The lockout started 89 days ago, and the first scheduled NFL Sunday is 95 days away. You talk to teams now, and they are beginning to worry about the on-field product, believing that a negotiated peace could be weeks away and that July training camps won’t happen.
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How much time does a team need to get ready? Maybe four good weeks of practice for a veteran team with a known quantity at quarterback. A lot more for a non-playoff caliber team with a rookie quarterback.
I keep hearing that the only coach who was really looking forward to the lockout was New England’s Bill Belichick. The extra days off gave him a chance to escape his daily grind while recharging his football sensibilities. It’s a scary proposition for his opponents, considering what Belichick may have dreamed up football-wise over these past couple of months.
Which teams have been hurt the most by the continued lockout?
1. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have so much riding on Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, who isn’t a prototypical NFL passer, which means he needs the most work to get ready. And if there isn’t a rookie wage scale in the new deal, Newton could be difficult to sign once the lockout is lifted. We all know how much he thinks of himself. There is an entirely new coaching staff in Carolina, so the coaches must get him up to speed quickly with the Panthers’ new personnel. Plus, once Newton does arrive, he’s going to want to secure that No. 2 jersey away from holdover quarterback Jimmy Clausen.
2. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are no longer competitive, nor exciting, with Brett Favre retired for good. Knowing that Joe Webb isn’t a long-term solution at quarterback, they drafted Christian Ponder because they believe he’s mentally ready to play. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has the job of getting Ponder up to NFL speed whenever camps open, but I thought it was funny to hear the kid say he’s short on money and that’s why he’s working out in Florida. Based on Chris Weinke’s NFL career, it’s kind of scary that he is tutoring Ponder on mechanics. But at least Ponder is honest when he says: “I don’t think the lockout is helping me.”
3. Detroit Lions: After two sensational drafts, the Lions are the “now” team in the NFC after closing last season with four consecutive wins, including one over the champion Packers. Even the Packers view them as their main threat in the NFC North. But to get over the non-playoff hump, they need to keep bonding with their coaching staff and also with oft-injured quarterback Matthew Stafford. It’s difficult to put the necessary ingredients in place if they aren’t practicing.
4. Tennessee Titans: The Titans shocked some by choosing Jake Locker over Blaine Gabbert at quarterback in the draft. With Vince Young ready to be jettisoned, Locker needs as much time in camp with offensive coordinator Chris Palmer as possible. Also, with Jeff Fisher no longer running things in Nashville, the Titans have to get used to an entire new defensive staff, headed up by coordinator Jerry Gray. There’s a lot of work to do here, especially with young receivers such as Lavelle Hawkins.
5. San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers are a team every expert wants to anoint as the next champion of the NFC West. But Michael Crabtree said it best the other day when he asked, “Who’s our quarterback?” Failed No. 1 pick Alex Smith, who is unsigned, is throwing in these player-arranged workouts, as is second-round pick Colin Kaepernick. Jim Harbaugh can’t wait to put his mark on this team, and time is a wasting.
6. Denver Broncos: Poor John Fox. He lands a decent job after the disaster in Carolina, and now he’s involved in a quarterback controversy. Is his starter Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow or even Brady Quinn? I don’t believe it is the latter. Tebow is flying his teammates down to Florida for some passing drills. Orton is lot like Jake Delhomme, Fox’s former leader in Carolina, but he could be trade bait. There’s a lot to get straight in Denver on both sides of the ball, and Fox can’t wait to get his new team into pads and start pounding away.
7. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins decided to fortify QB Chad Henne’s protection in the draft, but the coaching staff must get the passing offense clicking. Miami has the talent to be a playoff team, but it needs time to figure out how to beat the Jets and Patriots. This team won’t get over the hump if it is rushed into the season with only minimal practice time.
8. Seattle Seahawks: Coach Pete Carroll has the impossible job of getting the Seahawks back into the playoffs without any positive convictions about Matt Hasselbeck. Yes, they may bring him back, but will the money be enough and what are their plans in free agency? Do they make a deal with Philadelphia for quarterback Kevin Kolb or is Carroll serious about giving Matt Leinart a chance now that USC has surrendered its BCS trophy?
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs made a great run last season. They were the most unlikely 10-6 team in 2010. But an aspiring young team needs constant attention and the young Bucs are missing that right now. Raheem Morris has definitely turned the corner as an NFL head coach, but his greatest value is being around his players, talking football and telling them there is still a lot of work to get done. That’s the biggest fear with a young team; that the players start believing their own press clippings. The longer the lockout lasts, the further the Bucs fall behind the proven commodities in the NFC South, New Orleans and Atlanta.
10. Green Bay Packers: How can I include the champs ahead of clubs like Arizona and Cleveland and others that are still looking for that quarterback leader? It’s simple. This whole lockout is messing with how the Packers play football. It has stopped their personnel department from signing rookie free agents, and no coach likes working in the offseason more than Mike McCarthy. He has always had a young team in Green Bay, and he hates missing all this prep work for the season in order to get his rookies and first-year players up to speed. Yes, Aaron Rodgers is a top-five quarterback these days, but don’t forget that he’s a product of McCarthy’s detailed system. I say the Packers don’t repeat if camp starts in September.