September 23, 2008

0-3? Time to Find a New Team

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You know the feeling. You get your first taste of it in July when NFL training camps open up. Maybe your team is missing that shutdown cornerback or your team’s running back is absent due to heated contract negotiations (read: Stephen Jackson). With your luck, it will be your No. 1 draft pick who sits out at training camp in a contract dispute. Whatever the shortcomings are, none of them matter come September. Every team starts with a clean slate and theoretically, all 32 teams are vying for equal footing for the Vince Lombardi trophy. Anything can happen; just ask New York Giants fans.
While two of the remaining undefeated squads, the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, were expected to get off to a fast start this season, the other trio of 3-0 teams, the Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos, are the pleasant surprises so far this season. There are millions of fans panicking across America’s mid-west and summer has not even officially melted into autumn. Though some of these organizations can attribute their expected failures to bumbling, inept ownership (St. Louis) or coaches and general managers who have proven to be clueless over the years (hello, Herm Edwards and Matt Mullen), the slow starts for the two Ohio teams are the most disappointing. With a high-powered offense, the Bengals were thought to be primed to return to past playoff prowess. Cleveland was such a preseason favorite that three of their games are slated to be on national television this season. But take heart, Buckeye State fans, after the Bungles play the Brownies this weekend, someone is bound to escape from the ranks of the winless.
However, with the good comes the bad. It is time to say goodbye to some winless 0-3 teams, including the Lions, Rams, Bengals, Browns and Chiefs. Since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams in 1990, less than two percent of 0-3 teams have qualified for the playoffs.
This spells doom for fans of these teams. Six months spent following key offseason acquisitions and analyzing that seventh round draft pick your team selected in April are down the drain. Sure, a loyal fan will still turn on the television Sunday afternoon, but it is not the same. Anyone who does not understand the disappointment associated with a meaningless football season is not a real football fan. You might as well go watch golf or tennis. Fair-weather fans don’t understand this concept. They don’t remain with the team long enough to understand this heartache. No one ever admits it, but if you don’t know your favorite team’s backup quarterback or third wide receiver, you indeed might be a fair-weather fan.
Playing for pride doesn’t count either. Save that inspirational message for Barbara Walters and The View, where they still care about whether or not you “gave it your all.” I don’t care if Chad Johnson leaps over three defenders to snag a game-winning pass in mid-air, while still maintaining control of the ball as a fourth defender lays a hit on him so jarring it dislodges the helmet from his head. Where was this in week three? Pride is overrated, especially in “the league where they play for pay.”
You might recall last season when Baltimore nearly thwarted New England’s bid for a perfect season in week 13. (If you don’t, then you are reinforcing my theory.) The last-place Ravens were 4-7 entering the game and playing for “pride.” Although Baltimore would have won if not for a foolish last-second timeout call from its own sideline, the Patriots prevailed sending the Ravens and their fans into deeper despair. Two weeks later, the team that had managed to hold a lead over New England until 44 seconds were left in the fourth quarter lost to the winless 0-12 Miami Dolphins in overtime. So much for playing with pride.
Believe it or not, the Giants were not always the best team in football. In 2003, New York endured an eight-game losing streak to end the season at a miserable 4-12. During those eight weeks, I experienced a variety of ups and downs, but mainly downs. I was reluctant to give up on the season, so it wasn’t until week 10 that I stopped painting my face for every game. In week 12, I stopped slamming the remote control on the floor every time the Giants threw an interception, but that was not voluntary — it cracked in half when it bounced off the baseboards. Finally, in week 13, I reluctantly came to the realization that any team that has Ron Dayne as its “power” running back probably is not good enough to earn a playoff seed.
If you are a fan of Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Kansas City, I would advise you to learn to savor every precious win this year. However, do understand that you will be subjected to a similar decompression process that I endured in 2003, but with a head start to come to grips with reality. The quicker you accept that your team stinks, the quicker you can turn the page and start to focus on Mel Kiper Jr.’s fantasy draft program next spring.