In the NFL, they’re all mere mortals. The league has long taken pride in its ability to reshuffle the deck each year, mixing up the standings, watching good and bad teams alike flip their records. These early stages of the 2013 season have been especially unpredictable, particularly in the NFC where several reliable, traditional powers find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
The three most recent teams to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl are all struggling, and only five teams in the entire conference will carry a winning record into Week 4. In the AFC, all six of last year’s playoff teams are above .500 through three games but only one of the NFC’s postseason squads has a winning record. The top four NFC seeds in last year’s playoffs, in fact, are a combined 3-9 entering Week 4.
At least for now, parity appears to have caught up to several perennial powers: the Green Bay Packers (1-2), Minnesota Vikings (0-3), Atlanta Falcons (1-2), San Francisco 49ers (1-2) and Washington Redskins (0-3) — not to mention the New York Giants (0-3) and the AFC’s Pittsburgh Steelers (0-3) — and these September surprises could alter January’s playoff picture.
The landscape shifts so much from year to year, says former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, that it’s harder than ever for any team to stay on top for long. Offseason personnel changes, evolving game plans and trendy gimmicks mean even the most steady teams have to adapt significantly each season.
“You think about teams like San Francisco, Washington, Green Bay and you scratch your head and say, ‘What happened?’ ” said Edwards, an ESPN analyst. “It’s a matter of chemistry, and coaches always preach that. Chemistry is a funny thing. It’s something you don’t really understand when it happens, but you need it to happen.”
A tour of the struggling teams finds head coaches eager to ignore the current standings and instead cling to that which is in their control. It’s not the time of year to cry over win-loss records.
“I don’t pay any attention to it,” Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy told reporters Monday. “Let’s be honest, to worry about the race in Week 3, I think that’s a wasted focus.”
“Each year is a new year,” said the Giants’ Tom Coughlin. “Each situation is a totally different situation.”
“I really don’t think in those terms,” Mike Shanahan said when asked about whether his team’s midseason turnaround a year ago might inspire this season’s struggling group. “You just have got to concentrate on a daily basis and go find a way to win first. After you take care of that, then you can think about the other things.”
If they did opt to focus on the historical numbers and probabilities, some might not like what they see. According to the NFL, since 1990, 57 teams have started 1-2 and still managed to reach the playoffs — on average nearly three per year.
But only three teams have dug themselves into an 0-3 hole and advanced to the postseason — and none since 1998.
This season marks only the second time a Shanahan-coached team has started the season with three straight losses. The other team — the 1999 Denver Broncos — didn’t win until Week 5 and finished the season 6-10.
The number-crunchers at FootballOutsiders.com calculate the Redskins’ current chances of making the playoffs at 9.6 percent, down from 26 percent prior to last Sunday’s loss to Detroit.
“It’s very frustrating. Everyone in this locker room knows we’re better than this,” said Redskins linebacker Perry Riley Jr. “You are what your record is, but we have the talent, the coaching, everything we need to be successful. We are not an 0-3 team.”
More than ever, the winning and losing teams are separated by only a score or two — oftentimes just a play or two. Through three weeks, more than half of the games played have been decided by a touchdown or less — 28 of 48 games thus far.
“In the NFL, good teams do lose games,” Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon said. “It happens. It’s about bouncing back.
In today’s league, Edwards says it’s easier than ever to turn around a struggling franchise in just a year or two. The quarterback is so key to winning that a bad team can add someone like Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, Alex Smith, Robert Griffin III, and they might be just a year or two away from the postseason.
“Because of the rules and because of the way we play the game any more, that one guy gives you hope,” Edwards said. “He gives you the ability to win the kind of games you used to lose.”
And the parity that shakes up the standings can also help a bad team remain in contention. Edwards points to the unimpressive NFC East as an example, where the Cowboys hold the division lead with a 2-1 record. Because none of the four teams look dominant, the former coach says a 9-7 record could ultimately win the division, which means despite terrible starts, both the Redskins and the Giants could be in the hunt come December.
“We never thought we’d be 0-3 coming off the offseason we had and the last year that we had,” Garcon said. “We thought it would only get better. But we have to deal with it. We have to keep fighting. It’s not over. It’s a long, long season so we’ve definitely got time.”