It's desperation weekend in the NFL, and not just for teams needing a victory to stay with the pack in the playoff chase, a group of clubs that includes the Redskins and Cowboys, Buccaneers and Falcons, Vikings and Steelers, Chargers and Chiefs. Each really, really needs to win. Yet, another pack of teams at the wrong end of the NFL standings is involved in another defining if less controllable competition.
This isn't parity as the NFL would have it. There are more one, two and three-win teams this late in the season (six) than at any time since 1988. The Texans, 49ers, Packers, Jets, Titans, and Saints are desperately seeking relief, and future relief will be on big display tonight at the Nokia Theatre in Times Square when the Heisman Trophy winner and runners-up are announced.
Probably, the order of finish will be Reggie Bush, Vince Young, Matt Leinart. Not that the pro scouts really give a damn, and not that the order of finish is any predictor of what each will become as a pro. We could look back in three years and find that Leinart is nowhere near as good as Brady Quinn, who wasn't even invited to New York for the simple and logical reason that he has zero chance to finish in the top three.
There's a kid quarterback at Vanderbilt, Jay Cutler, who hardly anybody knows and maybe he'll drop just far enough to be picked by a good team and have the kind of early success Ben Roethlisberger has had in Pittsburgh.
Heisman or not, there's no such thing as "can't miss" as evidenced by the likes of, say, Ryan Leaf and Cade McNown and Akili Smith. Nobody's suggesting (yet) that any of the Big Three is going to be any kind of bust; it's very unlikely. Bush, Young or Leinart is big loser's big hope, the same way Troy Aikman was hope for the Cowboys, Michael Vick was for Atlanta and Carson Palmer is now for the Bengals.
The Niners must be dreaming of what they could do with Bush in the backfield, taking handoffs and short screen passes from his high school teammate Alex Smith, this year's No. 1 overall pick. Maybe, just maybe Brett Favre stays around a year or two longer if the Packers finish dead last and have the chance to pick Bush (unless the Pack feels its future is Aaron Rodgers and Bush). And Tennessee, with Steve McNair showing the mileage of a 1988 Volvo, wouldn't feel so bad if the Titans finished, say, 3-13, and were able to select Leinart to work with his old tutor at Southern Cal, Norm Chow, now the Titans' offensive coordinator.
If you want to see two teams that have a disincentive to win a football game, tune into the Texans vs. the 49ers on the final Sunday of the season.
Atop the leader board at the moment is Houston, at 1-11. The Jets, Niners and Packers are 2-10. The Titans and Saints are 3-9. There's no draft lottery in the NFL, so last is first. If the standings hold up the way they are now, with four games to play, the Texans can replace David Carr with Leinart or Houstonian Young, or stay with Carr and give him the kind of game-breaking weapon (Bush) he's never had.
On the other hand, if you're any one of the Big Three, you're absolutely rooting for the Saints to win as many games as possible this month. What kind of prize would the Heisman Trophy be if the next thing you hear is, "And with the first pick of the 2006 NFL draft, the New Orleans Saints select . . . Where do you put your trophy? San Antonio? Baton Rouge? Of course, if the Saints wind up playing in greater Los Angeles in two or three years, then maybe a year or two of nomadic life will have been worth it.
Those three alone cannot vault the bad teams that will draft them into contention on the second Sunday of December. College football players don't improve teams as dramatically as Tim Duncan changed the San Antonio Spurs. Look how long it's taken Peyton Manning to have a potentially great team.
The Colts are so good they're not even part of desperation Sunday. Sure, Indy would like to continue undefeated and the Jaguars, who lost in Indy by just seven points in September, would love to virtually secure a wild-card spot in the AFC. But neither is close to desperate.
The Steelers are. The Steelers can't stay in the race if they fall to 7-6, and although they're playing at home and favored slightly, Roethlisberger has a badly injured thumb and he's playing against the Chicago Bears who attack quarterbacks the way Mike Tyson goes after ears.
And because backup Tommy Maddox can't even hold a snap and has the immobility of a water buffalo, Big Ben has to play and has to win. Atlanta, having lost three of four, has to beat the Saints or forget about seeing Vick in the playoffs. Tampa Bay has a much bigger task: win at Carolina.
The Kansas City-Dallas winner stays in the picture; the loser goes to 7-6 and the back burner. The Redskins, who certain sycophants think will run the table, have lost seven of their last nine games in the desert. A loss pushes them away from the table and under the bus. There's something about arriving on Saturday and playing in all that December sunshine on Sunday that makes strange things happen to the Redskins at Sun Devil Stadium.
And there's something about arriving in New York City on Saturday for the Heisman ceremony that will titillate quite a few teams from whom next year is quite a bit more important than next week.