NFL Handicapping: Can Winless Teams Rebound?
by Trevor Whenham - 9/25/2009
Two weeks into the NFL season there are nine teams that have yet to win a game. That's about what you would expect at this point. None of those teams has made it easy on themselves, but the season is far from over for any of them. Some of these teams are going to continue their losing ways, but others are going to turn things around - the Chargers lost their first two last year and still won their division. This is how I would rank the nine winless teams in order of their likelihood of salvaging their season, and of presenting some real value for bettors as they do so:
1. Tennessee - The Titans are a flawed team, but they are one that is going to win some games. They opened in Pittsburgh in the first regular season chance that fans had to welcome their Super Bowl heroes, so the odds were stacked against theme there. Still, they only lost by a field goal, and they made life very difficult for the Pittsburgh offense. They were far less successful defensively against the Texans in week two, but that was offset by strong offensive play - especially on the ground. They again lost by just a field goal. The team is learning to adjust to both a new defensive coordinator and the loss of their best defensive player, so it is not a surprise that they have lacked consistency so far. They have the talent to be better when they don't have the ball, and when they inevitably settle in a bit they will start to win. I'm still not willing to rule this team out of playoff contention despite their start.
2. Carolina - Jake Delhomme is not a good quarterback, but he is a lot better than he was in Week 1. He showed impressive improvement in week two, and he is good enough to win some games with this team. They can run the ball, they have solid receivers (and one outstanding one) and their defense has skills. They started the season with two rough opponents in Philadelphia and Atlanta. There will be easier spots coming up, and this team is going to settle down and play better football. The team is definitely a work in progress, and we will start to see that progress soon.
3. Miami - They are perhaps the most talented team on this list (except, perhaps, for the Titans), but they are this far down on the list because of some real concerns. They had the ball for more than 45 minutes on Monday night against the Colts and they lost. No team has ever done that before. They have some nice players all over the field, but they don't have an offense that you could call explosive, nor one that can be trusted to score when the pressure is on. They also face a brutal schedule - they don't have an opponent that I confidently can say they are almost sure to win until week 10. This could be the case of a team that is good but not good enough. They won't be as good as last year by any means, but I don't expect them to be a total embarrassment - though they certainly could be. This is perhaps the hardest team on this list to read.
4. Jacksonville - I was really high on Jacksonville last year, and they burned me. This year I am not nearly as high on them, but I still like them more than most people seem to. They obviously haven't won, but there have been things to like in both losses. Against Indianapolis they played a very sound defensive game and clearly frustrated Peyton Manning all game. Arizona had more success offensively, but they needed the most accurate passing game in league history from Kurt Warner to do so. What stood out in that second game was the progress that the Jacksonville offense made. The running game was solid, David Garrard looked pretty good, and Mike Sims-Walker emerged as a legitimate receiving threat. There is work to do, but Jacksonville has the pieces to win some games.
5. Tampa Bay - I was expecting the Bucs to be an absolute joke this year given the circus that the Raheem Morris Era was from when he was hired to when the season started. I've been pleasantly surprised by what I have seen, though. Despite the losses there have been more positives than I expected to see. Byron Leftwich has played reasonably well, and has proven himself capable of holding down the starting job until the team is ready to take a peek at their future with Josh Freeman. The running game hasn't been great, but Cadillac Williams has shown sparks of his old self. Kellen Winslow has quickly settled in and proven himself valuable. There is still a lot of work to do - especially defensively - but there are reasons to believe that this team might actually be on the right track.
6. Kansas City - I absolutely hate that this team lost to the Raiders at home, but I have been impressed by the Todd Haley Era despite that. He made a bold move to fire his offensive coordinator and take over play calling himself, and in the first game it looked like a solid decision. The team is certainly playing with a renewed intensity, and it is obvious that Haley and Scott Pioli have cut dead weight from the squad. The team still needs to be much better, and Matt Cassel needs to show that he is up to the challenge of leading this team, but I have to imagine that it is less depressing to be a Kansas City fan now than it was at this time last year.
7. Detroit - You can't get too excited about a team that has lost 19 straight, but things are definitely looking up in Detroit. The loss of Matt Millen has already proven to be a gain, and that is reflected both on the field and in the decisions the front office has made. Matt Stafford isn't ready for prime time yet, but he has more potential than any QB they have had for eons. The team has had the misfortune f playing two very strong offenses out of the gate, and they haven't been able to keep up. It's not hard at all to believe, though, that they are good enough to win this year. More than once. Jim Schwartz may finally be the guy to turn things around in Detroit.
8. St. Louis - I want to give new coach Steve Spagnuolo the benefit of the doubt because he has made some clear changes in attitude after inheriting a lousy team, but those improvements have yet to filter onto the field of play. We knew that ths wasn't going to be a very good team, and they have proven that. You could argue that they were sound defensively against the Redskins, but a big part of that is because Washington does a nice job of shutting themselves down. The Rams have little noticeable offense, the defense has holes, and they are a long, long way away form being competitive. By going 0-2 out of the gate this team is living up exactly to expectations and the trend they have established should continue all year.
9. Cleveland - I have long thought that Marvin Lewis is the worst coach in the NFL. I'm quickly coming to the conclusion that he has company from Eric Mangini. It's important for a coach to come into a new situation and set a tone, but when that tone is moronic and it totally alienates his players and discourages positive play then it probably isn't ideal. Cleveland has been a disgusting mess so far this year, and I find few reasons to believe that they are going to be anything other than a disgusting mess all year. They will probably win a game or two more than the Rams, but I put them at the bottom of this list because they should be winning much more than St. Louis. It is astounding to me still that the Browns would think that hiring Mangini was a good idea.
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