The calendar hasn't even reached October, and already the nascent football campaign appears ruined for a host of NFL franchises. There is a world of difference between a record of 1-2—just one game away from .500 and, in some cases, the division lead—and 0-3, a mark that seems completely insurmountable for once-aspiring playoff teams.
There are six teams stuck at 0-3, trapped in the NFL equivalent of an underground cellar with—for most of them—little hope of escaping fate.
Some of the league's 0-3 teams have broken. All of them are bad.
It's Curtains for the Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings are both headed to London next week to play one of two regular-season games on European soil in the NFL's never-ending effort to grow the game outside the United States. Who would have thought, when the Steelers and Vikings were chosen to promote the Shield in England, that they would be a collective 0-6, meaning one of the two will be all but dead on arrival when the teams return home?
The Steelers, in some way, have an excuse. Their team has been decimated with injuries this season, to both their offensive line and backfield. And yet, it wasn't injuries that led to a demoralizing 40-23 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday night. It was turnovers.
"Obviously you're not going to win football games when you are turning the football over in the manner in which we did," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters after the loss (via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). "It produced direct points. It produced other point opportunities. You're not going to beat anybody in the National Football League playing like that."
The Steelers had five turnovers against the Bears, four of which led directly to scores, including both a fumble and an interception that were returned for touchdowns. Chicago scored 24 of its 40 points directly off turnovers, with the only change of possession not leading to points coming after the Bears had secured the win.
Sunday night has become known for excellent television dramas. For Pittsburgh fans, watching the Steelers fall behind big and claw back into the game before falling apart in the fourth quarter must have been as gut-wrenching as any scripted drama could hope to be. (Well, any drama other than Breaking Bad, which—spoiler alert—is going to emotional lows no drama has gone or should ever go. That said, Steelers fans might think of Vince Gilligan's television masterpiece as a dark comedy in contrast to how bleak their team's future looks.)
Vikings Must Ponder Changes
Quick story: I was at a Labor Day barbecue with a Vikings fan who told me he drafted—drafted—Matt Cassel in his fantasy league because he expected Christian Ponder to get benched before the fourth week of the season.
That says everything you need to know about the expectations of Vikings fans this year. The notion that anyone would draft a player who isn't even starting for his own team perfectly illustrates the fanbase's dissolution with Ponder as quarterback. It's the ultimate act of wishful thinking.
The blame, however, for an 0-3 start for Minnesota should not be placed solely on the shoulders of its maligned signal-caller. Ponder has been a terrible passer this season—he currently ranks 30th out of 33 ranked quarterbacks in passer rating—but he did use his legs on Sunday to the tune of 46 yards and two touchdowns in the red zone.
That's not awful, except for fantasy owners of Adrian Peterson, of course. But the reality is, a few nice runs do not a good quarterback make.
Ponder is horrible, and Vikings fans knew it going into the season. From Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
The five three-and-outs, the interception, the lost fumble in the red zone, the 11 incompletions on first down, the 4.5-yard average per pass attempt after the opening drive … none of it would have mattered had Christian Ponder simply completed a short pass to an open Greg Jennings on third-and-4 with less than 3½ minutes left and the Vikings leading by three points.
“I missed him,” Ponder said after the Vikings were upset 31-27 at home by the Cleveland Browns. “It was a bad throw. He was open and did a great job on that route and beat man coverage, beat their best corner [Joe Haden]. But we weren’t able to convert.”
And so the Vikings, for the sixth and final time, went three plays and punted, this time from their 20-yard line. And for the second time in two weeks, the defense collapsed on a shortened field at the end of a game in which the Vikings had four takeaways.
Ponder's second-quarter interception on the Vikings' side of midfield led directly to a touchdown for the Browns, and his fumble at the end of the first half took away a chance for a chip-shot field goal to cut the lead to four at the break. Clearly, the Vikings could have used those points.
Still, it wasn't all Ponder's fault. The offensive line has been poor, allowing 10 sacks on the season, including six to a Browns defense that had six heading into the contest. The defense has bent and broken in each of the first three games, giving up three second-half leads, including game-sealing touchdowns on the final defensive play of the game each of the last two weeks.
Not only did the defense give up game-winning scores late in the fourth quarter in consecutive games, they allowed a tight end to beat them on ostensibly the exact same play—a timing route to the corner of the end zone—in the exact same situation in the game.
This week, the lapse on both sides of the ball came against a Cleveland team that everyone in the NFL thought was tanking the season after trading away their only viable running back and starting third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer.
The Vikings didn't just lose on Sunday. They lost to the Browns, at home.
From coaching to executing on the field, the Vikings have been a disaster. Ponder will take the brunt of the heat, but Minnesota has much bigger problems than who is under center.
NFC Least—Redskins Edition
The Washington Redskins won the NFC East last season and expected—with a healthy RGIII at the helm—to win the division again, hoping for an outside chance to compete for a berth in the Super Bowl.
Three weeks into the season, the 'Skins are a team on the ropes. Griffin continues to put the blame on himself, and at least in the first half of games, he's probably right.
Through three games, Washington is being outscored 67-21 in the first half of games, but just one of its three first-half touchdowns has come by way of the offense. Week after week, the offense shows too little, too late.
Is that the players or the game plan?
