Lucky losers? Four teams that look like No. 1 contenders

by | Senior Writer

If you're going to be a bad football team this is the season to be the worst one out there. Barring a major upset or injury, Stanford's Andrew Luck will be the first pick of the 2012 draft, which means you can hire him only if you're at the top of the draft ... or the bottom of the league.

So here's the question: Who's No. 32?

That's why we're here. I have four candidates in mind. You may have more. But one makes more sense than the others, especially with a lockout in place, and let the roll call begin.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers get the double whammy: New coaching staff, new starting quarterback. OK, OK, so Cam Newton hasn't been designated the starter, but do you honestly think a 2-14 team spent its first pick on a quarterback who sits? Neither do I. The problem here is that Carolina is a bottom feeder with a lot of holes and little time to fill them. Plus, the guy who is supposed to resurrect the franchise not only isn't NFL ready, he hasn't spent a moment of the offseason working with his coaches. So that puts him further behind than he would've been, and that makes the Panthers the leading candidate to be the worst team in the league. Not only does the lockout penalize them, but they just invested their first pick in a quarterback who will take a lot of time (maybe years) to develop.

Cam Newton brings a high-wattage smile to Carolina, but can he deliver any wins? (US Presswire)  
Cam Newton brings a high-wattage smile to Carolina, but can he deliver any wins? (US Presswire)  
The fallback, of course, is last year's first pick, Jimmy Clausen. But I watched the same audition you did last season, and, frankly, he stunk. Yeah, I know, the Panthers stunk, too. But if Carolina had a conviction about him it wouldn't have drafted another quarterback. Now it invests its future in someone most scouts and GMs think would've struggled with an offseason of OTAs and minicamps. Draw your own conclusions. Plus, there's this: The Panthers just inherited the league's toughest schedule. Their opponents have a winning percentage of .555, with four of the first six being playoff teams, including Super Bowl winner Green Bay. Now the kicker: Four of their last six games are on the road.

Marty Hurney, I feel your pain. If the Panthers finish last again, the GM will be put to the Matt Millen test -- namely, resisting the temptation to use the first draft choice on the same position three straight years. I can't imagine him doing it. Look where it got Millen and the Lions. Nevertheless, the chance to draft Luck means the opportunity to field trade offers for the guy. This year there was no market for the first pick. Next year there will be, meaning Hurney could -- if given the opportunity -- turn it into a multitude of choices that could make the immediate impact Newton may not.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans and Panthers have a lot in common: Tough divisions, new coaching staffs, new quarterbacks with no veteran backups. Once upon a time, that veteran was Kerry Collins, but he did the smart thing and announced his retirement rather than be subjected to a year of sacks, interceptions and Kenny Britt. Oh, and did I mention losing?

The Titans turn their offense over to coordinator Chris Palmer and rookie Jake Locker, and, sorry, but the lockout conspired against both. Palmer was out of the NFL last season, on hiatus with the United Football League where he served as coach and GM of the Hartford Colonials. Locker might as well have been on hiatus after a junior season that would have made him one of the top picks in the 2010 draft. Instead, he stayed in school, and good for him. I love guys who extend their eligibility. Unfortunately, the experience wasn't what it should have been. Completions were down. Interceptions were up. And the University of Washington lost almost as many as it won.

OK, so he didn't have much of an offensive line, and the Huskies won their last four -- including a Holiday Bowl defeat of Nebraska, an opponent that shredded them earlier in the season. Nevertheless, there was a lot of lackluster play in there, and, no, the Titans don't seem all that concerned. They made Locker the eighth pick of the draft, and I can see the logic. With a decent offensive line and running back Chris Johnson, Locker can manage the offense. I get that. He's also a marvelous athlete who can run and throw and is as charismatic as Newton. I get that, too. But look at the division: There's Indianapolis, Houston and Jacksonville, and, sorry, but Tennessee is the fourth banana there.

Plus, that once reliable Tennessee defense? It was 26th overall last season and 29th vs. the pass, not good when you defend Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub four times a year. Follow the bread crumbs, people. There will be a lot of playing from behind, which means throwing the football. Now look who's there to mentor Locker. Nobody. Collins' retirement should tell you where this team is headed. Until or unless it finds a decent veteran who can allow Locker to sit and learn, it's headed for trouble.

Cincinnati Bengals

This isn't a new coaching staff, but there is a new offensive coordinator (Jay Gruden), and there isn't Carson Palmer. Now add the lockout, four games vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh and a rookie quarterback, and you have Apocalypse Soon.

Granted, Marvin Lewis performed miracles with next to nothing before, but that cast included Palmer, and he was last spotted lounging at home in San Diego. The guy insists he won't play another down for Cincinnati, and that tells me what I already know -- that even Lewis can't save this organization from cratering. Yes, I like rookie Andy Dalton. Yes, I think he could be a decent NFL quarterback. But, no, I don't think he has a chance this season.

Running back Cedric Benson becomes a free agent, and while he says he wants to stay, he's still a free agent. Plus, he didn't exactly excel last season, dropping from 4.2 yards per carry in 2010 to 3.5 and fumbling seven times. So that could put more pressure on the quarterback, and that quarterback should be Dalton. Terrell Owens is gone at wide receiver, and Chad Ochocinco is expected to follow, so there's not a lot of experience on the outside. Granted, the Bengals just landed the best wide receiver in the draft (A.J. Green), but he's a rookie at a position where rookies typically struggle -– especially when they have rookie quarterbacks throwing to them.

Don't get me wrong, I like the guys the Bengals have at the position. In fact, they were better a year ago without Owens and Ochocinco down the stretch. But that was when Palmer was quarterbacking ... and they still lost 10 in a row. Now you have a guy who hasn't taken a snap in the offseason paired with a coordinator who hasn't called a play in the NFL, and you're expecting them to better last year's 4-12 train wreck? I don't think so.

Arizona Cardinals

Don't tell me quarterbacks don't make a difference. Look what happened to Arizona without Kurt Warner. It went through four quarterbacks, none of whom produced more touchdown passes than interceptions and all of whom combined for 10 touchdowns -- or 28 percent of Tom Brady's league-leading total. Result: The Cards finished last in their division and lost nine of their last 11.

There's a lesson there, and the lesson is this: Find someone new. I don't care if it's Kevin Kolb, Donovan McNabb, Marc Bulger. Carson Palmer. Someone. I suspect there is something in the works with Kolb, and, yes, that could remove Arizona from the Not-So-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players. Ken Whisenhunt is a solid head coach who not only knows how to win but who has proven he can do more with less -- provided, of course, he has the right quarterback. He did with Warner. He didn't with Derek Anderson. Or Max Hall. Or John Skelton. Or Richard Bartel.

I know, the Cards get some relief from the division. The NFC West is the weakest out there, with Seattle last season becoming the first sub-.500 team to make the playoffs. But the Cards don't gain relief if they don't improve at quarterback. The running game that was supposed to back off opponents hasn't, with Arizona ranked no higher than 28th the past four seasons and dead last in 2010. That put the heat on the quarterback, and that was OK as long as Warner was the QB.

Arizona has the guys to defend the pass, with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and rookie Patrick Peterson manning the corners, but it's not the defense that worries me; it's the offense. You have a star wide receiver with nobody to throw him the ball. So find that somebody. Otherwise, wait for Andrew Luck.


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