Trouble brewing in some cities
The season is only four weeks old, but there's already serious trouble in places like New Orleans and San Diego.
It begins, as do almost all insurrections, with a whisper. Maybe a curse muttered under one's breath. Or a semi-audible epithet directed at the floor instead of a mini-cam.
The spores of unrest, after all, are typically nurtured in dark and dank places.
Like the corner of a locker room, where the starting tailback ponders why he has forfeited some carries to his caddy, or where a wide receiver grouses about how the quarterback is overlooking him as he proceeds through his progressive reads. Maybe in the sanctuary of the trainer's room, a safety frustrated at having been removed from the "nickel" package. Perhaps at a quiet, post-game dinner, with the middle linebacker noting to his wife that he can't chase the ball when he has so many blockers in his face.
Not until the private gripes mushroom into public grievances, not until the equivalent of a nagging hamstring strain becomes a nettlesome harangue, are the warning signs obvious. But when off-hand remarks escalate into out-of-hand criticisms, and players and coaches begin covering their butts more effectively than they cover any of their opponents' wide receivers, even casual fans can recognize the characteristic beginnings of potential disaster.
And when the flare goes up so early in a season, when the red light is already blinking in September or the fledgling days of October, avoiding the painful implosion that usually follows can become an improbable undertaking.
That might be the unenviable and daunting task, however, that faces several coaches at this early juncture of the 2003 campaign. It is a job, to be sure, that many coaches now facing mounting pressures from inside their own fiefdoms did not foresee for this year.
You get Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon blaming the turf at Paul Brown Stadium for some of his early-season shortcomings, for instance, and you ignore it. Not so much because Dillon thrives on creating controversy but, rather, because no one expects the Bengals to contend for a playoff spot anyway.
If wide receiver Dez White is miffed that former Chicago first-round pick David Terrell is now getting some of his snaps, few people outside of The Loop really care, since the Bears were ticketed anyway for another season of wretched play. No one listens when Arizona quarterback Jeff Blake suggests he commands too little media respect, since the Cardinals are about as extinct as the dodo. Beyond the scrub-pine sprawl of Jacksonville, do you think anyone cares much whether it's Mark Brunell or Byron Leftwich who starts at quarterback, given that the Jaguars are in a rebuilding mode?
By extension, the ridiculous rants of Terrell Owens or the boorish behavior of David Boston aren't so easily dismissed, even given the predictability of their respective histrionics. Why so? Because the San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers were regarded, entering the 2003 campaign, as viable playoff contenders.
The bigger a team's stake, the more significant become an individual's public displays of displeasure, recent history has indicated. In many cases, the cross word spoken in a post-game press conference is reflective of a locker room where the players and the coaches are crossways with each other, and indicative of festering problems.
So when Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon laments to a national television audience that he is spilling his guts, and that someone else has to step up and starting making plays, it is a notice to sit up straight and pay attention. When the owner and the head coach begin to air their differences in flimsily veiled fashion, as was the case last week with Herm Edwards and Woody Johnson of the New York Jets, things aren't exactly copasetic. When Atlanta Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan suggests that he can't play the pass and stop the run at the same time ... well, you get the picture.
"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a pervasive 'me' mentality," Atlanta kicker Jay Feely acknowledged candidly earlier this week.
Feely was referring, of course, to a Falcons team that has dropped to 1-3 minus injured quarterback Mike Vick, and which could be realistically drubbed from playoff contention before its electrifying star returns to the lineup. If you think Vick's limp is pronounced, the Falcons as a team look like a bunch in need of prosthetic confidence, and they are not the only such franchise feeling that way at the schedule's quarter-pole.
In several precincts where the season began with legitimate playoff aspirations, an early unraveling has already begun, with the requisite sniping, backbiting, finger-pointing and, of course, recriminations and rationalizations. "It is," said one San Francisco veteran of the 49ers' quick plummet to a 1-3 mark under new coach Dennis Erickson, "pretty bad around here right now."
If it doesn't get better, some teams on the brink will see their season slide into the drink, likely by the halfway point of the season. Here's a look at some teams, all considered to be playoff worthy just a month ago, with potential for implosion:
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.