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How far will teams plummet off cliff?

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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The federal government is working toward a budget compromise to avoid heading over the dreaded “Fiscal Cliff” in 2013.

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In the NFL, some teams are already free-falling toward a long offseason.

Ten squads are under .500 by at least two games entering Week 11. An 11th franchise — Tennessee — opened at 3-6.

According to STATS LLC, that record is historically the mark that separates playoff teams. Only three 3-6 squads have qualified for the postseason since the NFL shifted to a 12-team format in 1990. And still, it was 16 seasons ago since a team last recovered from a 3-6 start to make the playoffs — the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars.

The odds are about as long for St. Louis, which stands at 3-5-1 following last Sunday’s tie against San Francisco. And forget about it if you’re worse than that. No team that stood at 2-7 or 1-8 has ever rebounded to make the postseason.

Here’s a look at the clubs that started 3-6 or worse, where they’re headed for the short-term and what the future may hold.

Kansas City (1-8)

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Why the plunge?: No team is more careless with the football. Kansas City has committed a league-high 30 turnovers with quarterback Matt Cassel (12 interceptions, seven lost fumbles) leading the way. In fitting fashion, a Cassel interception put Pittsburgh in prime position to kick the game-winning field goal in last Monday night’s 16-13 overtime loss. The defense isn’t good enough to keep the Chiefs from having a staggering negative-20 turnover radio. The unit has sorely lacked playmakers beyond linebackers Derrick Johnson (team-high 78 tackles) and Justin Houston (seven sacks).

Short-term outlook: Brady Quinn, who had replaced Cassel five weeks ago, told the Kansas City Star he is cleared to return from a concussion that sent him back to the sideline. Quinn, though, wasn’t any better than Cassel in the six quarters he did play. If the Chiefs can’t pull out at least one victory in an upcoming three-game home stand against Cincinnati, Denver and Carolina, there’s a legitimate chance Kansas City will finish with the first one-win season in the franchise’s 53-year history.

The path to terra firma: Regardless of whether general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Romeo Crennel return – and based on the public outcry against both, it’s not looking good – the Chiefs must find a bona fide franchise quarterback. A long to-do personnel list doesn’t end there. Stanford Routt proved such a horrific replacement for departed cornerback Brandon Carr (Dallas) that he was released last week. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, left tackle Brandon Albert, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and center/guard Ryan Lilja head the list of Chiefs set to become free agents. Kansas City should have enough salary-cap space to make numerous roster moves, especially if a $14.7 million base salary leads to the release of underachieving defensive end Tyson Jackson. But whether tight-fisted owner Clark Hunt is willing to open his wallet is an unknown.

Jacksonville (1-8)

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Why the plunge?: Blaming this mess completely on the foot injury that has sidelined Jacksonville’s best player -- running back Maurice Jones-Drew -- would be misguided. New head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski weren’t deploying MJD properly even before he was hurt in Week 7 against Oakland. In three of the five full games Jones-Drew played, the NFL’s reigning rushing leader was given 13 carries or less. That’s as big a waste as driving a Ferrari to deliver pizzas. A Jaguars defense ranked No. 11 in 2011 despite non-existent offensive support has slumped as well. Pass rush remains an ongoing problem, with the Jaguars producing an NFL-low 10 sacks through nine games.

Short-term outlook: Although the growing pains will continue, the Jaguars should continue playing second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert rather than backup Chad Henne. Jacksonville must determine whether Gabbert has the potential to become a franchise quarterback entering the 2013 offseason or come to grips with the fact another crippling mistake was made by general manager Gene Smith in the 2011 draft. Too many errant picks and free-agent signings under Smith will almost certainly lead to his off-season firing. Mularkey shouldn’t be considered a sure thing to return in 2013 either under new team ownership.

The path to terra firma: It won’t be an easy one, especially if Gabbert fails to prove the answer at quarterback. The defense lacks impact players in the secondary and pass rush. The early returns on rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon aren’t good either. The No. 5 overall pick in last April’s draft, Blackmon hasn’t displayed the speed to consistently separate from coverage. If this isn’t worrisome enough, it’s almost guaranteed that Jones-Drew will stage another contract holdout unless he’s given a new deal or traded. More than any other current loser, this may be the league’s toughest rebuilding project.