Look, the NFL doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the dismal performance by the Redskins on the field is just the start of the issues owner Dan Snyder faces this season. This debate about the Redskins name has gone from a bullet at the end of a notes column when a few fans protest or complain to a bona fide American sports scandal.
There is no indication that the heat being placed on Washington's front office has had an impact on the team—that should be squarely on the shoulders of the Shanahans right now—but the longer the team keeps losing, the angrier even the most loyal fans will become.
After a seemingly easy game at Oakland next week, the Redskins face a bye before games at Dallas, home to the undefeated Chicago Bears and at Denver before potentially winnable games against San Diego and at Minnesota.
Hell, if Washington doesn't win next week, there might be a better chance the franchise announces a mascot change before they even win a game this season. I'm kidding—that will never happen as long as Snyder still owns the team.
NFC Least—Giants Edition
As bad as everything is in Washington, it may be worse for Tom Coughlin and the Giants. New York lost 38-0 to the previously winless Carolina Panthers in one of the worst losses in franchise history.
The Giants offensive line was atrocious, allowing seven sacks in just 30 drop-back attempts for Eli Manning. When Manning was able to get a pass off, he was getting hit. He completed just 12 of his 23 passes, while adding another interception to his league-leading total (eight).
The defense proved to be as inept as the offense, allowing Cam Newton and the Panthers to rack up 402 yards of offense to New York's paltry 150. After the game, the Giants had a lot of questions, with very few answers. Said one team captain, Antrel Rolle, via Connor Orr of The Star-Ledger:
Whether there was fight or not, I guess there wasn't fight enough. We’re coming up short. We’re coming up extremely short. Something’s going to have to happen. Something’s going to have to happen.
I really don’t know. I don’t have the answers. I think we just have to go out there and collectively put our heads together, form an identity and understand who we’re going to be as a team. Right now I don’t think anyone knows.
Coughlin told reporters, "Disappointing is not a strong enough word," in questioning the effort put forth by his players. And yet Manning was left questioning his coaches, suggesting—via Giants.com—that play-calling might be an issue.
"We have to find ways to slow down the pass rush," he said. "Whether that is running the ball with screens or getting the ball out quicker, but they won the physical battle today."
The Cowboys are 2-1, and it feels like they are running away with the division, but the Giants under Coughlin have shown a knack for saving lost seasons. They had better start saving this one soon, as even at 0-3, nobody is out of the NFC East.
Greg Schiano Is Hopefully Renting
I've told this story before, but it's worth repeating.
I worked at Rutgers for more than a decade, spending a lot of time with former head football coach Greg Schiano. One time after practice, he was chatting with a former player who was in the NFL and had come back to campus to visit. In the context of the conversation about life in the NFL, Schiano jokingly suggested he would never leave college for the pros because it's impossible for coaches in the NFL to control their players.
Schiano relishes control. He demands it. This is a guy who would stop a meeting to look at carpet samples, and what someone could see as a meticulous attention to detail in one job—it's easy to see it that way when he was taking a moribund football program to annual bowl games—others might see as a control freak who doesn't trust anyone and is losing just as much trust because of it.
Schiano obviously knew his iron-grip methods wouldn't work with in the NFL when he took the job with Tampa Bay, but he has been unable to adapt in his short tenure as a head coach in the pros.
There is a fine line between changing a culture of losing and losing your entire locker room. The team, and the coach, need to start winning.
Tampa Bay is 7-12 in Schiano's first 19 games, including 1-8 in the last nine. There have been rumors every week suggesting he has lost his locker room. There are rumors that his quarterback, Josh Freeman—who seemed full of potential he's never been able to reach—wants out. The more the losses pile up, the more both rumors will grow.
Here we are, three games into a season that has already lost its promise, and we are looking to the sideline for answers that probably don't exist. Every week, Josh Freeman loses a few more of his defenders, and a bit of his grip on the starting job. Already, we are discussing when the change will come from a quarterback who isn't going anywhere to a quarterback who isn't ready to go anywhere.
Unfortunately for Schiano, winning games in the NFL is the hardest thing for a coach to control. That, and keeping your job.
London Calling for Jacksonville?
While the Steelers and Vikings will take their winless ways to London for the first of two NFL tilts across the pond this season, Jacksonville awaits its turn to play at Wembley Stadium on Oct. 27 against the San Francisco 49ers.
Jaguars owner Shahid Khan is also the owner of Fulham, one of the half-dozen or so top-flight world football (read: soccer) clubs in London. The rumors have been swirling for months that the Jaguars are eager to start their series in London to see if there is a viable market for an NFL team overseas.
At this point, Jacksonville fans may want them gone.
The Jaguars are just awful, perhaps one of the worst teams in the history of the NFL. The team has scored 28 points this season, tallying 17 against Seattle on Sunday after spotting the Seahawks 31 to start the game. Gus Bradley sounds like a motivational speaker in his postgame locker-room talks.
One has to wonder if the Jags can even win a game before heading to London in late October. There aren't many realistic chances in the next four weeks for Jacksonville, with games against the Colts and Chargers at home sandwiching road games at St. Louis and Denver.
Bradley has to be looking at his schedule hoping to steal that Rams game; otherwise, the Jaguars could be staring at a trip back from London at 0-8.
Or will they? What if the Jaguars just forfeited the rest of the season and stayed in London forever, planning a fresh start next season?
Would anyone care? Or notice?