Monday, January 3, 2011

Richardson doesn’t deserve to get ‘Lucky’

The Panthers are wrapping up their worst season since 2001.

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, a.k.a. 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 (2-14) 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) 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.

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 in the regular-season finale, should Bill Belichick be drug tested if he plays Tom Brady in Sunday’s meaningless finale against the Dolphins?

2. Atlanta Falcons: Despite what he may say publicly, how badly does Mike Smith wish he could take back that decision to punt on fourth-and-6 in the final minutes of Monday’s defeat to the Saints?

3. Baltimore Ravens: When someone tells Ed Reed that he’s en fuego, will he instinctively reach for the extinguisher?

4. New Orleans Saints: What’s a better hangover cure – breakfast at the Camellia Grill, or a film session with Gregg Williams?

5. Pittsburgh Steelers: How crazy is it that Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace already share the franchise record for most touchdowns of 40 yards or more by a quarterback-receiver combination?

6. Philadelphia Eagles: Will Black Tuesday trigger a Great Depression for Andy Reid’s team, or can they get their mojo back in time for the playoffs?

7. Green Bay Packers: How crazy is it that a Packers cornerback made the Pro Bowl, and it wasn’t Tramon Williams?

8. Chicago Bears: If Brian Urlacher isn’t the NFL’s comeback player of the year, is Jay Cutler?

9. New York Jets: Where has all the swagger gone – and can they get it back in time for another stirring playoff run?

10. Kansas City Chiefs: Has any NFL player been tougher than Matt Cassel this month – and has anyone improved more dramatically from 2009 to 2010?

11. Indianapolis Colts: Other than perhaps Dominic Rhodes, did anyone on earth see Dominic Rhodes’ sudden re-emergence as Indy’s featured ballcarrier coming?

12. New York Giants: Did the Paper Tigers enjoy their extended stay in Paper Valley?

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?

14. San Diego Chargers: Will the memories of their trip to Meaninglessville make them more focused at the start of 2011 – and, if not, will Dean Spanos’ faith in Norv Turner and A.J. Smith be shaken?

15. Jacksonville Jaguars: If the Jags end up crediting a players only meeting for a season-ending victory over the Texans, will it be fair to conclude that the meeting came two weeks too late?

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?

17. Miami Dolphins: Is Tony Sparano about to get whacked – and, if so, will “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” be playing in the background?

18. St. Louis Rams: Before his next visit to Mike Singletary’s house, should Oshiomogho Atogwe consult Greg Focker?

19. Dallas Cowboys: When Jerry Jones says he’s “mad as hell”, does he want Cowboys fans to get up, open their windows and stick their heads out and yell?

20. Washington Redskins: Should dubious Pro Bowl selection DeAngelo Hall take Jay Cutler to Hawaii with him?

21. Tennessee Titans: Will Roger Goodell fine Kerry Collins $25,000 for giving William Hayes a concussion – and will teammates start calling the soon-to-be-38-year-old quarterback “Wild Thing”?

22. Minnesota Vikings: Whose stock rose more sharply after Tuesday’s shocker in Philly – Leslie Frazier’s or Joe Webb’s?

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?

24. Detroit Lions: If the Lions close out the season with a four-game winning streak, how many prognosticators (including this one) will make them a trendy playoff pick in 2011?

25. Cleveland Browns: Can they stun the Steelers for a second consecutive season – and, if so, would they be celebrating harder in Cleveland or Baltimore?

26. Cincinnati Bengals: Did Batman and Robin just get banished to the Bat Cave by a pair of no-names – and did their quarterback see this coming 19 months ago?

27. Houston Texans: If Gary Kubiak gets the boot, will general manager Rick Smith survive?

28. San Francisco 49ers: If Jim Harbaugh becomes the Niners’ next coach, will a certain white-haired mentor be smiling down upon him?

29. Arizona Cardinals: If Larry Fitzgerald can get open on fourth-and-15 with the game on the line, couldn’t the Cards have found a way to get him the ball before then?

30. Denver Broncos: If John Elway guides the Broncos back to prominence, how touching would it be to see him clutching the Lombardi Trophy and proclaiming, “This one’s for Pat”?

31. Buffalo Bills: Who owns this team – Ralph Wilson, or the guy in the hoodie?

32. Carolina Panthers: If these guys pull the upset in the Georgia Dome Sunday, will the Falcons pull a Remi Ayodele and pee on their own logo?

Author: Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports

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