Lockout eliminates chances of first-year phenoms surprising

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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The NFL has had at least five new playoff teams each season for the past 15 years, but that streak ends this year, and I'll tell you why in one word.

Lockout.

With no offseason minicamps, OTAs, team meetings, quarterback camps, skull sessions, you name it, the teams penalized most are the ones that just blew up coaching staffs, quarterbacks ... or both.

In '08, QB Joe Flacco and coach John Harbaugh made the playoffs as rookies, but that will be hard for others to duplicate. (Getty Images)  
In '08, QB Joe Flacco and coach John Harbaugh made the playoffs as rookies, but that will be hard for others to duplicate. (Getty Images)  
If you include Minnesota and Dallas, there are eight clubs with new head coaches, and I count at least eight with unresolved quarterback situations, too. Combining the two lists, that's more than ¼ of the league, and that's more than ¼ of the competition you can eliminate for playoff spots because the lockout won't allow them the time, on-field workouts, OTAs, minicamps and general instruction necessary to jump to the head of the class.

Result: The field just got smaller for playoff hopefuls.

That's not to say someone like perennial bottom-feeder Detroit can't succeed. It can. In fact, I think the Lions and St. Louis Rams are two longshots likely to make playoff pushes. But what does each have that, oh, say, Tennessee or Carolina does not? Uh-huh. A head coach and quarterback who haven't changed.

That's huge in a season where there has been little or no offseason contact between players and coaches. Owners change coaches because players fail to respond to them, but how does anyone communicate with players when it is forbidden? They don't, which means every day lost to the lockout is more time off the clock for new coaches to familiarize themselves with their teams and for new quarterbacks to familiarize themselves with the pro game.

I've already addressed how this year's rookie passers will be affected, and it's not good. Four are potential opening-day starters, and all desperately need offseason work that is not available. It doesn't exactly take Einstein to figure out what happens next: Coaches will be forced to shrink playbooks, offenses will be limited, success will be elusive and the playoffs will be missed.

Basically, the longer the lockout lasts the less likely it is that rookie quarterbacks -- and their clubs -- accomplish anything of consequence this season ... if there is a season.

"Let's say they get no OTAs," said former head coach Brian Billick, now an analyst for Fox and the NFL Network, "and let's say we get a full training camp. Then I cut the odds down by at least 50 percent in terms of a quarterback's ability to come in and be a starter. And with every week into training camp we lose I think we knock it down 25 percent.

"You can't be overly optimistic with what you think you can get done with rookie quarterbacks -- which means a year from now I don't know that we'll know anything more about Cam Newton than we do this year. But, frankly, with this group of quarterbacks I'm not sure it's not the best thing because it will give them an 'out.'

"Maybe they're not particularly productive, but you can say, 'Hey, what did you expect?' I'm a true believer in the only way you are [successful] is to play, but I don't think any of these guys is capable of coming in and having a Matt Ryan or a Joe Flacco year."

Funny he should mention those two. Ryan took the Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs in his first season under a rookie head coach, Mike Smith. Flacco did the same thing in Baltimore with first-year coach John Harbaugh, only the Ravens made it to the conference championship game. The same thing happened a year later with the New York Jets, with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez and first-year head coach Rex Ryan.

My prediction: That doesn't happen this season because it can't. The lockout won't allow it. There is too much that has been sacrificed -- starting with terminology, formations and, in some cases, simply taking snaps from center -- for a rookie quarterback and his new head coach to overcome. The flip side, of course, is what the lockout means for teams with returning quarterbacks, returning head coaches and a veteran core -- and what it means is not much. They don't have to boil down playbooks. They don't have to get acquainted. They don't have to go over new terminology or formations. They don't have to change much of anything, and tell me that doesn't broaden the gap between them and the have-nots.

"The rich just got richer in a lot of different ways," Billick said, "and particularly early in the season. Let's assume they're going to be good and are going to get better as the season goes along. Well, it's going to show up early. The die gets cast early with some of these teams because of how the schedule is laid out, so some are going to be in a really tough spot.

"What do we have ... 15 straight years with five new playoff teams each season? We may see that break this year because those who 'have' are in much better position to have a huge advantage."

I couldn't agree more.

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