What do the Minnesota Vikings, St Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins, and Indianapolis Colts all have in common? They’re all 0-4 so far this season. At the quarter pole, it can be assumed that none of these teams are likely playoff bound. They all have serious issues that won’t be corrected anytime soon. Minnesota is starting Donovan McNabb at quarterback, a guy who has had probably one of the steepest declines at the position of anyone in NFL history. St Louis can’t stop anyone with their lines on both sides of the balls and now have serious injuries to their receivers and no one to step up. The Miami Dolphins just lost their quarterback that no one seems to want and have a coach ownership doesn’t acknowledge the existence of (kiss that vote of confidence bye-bye Coach Sparano). The Colts have one missing piece, but that piece is like missing the engine to a car in Peyton Manning. The entire offense has been built around him and him alone since he joined the team fourteen years ago. With all four of these teams you hear whispers of playing for Andrew Luck, the phenom quarterback at Stanford University. That requires going out of their way to stay under the four win mark for the season to have any shot at that overall #1 pick in next April’s draft.
Luck had the opportunity to come out for last year’s draft, but he would have competed for attention with Cam Newton who was fresh off leading Auburn University to the BCS Championship. There’s also the teams picking at the top of last year’s draft—Carolina (who took Newton), Denver, Buffalo, and Cincinnati. I know he didn’t want to go to any of those disasters, though Buffalo is looking like a playoff team this season standing at 3-1. They were not in need of a quarterback. Denver didn’t need one after trading everything but the stadium to select Tim Tebow the previous draft. Carolina was set on Newton from the moment the final second ticked off the clock at the Championship game leaving Cincinnati where careers go to die. His decision to remain for his senior year is looking as though it may lead him to that very same BCS Championship game Newton found himself in.
That leads to an important question for these four teams, and to an extent, some of the 1-3 teams as well: Do you go all out, play to win every week and pray you come up with a decent season, even if it doesn’t land you in the playoffs, or do you half-heart it, show your fans you’re giving it your best shot, but rack up the “L”s and play for Luck? It’s a dangerous game to play. On the one hand, maybe your schedule improves, you get some guys back healthy, or someone unexpected steps up and you play the remaining 12 games in 10-2 or 9-3. Depending on the division, even going 8-4 might be enough to get into the playoffs. The flip side of this is going out week after week, giving it you almost best shot, beating some of the other also-rans on your schedule, but playing the remaining 12 at 4-8 or 3-9, maybe even 2-10. The dangers in this are alienating your fan base, who already is pissed off at your stellar start, and splitting your locker room who begin to believe that you, as coach and front office, don’t believe they’re talented enough to go out and win without the help of an unproven college player.
The last part leads to the biggest problems. Coaches stop trusting players, players stop trusting coaches, and eventually players stop trusting one another. Even if you’re lucky enough to land Luck, the damage may be too much to fix without a major overhaul of the roster and coaching staff. Now you’ve got Andrew Luck, a rookie who’s proven nothing, and a bunch of veterans who feel used and abused by the front office. If you had any thought that one person was going to reverse your franchise’s fortunes, you’d be a fool. You may win less games and potentially ruin all remaining good will with the fans, trust of the team, and may ruin any chance Andrew Luck has of finding success as an NFL quartback.
For every John Elway and Peyton Manning that’s picked number 1 in the draft, the league ends up littered with the likes of Jeff George, Tim Couch, Alex Smith, and JaMarcus Russell. The draft is a nothing more than the NFL’s version of the lottery. Every pick is a gamble. Are you getting that guy that will make the impact on your franchise that puts you on the road to a Super Bowl or is it a pick that sets things back even further? Seventeen quarterbacks were taken with the overall #1 pick since 1970. Of those, only six have won Super Bowls, the most recent being Eli Manning who was picked #1 in 2004. Do you want to risk all the issues of tanking just to take a shot at a lottery?
Teams that end up with records worthy of the #1 pick in the draft often have multiple needs. Your quarterback can’t catch the ball after he throws it, can’t block for himself, can’t cover the other team’s receivers, and can’t tackle so it’s only one part of what most teams need in order to get back into contention. Yes, the draft is seven rounds and you will get other pieces. There’s even some pieces usually available via free agency, but picking up a brand new quarterback with the number one pick is huge. He becomes the face of the franchise. He is now your leader. Everything your team does is focused on his success from the offense you run, the types of receivers you draft or acquire via trade and free agency. That guy has to be able to come in and have the confidence and attitude that the team will succeed and he is the man to lead them in that success. It is more often than not a position that is larger than the man.
I have watched plenty of Andrew Luck play over the last couple of seasons. I will definitely get a good look at him Saturday as he is playing Colorado. I can’t help but to say he is the real deal. He will be the next truly great QB to come into the NFL and be an integral part of someone’s future plans and success for years to come. His teammates listen to him. He has great on-field command from the huddle to the line, knows what he is doing the moment he gets the ball in his hands, and nothing fazes him, even if a play breaks down. He refuses to give up on a play as long as he can see the field. For his career in which he was last year’s Heisman runner-up, Luck has thrown for 6926 yards, and has 56 touchdowns against only 13 interceptions with a 24-6 career record (4-0 so far in the 2011 season) including a win in last season’s Orange Bowl. What team wouldn’t want that?
I know that every team wants that kind of leadership under center. That’s the kind of leadership that wins championships. That’s the kind of leadership that demands the respect and attention of the locker room. That’s the leadership you want as the public face of your franchise. That’s the kind of leadership that has free agents clamoring to come and play for you. My opinion is all that leadership potential becomes background to the circus that will be your locker room as guys that have been there become resentful of a kid. They don’t care about what the future will hold. All they know and understand is they were used to draft someone that they believe isn’t as good as they are; he hasn’t fought the battles on an NFL field like they have. He’s going to make millions based on a hunch. They understand that the team tanked its season on a wing and a prayer.
They say you can’t win the lottery unless you play. Wasting your money on a hunch isn’t just potentially hurtful to you; it can damage your entire organization. Any of the teams thinking about blowing off the rest of this season after just four weeks should think long and hard about that and the odds that, even though everything points to Andrew Luck being as advertised, a lot goes into getting that potential talent to show itself at the NFL level. It takes the right coaches, front office, and most importantly, teammates that have enough class and dignity to allow things to take shape.
It’s not a chance that’s worth anyone taking.