Winless teams in big hole
A number of teams with high expectations are in a big hole at 0-2 and falling to 0-3 could completely bury their playoff hopes.
With his team's high preseason expectations already undone by the lowest points total in the NFL through two weeks of the season, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden exited the Georgia Dome on Sunday night after a loss to Atlanta, seeking some buttons to push in an effort to quickly revive the Bucs' sagging fortunes.
And insisting that the panic button was not one of them.
"We're just not playing good football right now," allowed Gruden, whose team is 0-2 and has scored just one field goal in those two outings. "But in this league, you know, you just can't go and blow everything up and start over. We've got to correct the problems. But you can't just panic and scrap everything. Whatever it is we do, though, we've got to do it with a sense of urgency."
Gruden and the Bucs are hardly alone.
At just the one-eighth pole in the league's Super Bowl Derby, there are 11 franchises still essentially left at the starting gate, with 0-2 marks. And while 0-2 doesn't necessarily translate into oh, no, it comes pretty close.
Since 1990, when the NFL adopted its current 12-team playoff format, 128 franchises began a season 0-2, and only 17 of those clubs, or 13.3 percent, qualified for postseason play. On the flip side, 65.9 percent of the teams that started a season 2-0 since 1990, or 83 of 126 franchises, advanced to the playoffs. Last year, none of the seven teams that started 0-2 made it to the postseason, while all but one of the seven clubs that broke from the chute 2-0 did.
Here's a sobering reality for the 0-2 teams in the league: Since 1990, only two franchises, Dallas in 1993 and New England in 2001, started a season 0-2 and then rallied to win the Super Bowl.
So any current 0-2 teams harboring championship aspirations need to locate a quick fix.
"The hole is already deep enough," said Miami defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday. "You don't want it to get to the point where you're so deep that you can't see any light. It's time to start filling in the hole."
Which means filling in some slots in the left-hand column of the win-loss ledger.
That so many teams are already toting shovels at this early juncture of the season isn't much of a surprise. More shocking is that there are so many 0-2 teams -- clubs like Miami, Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Kansas City -- that were widely viewed before the start of the season as playoff contenders. Three of the 12 playoff teams from a year ago are 0-2, including the Panthers, who played in the conference title game in 2005.
The list of winless teams also includes a couple clubs, Cleveland and Detroit, that some pundits felt were poised to move out of the doldrums of the last several seasons. The Lions, in fact, were a trendy pick to be a dark-horse playoff contender. But in two games, as if the Ford family didn't have enough concerns in matters more important to the economy and the survival of an American industrial icon, the Lions have been outscored by more than two touchdowns per game.
"I think," said Lions standout defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, "we're a little bit in a state of shock."
For the winless teams that can't pull out of the nose dive this week, the state of shock could soon deteriorate into a state of disaster, given the historical ramifications of falling to 0-3. Since 1990, only three of the 79 franchises that started a season 0-3 rebounded to get into the playoffs. So while Carolina fullback Brad Hoover insisted earlier this week that an 0-2 record "isn't the end of the world," a Panthers loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday could essentially mean the end to Carolina's season before the opening month concludes.
Hard as it is to conceive, the Bucs and Panthers, a division champion and conference finalist respectively in 2005, are already playing what probably amounts to an elimination game. And there are three other matchups this weekend, although none of them with the head-to-head significance of the Bucs-Panthers tilt, featuring winless teams. There are only two games on the schedule pitting undefeated franchises.
"I'd say the odds, at the beginning of the season, were a whole lot better that our game with [Carolina] would have been between a couple 2-0 teams, and not teams fighting for their lives," said Bucs strong safety Jermaine Phillips. "It's just crazy. But someone is going to come out of that game really hurting. You've got two teams desperate to get a win. I mean, who would have thought that?"
Indeed, the unthinkable has occurred in precincts where a slow start was wholly unpredictable.
Washington surged at the end of last season and secured a wild-card berth, hired Al Saunders to upgrade the offense and was regarded as a challenger even in the always tough NFC East. But the offense has been a disaster, quarterback Mark Brunell is struggling to get the ball to his overrated new wide receivers and the running game has sputtered without Clinton Portis in the lineup. In Miami, a Dolphins team that won its final six games in 2005 added quarterback Daunte Culpepper and was supposed to chase New England in the division. But Culpepper has been so unsteady in two games that Miami fans seem ready to chase him out of town. Carolina has been ragged and, without injured wide receiver Steve Smith in the lineup, has lacked big-play striking capabilities.
In fact, looking at the most disappointing teams among the 0-2 franchises in the league, a common thread has been a lack of offense and poor play at the quarterback position. Statistically, Carolina is 30th in total offense, Miami is No. 21, Washington is No. 25 and Tampa Bay ranks 28th.
Just one 0-2 team, Green Bay at 15th, statistically ranks in the top half of the league in offense. Three of the 0-2 clubs are in the top half defensively. The Dolphins, for instance, are No. 6 on defense, but haven't been able to develop any sense of rhythm offensively, and Culpepper is making ill-advised decisions. Notable, too, is that many of the highly regarded teams that have limped to 0-2 starts have suffered poor performances from their offensive lines.
Whatever the reasons for the slow starts, the 0-2 teams can't afford to take much more time to discover antidotes. The season may be a marathon, and coaches still preach the axiom that playoff berths are won in November and December, but seasons can be undone in September, as history has indicated.
Carolina and Tampa Bay, for instance, are already two games in arrears in the tough NFC South. In every division except the AFC West, there is at least one 0-2 team, and four of the league's eight divisions have two winless franchises. Because of the way the schedule sets up this week in the NFC South, one team will be 0-3 and the division leader, either Atlanta or New Orleans will be 3-0. Being three games down before the calendar flips over to October isn't exactly an appealing situation.
"You can't let it get to the point where you've got too many teams to climb over," allowed Tampa Bay defensive end Simeon Rice. "That's a combination where you're staring out of a deep hole and up at a high mountain, and that's not the view anybody wants at any time, especially this early in the year."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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