NFL Teams That Start 0-1 Need Not Worry
by Trevor Whenham - 09/13/2006
There's a whole lot of panicking going on in several NFL cities these days. Fans in Dallas, Denver, Carolina, Tampa Bay had to be a little surprised that the sun came up Monday morning. Seattle and New England fans will be concerned that they barely scraped by against questionable teams, but they can rest easier knowing that at least they have a check in the win column.
All four losing teams have fairly serious playoff aspirations; each of them other than Tampa Bay has been a common choice among preseason prognosticators as a possible Super Bowl entrant, and all four teams were comfortable favorites. That's not all these four teams have in common, however. They were also all humiliated in dismal performances against teams that they should have beat. They did a whole lot of things poorly and very few things well.
That's not all. Tampa Bay was shutout out by Baltimore, and QB Chris Simms was terrible, throwing three picks. Tampa fans don't have a great option at backup because Bruce Gradkowski clearly isn't ready and Tim Rattay isn't a solution, but that hasn't stopped them from calling for Simms' head. Dallas lost to Jacksonville thanks to some very uninspiring quarterbacking by Drew Bledsoe. The preseason prowess of Tony Romo makes the calls for Bledsoe's job much louder than they are in Tampa. The Broncos were also held back by truly awful play by Jake Plummer, and Jay Cutler is the most popular guy in Denver right now. Optimism has been replaced by despair, and those three cities know exactly who they are blaming. Carolina is directing their blame largely on the hamstring that kept Steve Smith out of action.
Fans and local media are all scrambling to figure out what went wrong and try to decide if they need to change their expectations. History shows us, however, that the teams don't need to write the season off just yet. Over the last four seasons there have been, logically, 48 playoff teams. Of those, 17 of them opened the season with a loss. They can bounce back, in other words.
Last season, four teams lost their first game and went on to make the playoffs. Only two of the winners of those games made the playoffs. Coincidentally, both Denver and Carolina were teams that lost their first game last year as well as this year, so they are used to digging themselves out of an early hole. Denver lost to Miami by 24 points last year and only lost to St. Louis by eight points this year, so you could argue that they are making progress. In both cases they were favorites, and in both cases a bet on Denver was enough to drive you insane.
In 2003 only one team, Indianapolis, lost their first game and went on to make the playoffs. That could be a distressing precedence for this year's losers, and it is even more concerning when you consider that the team they lost to by three points, New England, went on to win the Super Bowl. None of the teams that won the games we are discussing look like Super Bowl champions at this point.
The picture gets a whole lot better in the two seasons before that, however. Half of the playoff teams, six of them each season, lost the first game and then went on to better things. Tampa Bay fans can take special consolation from the start that eventual Super Bowl champions New England had in 2003. Tampa Bay lost 27-0 to Baltimore this year, but that looks respectable compared to New England's 31-0 loss to Buffalo in 2003. Buffalo ended up 6-10 that season, capping the season with a loss to New England by the same 31-0 score, while the Pats only lost one more game all year.
A first game loss doesn't seem to matter, but what history does show us is that these teams definitely don't want to lose their second game. Only three teams in the last four years have started out 0-2 and gone on to make the playoffs. Philadelphia lost their first two games by a combined 38 points in 2003, while Pittsburgh and Atlanta started slowly in 2002. The Eagles bounced back and ended up as the top seed in the NFC that year. Pittsburgh benefited from being in a weak division, but Dallas, Carolina and Tampa Bay can't say that this year. The other 14 teams that lost their first game won game two on their way to the playoffs, so the pressure will be on the four teams to win their next game.
Tampa Bay attempts that task as 5.5-point road underdogs against Atlanta, the same team that beat Carolina in week one. The plus side of the first week performances for both teams is that that is a more generous line for the Bucs than you would likely have gotten before the opening performances. Carolina is a 2-point road favorite when the visit the Metrodome to take on the Vikings. Denver is an overwhelming 10.5-point favorite at home against the Chiefs and their sketchy quarterbacking situation, so they stand a very good chance of bouncing back from early disappointment. The Chiefs struggled to stop Carson Palmer in week one, so surely Plummer can find a way to get back in form. Dallas is a 5.5-point favorite as they host bitter divisional rival Washington. Both teams were underwhelming in the first game, so they both have a long way to go.
So, it's not over yet in Carolina, Dallas, Denver and Tampa Bay. If any of them lose this week, though, then we will really have to begin to watch how they react to their struggles.