England Patriots: After last year's nightmarish injury to Wes Welker(notes) in the regular-season finale, should Bill Belichick be drug tested if he plays Tom Brady(notes) in Sunday's meaningless finale against the Dolphins?
5. Pittsburgh Steelers: How crazy is it that Ben Roethlisberger(notes) and Mike Wallace(notes) already share the franchise record for most touchdowns of 40 yards or more by a quarterback-receiver combination?
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Given that no Buccaneers were voted into the Pro Bowl, wouldn't it stand to reason that Raheem Morris should get a lot of coach of the year votes?
16. Oakland Raiders: When Chris Johnson talks about "rumors" of a "rule change" that would allow a team that goes 6-0 in its division to make the playoffs regardless of its actual standing, does he have any idea how crazy he sounds?
21. Tennessee Titans: Will Roger Goodell fine Kerry Collins(notes) $25,000 for giving William Hayes(notes) a concussion – and will teammates start calling the soon-to-be-38-year-old quarterback "Wild Thing"?
Webb's elusiveness against the Eagles helped him earn his first win as a starter.
(Drew Hallowell/AP Photo)
23. Seattle Seahawks: If Pete Carroll loses on Sunday to finish 6-10 – one game better than predecessor Jimmy Mora finished in '09 – will he get a second season in Seattle?