Cleveland (2-7)

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Why the plunge?: It has taken time for a young Brandon Weeden-led offense to come together, especially with prized rookie running back Trent Richardson bouncing in and out of the lineup with various injuries. Dropped passes by wide receivers Greg Little and Josh Gordon were killers in respective losses to Baltimore and Indianapolis. The defense suffered three major blows when linebackers Chris Gocong (Achilles tendon) and Scott Fujita (neck) went down early with injuries and cornerback Joe Haden was forced to serve a four-game suspension for banned Adderall use. The Browns opened 0-5 to fall out of the playoff hunt early.

Short-term outlook: With new owner Jimmy Haslam taking control, key members of the Browns like head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert Jr. have seven weeks to endear themselves toward sticking in 2013. Hopefully for Shurmur’s sake, Cleveland used last week’s bye to address the communication and offensive play-calling issues that have contributed to what may become the franchise’s 10th season with double-digit losses in the past 11 years.

The path to terra firma: This depends on whether Haslam and new top executive Joe Banner believe they currently have the right staff in place to produce a winner. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board for a club that has yet to win a playoff game since returning to the NFL in 1999.

St. Louis (3-5-1)

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Why the plunge?: When the Rams went 3-2 to move above .500 for the first time since 2006 — yes, 2006 — there was a glimmer of hope that St. Louis could keep the momentum going. Reality then set in and the Rams haven’t won since. To make the defense hum, St. Louis desperately needs upgrades at both safety spots as well as another impact player at outside linebacker to complement John Laurinaitis and Jo-Lonn Dunbar. The problems on offense begin with a young wide receiving corps and a line that has fielded five different starting combinations.

Short-term outlook: The imminent return of center Scott Wells (foot) will make a positive impact on the offensive line. The Rams would love to see Sam Bradford build upon his 275-yard, two-touchdown performance in last Sunday’s 24-24 tie at San Francisco. The New York Jets (3-6) provide a perfect opportunity Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. Head coach Jeff Fisher’s one-game benching of two talented rookies against San Francisco -- cornerback Janoris Jenkins and wide receiver Chris Givens missed curfew -- sent a strong message that off-field missteps won’t be tolerated.

The path to terra firma: The worse the Washington Redskins are this season, the better the chances that St. Louis can add a blue-chip rookie next season along with their own pick. Thanks to a pre-draft trade with Washington last February that gave Washington the chance to select quarterback Robert Griffin III, St. Louis will have the Redskins’ first-round choice in the next two drafts. The Rams already have enough young talent with upside to garner consideration as a legitimate playoff contender in 2013.

Philadelphia (3-6)

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Why the plunge?: Hmmm, let’s see. The mistaken belief that Michael Vick was a franchise quarterback. The ill-fated switch of Juan Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator. Seven years of poor drafts. Combine those decisions with injuries that have decimated the offensive line and it’s no wonder head coach Andy Reid is on the verge of getting fired.

Short-term outlook: Because of a concussion that has sidelined Vick, the Eagles now have a chance to evaluate rookie Nick Foles as his potential replacement. Foles will make his first NFL start on the road Sunday against Washington. There still isn’t any evidence that Castillo’s midseason firing has made a difference with Todd Bowles promoted as his replacement. Just like Reid, Bowles may be coaching for his job in the next seven games. No active NFL head coach has spent more time with the same team than Reid. But while he is the franchise’s all-time winningest head coach over the past 14 seasons, the Eagles may be ready for a change of scenery. Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said in the preseason that another 8-8 record (or worse) would be “unacceptable.” That gives Reid little leeway when it comes to any more losses in 2012.

The path to terra firma: With Vick a prime target to get released in the offseason rather than collect a $15.5 million salary, Foles can prove over the rest of the year that he is the quarterback the Eagles should build around. The big question Lurie must answer: Is Reid the one who can regain past glory by coaching Foles? No matter who is running the team, the Eagles will be scrapping the “wide-nine” defensive front that offenses have picked apart. That may not bode well for undersized ends like Jason Babin, Darryl Tapp and Brandon Graham.

Washington (3-6)

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Why the plunge?: Three seasons after head coach Mike Shanahan took control of football operations, the Redskins still don’t have enough depth to remain a viable contender once injuries hit. Washington has lost three consecutive games, continuing a trend that saw the Redskins finish a combined 5-15 over the final 10 games of the past two seasons.

