Column: What if's dominate Lions and Panthers

Okay folks, quick show of hands here. How many among you foresee a highly advertised, game of the week showcase for the week 2 match-up between the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers? You know, Joe Buck doing play-by-play, Collinsworth and Aikman opining on the intricacies of Mornhinweg's high octane offense and Fox's impenetrable D.

No hands? Not one? Okay, so this is about as likely as Mike Tyson someday pummeling Lennox Lewis in a pay-per-view rematch. In reality, this early season dud will be lucky to get more than a few smirks and chuckles from Terry, JB and the boys.

To be completely honest, the performances will likely prove worthy of nothing more. Two second year quarterbacks will probably start for each team, and coming into this season, the two head coaches have a combined total of one year head coaching experience. A Carolina win would equal last season's total, a Detroit triumph taking them to half their 2001 total.

Still, for those who love the stories behind the game, who appreciate the real-life consequences of sports, this will be a game filled with intrigue. Quite frankly, what doesn't happen at Ericsson Stadium on September 15 will be more fascinating to ponder than the actual events in this contest involving two struggling franchises.

How so? Well, it turns out, as the Lions and Panthers were playing out strings of "meaningless" late season games in 2001, the futures of several unsuspecting collegiate superstars were crisscrossing and intersecting.

Simply put, if Ty Detmer doesn't lead the Lions to a week 17 win over Dallas, and if the Carolina Panthers pull a win out of several consecutive close losses (including a 3 point OT loss to the 49ers, followed successively by losses of 3, 4, 1 and 6 points), Joey Harrington, Julius Peppers, Kalimba Edwards and DeShaun Foster could very well have been suiting up for the other side.

The "what ifs" are endless. Most importantly, what if the Lions ended up with the worst record in the NFL in 2001. What if they, not Carolina, possessed the second overall pick in each round. How differently would the draft have unfolded?

The Lions ultimately opted for a potential franchise quarterback rather than a quick fix for their ailing defense, but would they have done the same if Julius Peppers was available? By all accounts, the decision to take Harrington went down to the wire, so Harrington over Jammer was undoubtedly a much debated close call.

One of the suspected reasons that Harrington won out was because of the marketability factor. He could put butts in the seats, and his persona could someday reach beyond the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.

Sorry folks (and Mr. Jammer), but "The Next Sam Madison" just doesn't quite sell the way "The Next Joe Cool" does. "The Freak II," or "The Second coming of LT"? Ah, now we're talking. Peppers has been billed as such since his emergence two years ago as a two sport star at North Carolina, and it's possible this appeal would have been enough to convince Millen to pass on Harrington and address the defense. Besides, Peppers was the consensus "best player on the board", making the decision an easy one for the first team selecting with a need on the defensive line.

What if? If Millen had the second pick instead of the third, is Julius Peppers a Detroit Lion? If so, what say the Carolina Panthers? Does John Fox stick to improving his defense? Perhaps, but it's quite possible that he, given the same ultimatum that faced Millen just a few months ago, would have also chosen to select a potential franchise quarterback.

The Panthers, like the Lions, came out of 2001 with mixed emotions regarding their starting quarterback situation. Both liked some of the things they saw out of their rookie quarterbacks, both selected late in the draft, and each equally flashing promise and flaw.

Yes, Fox could very well have went with Jammer in our hypothetical situation, but it's just as likely he would have gone with Harrington. Remember, part of the draw with Peppers was his Carolina roots, something Jammer couldn't offer.

This, obviously, leaves Chris Weinke in the unenviable situation currently suffered by fellow second-year signal-caller Mike McMahon... with a high paid rookie breathing down his neck.

"What if" indeed! What if Millen takes Peppers (good bye hometown hero, Carolina) and Carolina then goes with Harrington. What then happens in round two? The Lions then have different needs, the hole at defensive end filled and no worthy quarterback on the board.

Those paying attention know that Millen isn't all too pleased with his running back situation, prime evidence being his pursuit of free agent Warrick Dunn. Given Millen's desire to add explosiveness to this position, it is difficult to imagine him passing up on Deshaun Foster given how the draft played out.

Back in April, however, the Panthers beat Millen to the punch, and now Foster is the running back of the future in Charlotte. In our hypothetical scenario, though, it's not a stretch to think that James Stewart might have been looking for work, his large salary no longer justifiable.

Picking after the Lions in round two, the Panthers would still have a gaping hole at defensive end. The Lions would have taken their man in round one, so the Panthers would likely use their second selection to fill the void. Is there value here? The Lions, back in April, certainly thought so, more than happy to grab up South Carolina end Kalimba Edwards.

Carolina would likely have done the same. Edwards appeared in round one of most mock drafts, rating behind only Peppers on the defensive end value board of many experts. The Panthers couldn't afford to look any other way.

The end result? Very different looking teams come September 15, 2002. The story lines would be so similar, yet so very different.

One second year quarterback would be firm and secure as his team's starter, the other simply a bad game away from being replaced. Joey Harrington would still be holding the clipboard, but this time as soon-to-be franchise quarterback of the Carolina Panthers.

Deshaun Foster would still be playing the role of "running back of the future", only in this case wearing Honolulu blue and silver.

Julius Peppers and Kalimba Edwards would still both be chasing down opposing quarterbacks, only here they're chasing the men they currently call teammates.

Want a good laugh? Try telling these guys that those late season, cellar-dwellar featuring contests are inconsequential! They might beg to differ.

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