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:
Atlanta (1-3): Credit the players, coaches and team management for not using Vick's crutches as, well, a crutch for their uninspiring performance. At the same time, players who were supposed to help hold the fort until his return seem to have surrendered. The offense has scored one touchdown in the last 10 quarters. The defense seems helpless against both the run and the pass. Atlanta has surrendered at least 125 rushing yards in every game and the Falcons have fallen back into the kind of intramural sniping that has been too big a part of their lineage. Players spoke this week of a lack of communication from the coaching staff and of confusion about their roles. Said the outspoken Buchanan: "Is it a confidence issue? I have no idea. I'm in the dark, man." The light at the end of the tunnel was to have been Vick's return, but his recovery has been slow, and there really is no concrete target date for his comeback.
Cleveland (1-3): Injuries have forced a wholesale reshuffling of the offensive line and now there is, because of the injury to Kelly Holcomb, uncertainty at quarterback. Rumors persist that players are less than enamored with coach Butch Davis but, to date at least, such alleged unrest has not manifested itself publicly. But when the Browns qualified for the initial playoff berth of their reincarnation in '02, Cleveland fans felt that was a milestone upon which to build, and instead there seems to be slippage.
New Orleans (1-3): To be upfront about things, it is difficult for us to criticize coach Jim Haslett, because he's a good guy and a friend. But the Saints underachieved in each of the last two seasons, collapsing in December both years, and there seems to be an insidious undercurrent to the 2003 assemblage as well. There is no denying that the defense, which has now lost six projected starters and two key backups to injuries, is ravaged. But until last Sunday night, the defense had actually held up remarkably well, and it was the New Orleans offense that had struggled. Haslett defended Aaron Brooks this week, but there is something missing in the Saints quarterback. Teammates say it is a lack of accountability and a smugness that permits him to somehow overlook his gaffes. An embattled Haslett grew testy on Monday during his post-mortems of Sunday night's game, and he's got to be feeling the heat in The Big Uneasy. Some players contend that Haslett once again ran them too much in camp. Of course, some of them are the same players who lauded him in camp for not running as much as in past years.
New York Jets (0-4): Even if Johnson and Edwards have made peace, there is trouble in Gotham, the kinds of problems not even Batman could solve. This is an old team, absent its best player in quarterback Chad Pennington, and there seems little hope for the sort of revival that followed last season's 1-4 start. No one thought the Jets could follow what was a disastrous offseason with an even worse regular season, but the optimists appear to have erred in that assessment. If the owner really believes this roster rates with one of the top in the league, he is deluded, or simply deceiving himself. At some point, Edwards is going to have to begin addressing the future, and that means reducing playing time of declining veterans like linebacker Mo Lewis, tailback Curtis Martin and strong safety Sam Garnes. Those vets don't figure to just go away quietly, not in a city where so much as a negative syllable becomes a headline, and where there is constant scrutiny.
Oakland (2-2): The Raiders at least threw water on the inferno, with last week's stirring comeback victory over the Chargers, but there likely are still a few simmering embers. The obvious problems aside, Oakland can make a surge here, given its schedule. But this remains a roster beginning to show its age, with few tested replacements ready to step up, and with a lot of huge egos in the locker room. Whether the overtime victory against San Diego is a launching point, or disappears like some swan dive off the 10-meter platform, remains to be seen.
San Diego (0-4): Everyone was saying the politically correct things after Boston was welcomed back Monday from his one-game suspension. But the fact management just applied a band-aid to a potential cancer, permitting Boston to report to assistant strength coach Matt Schiotz and not top conditioning coach Dave Redding (with whom he is said to have a personality conflict), didn't sit well with some players. Many observers felt that the Chargers' wholesale overhaul of a secondary that was the NFL's worst in 2002 would stunt growth at the outset of the season. But the early problems are more widespread than just that unit. In his previous job, coach Marty Schottenheimer wore thin on players after just one year, a surprise given his career resume. Hard to imagine the San Diego roster is reacting the same way the Redskins did to him. But Schottenheimer can be a rigid coach, a my-way-or-the-highway mentor, and maybe the message isn't getting through.
San Francisco (1-3): It's a backhanded compliment to Steve Mariucci that, upon his departure, most observers predicted some 49ers slippage. The popular perception was that "Mooch" was laid-back but he had a better rein on this team that some understood. And in his own way, he had reached a truce of sorts with Owens, who kind of grudgingly accepted the coach in some areas. It's way too premature to question management's choice of Erickson. What is notable is that, with an offense that was supposed to throw the ball deeper, San Francisco has but one completion of 30 yards. The defense, while more daring and aggressive, still lacks a dominant front four player and is very thin in the secondary. And once you get beyond Owens, like him or not, there aren't many weapons that scare defenses and that can bail out ailing quarterback Jeff Garcia. It's never good when the team's two top stars are communicating, in hardly subtle terms, only through the media.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.