Short-term outlook: With rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III cooling down after a hot start and the defense having fallen to a No. 28 ranking in yards allowed, Washington should try and re-establish its running game with rookie Alfred Morris. He received only 13 carries in each of the past two games after averaging 20 in the first seven. There also is a question as to whether Shanahan has lost his team by essentially declaring the 2012 season lost immediately following a Week 9 defeat against Carolina. Shanahan insists he wasn’t throwing in the towel on a turnaround. His words suggest otherwise – and that may not sit well with Redskins owner Dan Snyder.

The path to terra firma: If he’s renting a home near Redskins headquarters, Jim Haslett shouldn’t sign to renew his lease for 2013 just yet. Shanahan’s history shows he has no patience for defensive coordinators who aren’t getting the job done. Even though Haslett had to compensate for the early loss of outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (nine sacks in 2011) and other injuries in the secondary, his unit is still underachieving. The Redskins face another problem in the offseason – an $18 million salary-cap penalty handed down by the NFL for violations committed in 2010. But let’s not forget that a franchise quarterback can help compensate for some of these woes. Griffin has shown flashes of that talent, but the Redskins must do a better job of limiting his exposure to injury.

New York Jets (3-6)

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Why the plunge?: It’s far easier to account for what has gone wrong than what has gone right. Start with the early loss of the team’s best defender (cornerback Darrelle Revis) and offensive skill-position player (Santonio Holmes) to season-ending injuries. Add a dysfunctional offense under new coordinator Tony Sparano. Toss in a lack of pass rush on a defense tied for the eighth-lowest number of sacks produced with 16. And the coup de grace: The inability to make something of Tim Tebow that serves as a constant reminder of this team’s failings.

Short-term outlook: Head coach Rex Ryan seems determined to stick with Mark Sanchez as his starting quarterback over Tebow through hell or high water. Even with the obstacles Sanchez faces – most noticeably a shoddy supporting cast and the insertion of Tebow into certain offensive situations that disrupt his rhythm – the Jets are hoping Sanchez can re-establish himself over the final seven weeks so there is no reason to consider a quarterback search in 2013. Yeah, I know. Good luck with that.

The path to terra firma: The Jets have guaranteed Sanchez ($8.5 million) and Holmes ($7.25 million) so much money on their 2013 contracts that both will return unless New York wants to release both and cripple itself under the salary cap. Are Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum the right duo to get the Jets soaring again? That’s what team owner Woody Johnson will be asking himself over the next seven weeks.

Buffalo (3-6)

Why the plunge?: While the offense has its hit-or-miss moments, the blame for the most disappointing Bills season in recent memory falls squarely on the defense. A former NFL general manager told me that new coordinator Dave Wannstedt shouldn’t shoulder all the criticism because he’s trying to run a 4-3 defense with what is still predominantly 3-4 personnel. That includes the rocky transition for second-year defensive tackle Marcell Dareus from one-gap to two-gap responsibilities. Still, the collapses that have contributed to a No. 31 ranking are as brutal as a Buffalo winter.

Short-term outlook: Whether he meant for this to happen or not – and I’m betting he did -- Bills general manager Buddy Nix has undercut Ryan Fitzpatrick’s standing as a long-term starter by publically talking about the potential addition of a quarterback in next year’s draft. Surrounded by his best offensive weapons since becoming Buffalo’s starter in 2010, Fitzpatrick can go a long way toward helping his cause by avoiding trademark turnovers during the final seven contests.

The path to terra firma: Since his team last made the playoffs in 1999, Bills owner Ralph Wilson has employed five different head coaches who failed to produce a playoff team. Gailey is entering his third year and was expected to lead the Bills back into the postseason in 2012. What the 94-year-old Wilson will decide about Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix in January is a mystery because of his failing health and uncertain direction of the franchise following his death. Until those questions are answered, it’s a waste of time trying to predict the future in Buffalo.

