Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Deck stacked against 0-2 teams
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
The Panthers are one of three playoff teams from 2008 (along with the Titans and Dolphins) that have stumbled to 0-2 starts in '09. History suggests WR Steve Smith should be worried.
As demonstrated by three franchises in 2008, and most notably by the New York Giants' Super Bowl XLII championship the year before, beginning any season with a 0-2 record doesn't necessarily bury a team's playoff chances.
But officials from 0-2 teams might be wise to add the backhoe operator to their speed dial.
There were three teams -- Miami, Minnesota and San Diego -- that qualified for the 2008 playoffs despite 0-2 starts. The previous year, the Giants' upset of the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl capped an incredible season that began for New York with a 0-2 mark.
Those recent turnarounds notwithstanding, the odds are lopsidedly against a club's advancing to the postseason after dropping its first two regular-season games. A 0-2 start isn't quite the NFL's equivalent of The China Syndrome, but attempting to right a team after such a poor start is often like digging oneself out of a deep sinkhole armed only with a teaspoon. Establishing some semblance of momentum is a daunting task.
"Right off the bat, you've put yourself in a corner, and you'd better work hard to get out of it," said Carolina standout middle linebacker Jon Beason, following the Panthers' 28-20 loss at Atlanta in Week 2. "It can be done, and that's been proven several times before but it's definitely not the way you want to open a season."
Indeed, teams that kick off a year by losing their first two outings leave themselves with very little margin for error and almost no wiggle room, especially inside the division. Teams that rally from a 0-2 start and find a way to make the playoffs are certainly an aberration.
Since the NFL adopted its current 12-team playoff format in 1990, there have been 160 clubs that began a year with a 0-2 record. Only 22 of those teams, just 13.75 percent, became playoff entries. The odds are even poorer in the past decade, with only 10.8 percent of the 0-2 teams recovering. There were no such clubs in five of the past 10 seasons and, since 1991, no more than three in a year.
"It means you can't waste any time getting things turned around," said Miami safety Yeremiah Bell. "It puts a premium on winning, and winning now. The only good part is that there's still enough season left to make things right. But you've got to get on a roll right away."
The nine franchises that started 0-2 in the past 10 seasons, and recovered from the dismal beginning to still reach the playoffs, possessed a common denominator: All of the teams countered their shaky 0-2 record by each cobbling together winning streaks of four or more games at some point in the campaign. New England won six straight in 2001. The Philadelphia Eagles carved out nine straight wins in 2003. The Giants had a six-game winning streak in 2007, and Miami managed separate winning runs of four and five games last season.
Of those nine teams, only four lost consecutive games again following their 0-2 starts.
The numbers don't bode well for the nine teams that dropped their first two games this season. Still, it's hardly a surprise that clubs like Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City and St. Louis (eight combined victories in 2008) began this year 0-2. Much more stunning are the 0-2 starts by Carolina, Miami and Tennessee, all playoff teams in 2008. The Panthers are already two games behind a pair of solid contenders, Atlanta and New Orleans, in the NFC South. The Titans, who are a game behind Houston and two behind Indianapolis, led the AFC South from wire to wire a year ago. Miami trails the resurgent New York Jets by two games in the AFC East.
"No matter how much you can't believe it, that's the reality of the situation," said Titans quarterback Kerry Collins. "It means you've got to [ratchet up] the level of urgency, because, no matter that it's a 16-game season, you have to turn things around quickly."
Perhaps compounding the situation for the Panthers, Titans and Dolphins is this perilous fact: In the past 18 seasons, from 1991 to 2008, an average of 5.6 franchises did not claim one of the 12 playoff spots the season following a playoff appearance. Last season, for instance, seven of the 12 playoff clubs from 2007 did not qualify for postseason play. In that 18-year stretch, the playoff turnover rate was never less than four teams.
No one expected Carolina, Miami and Tennessee all to be winless at this juncture of the 2009 season. As history has proved, not only in terms of 0-2 starts but also in playoff turnover from one year to the next, those teams must expeditiously reverse fortunes.
"It's still just two games, and it's early," said Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith, who on Sunday in the Panthers' locker room seemed relatively unfazed by his club's 0-2 start to a season in which the team was regarded as a playoff lock. "My feelings are no different than if we had started 2-0. You've still got to play next week and you've got to win."
And, clearly, win now, before the hole gets any deeper.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.