Oakland (3-6)

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Why the plunge?: The specter of Al Davis continues to hover over his former franchise. The salary-cap and personnel mess Davis left behind before his 2011 death at age 81 is something that new general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen need more time to rectify. A sizeable portion of the defensive personnel needs scrapping. This opinion is reinforced by historically bad efforts in the past two losses against Tampa Bay and Baltimore. Especially frustrating, Oakland’s schedule provided the opportunity for a late-season playoff push that was squandered.

Short-term outlook: Every good quarterback reaches the age where his viability as a franchise player comes into question. Carson Palmer is experiencing this crossroads in Year 10 of his NFL career. Palmer has looked increasingly comfortable in coordinator Greg Knapp’s West Coast-style system, especially on rollouts and following the return of some injured wide receivers. Palmer, though, has thrown at least one interception in eight of nine games and failed to post a triple-digit quarterback rating in four straight contests. Palmer must show he can work the kinks out to collect a $13 million salary in 2013. If he doesn’t, Oakland may start from scratch considering Matt Leinart and Terrelle Pryor are the other options currently on the roster.

The path to terra firma: Settling on a quarterback. Seeing whether running back Darren McFadden can finish this season healthy for a change to determine his reliability in 2013. Weeding out guys who commit mental mistakes and personal fouls too often forgiven by Davis. Once McKenzie and Allen take those steps, the journey toward respectability can truly begin.

Carolina (2-7)

Why the plunge?: Let’s play the “Blame Game” with Cam Newton and why he regressed after being the 2011 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Start with Newton himself. His maturity, accuracy (under 60-percent completion rate in six of nine games) and decision-making is under fire. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski hasn’t found a way to help Newton work through his problems or incorporate a highly paid trio of running backs to take some of the weight off his shoulders. And then there’s Marty Hurney, who was fired as general manager last month. He failed to give Newton more receiving talent or accumulate better depth across an offensive line decimated by injury. No matter who wins in the “Blame Game,” the ultimate loser is a franchise now headed toward a fourth straight year out of the playoffs.

Short-term outlook: Head coach Ron Rivera faces the challenge of keeping his team motivated even though players know he is a sitting duck to join Hurney on the unemployment line. Something else that works against Rivera: Speculation about the franchise’s future in Charlotte and whether 76-year-old Jerry Richardson will remain owner following media reports about potential interest from Los Angeles.

The path to terra firma: If a new head coach and general manager are hired as expected, these queries must be posed to Richardson by potential replacements during the interview process: Is Newton your franchise quarterback? And if you have doubts, is it possible to make a break at some point in the future provided Newton doesn’t get back on track? Titans owner Bud Adams insisted to head coach Jeff Fisher that Vince Young be given repeated chances until the team finally imploded. That’s a scenario any smart head coach or GM would want to avoid if Richardson becomes insistent about Newton’s perceived upside.

Tennessee (4-6)

Why the plunge?: The defense was dreadful through the first five games and running back Chis Johnson needed some time to resurface as one of the NFL’s top running backs. Second-year quarterback Jake Locker also got off to a slow start before being sidelined by a shoulder injury.

Short-term outlook: Honestly, who knows? Titans owner Bud Adams provided motivation following a 51-20 home loss to Chicago in Week 9 by threatening to fire everyone from the cheerleaders on down. Tennessee responded last Sunday with a 37-3 rout of host Miami. Locker’s return to the starting lineup against the Dolphins shows Tennessee has its eye on the future because veteran Matt Hasselbeck played better in his absence. None of this guarantees the Titans win in their next game Nov. 25 at Jacksonville.

The path to terra firma: The Titans have searched for this trail since the 2003 season. That’s the last season Tennessee won a playoff game. Considering his team went 9-7 during his first season as head coach, Mike Munchak deserves the chance to return in 2013. I’m not so sure about defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, whose troop ranks near the NFL bottom in average yards (399) and points (31.1) allowed.

Tagged: Bills, Browns, Cowboys, Titans, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Jets, Eagles, Redskins, Panthers, Jaguars, Michael Vick, Matt Hasselbeck, Scott Fujita, Carson Palmer, Scott Wells, Ryan Lilja, Derrick Johnson, Matt Cassel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Vince Young, Matt Leinart, Maurice Jones-Drew, Brandon Carr, Tyson Jackson, Mark Sanchez, Brandon Graham, Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Greg Little, Brandon Weeden, Robert Griffin III, Justin Blackmon, Trent Richardson, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin

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