The NFL

October 07, 2007

High Anxiety

Three presumedtitle contenders have made a beeline in the opposite direction. Can theirseasons be saved?

THEY BEGAN theseason as trendy Super Bowl picks, and four weeks later there's still plenty ofbuzz around the Chargers, Saints and Bears. But not for the reasons anyonewould have thought. Eight months after San Diego finished with the league'sbest record (14--2), New Orleans advanced to the NFC title game and Chicagoplayed in the Super Bowl, the teams are last in their respective divisions,with an aggregate record of 2--9. The Chargers have lost three in a row sincewinning their opener under new coach Norv Turner, and on Sunday fans mockedmanagement by chanting the name of former coach Marty Schottenheimer. The 0--3Saints have been outscored 103--38. The 1--3 Bears are already on their secondquarterback and could soon be warming up a third.

Instead of howfar will these teams go, the question has become, how much farther will theyfall? "This thing is getting away from us, and before you know it you'lllook back and say, 'What happened?'" fullback Lorenzo Neal said after hisChargers squandered a 10-point second-half lead in a 30--16 loss to thevisiting Chiefs. "Bottom line, someone has got to step up and say, 'It hasto stop now.' If you continue saying, 'It's going to get better,' you're livinga pipe dream."

Since theplayoffs expanded to six teams per conference in 1990, only 18 of the 116 clubsthat started 1--3 advanced to the postseason. And if the Saints lose at home toCarolina this Sunday, their likelihood of returning to the playoffs is all butgone: Of 56 teams that have started 0--4 since 1990, only the 1992 Chargersqualified for the postseason. Here's what's ailing each of the three teams.

CHARGERS

They need a coachwho can lead in difficult times and get the most out of his playmakers, adefensive coordinator who can dial up the right calls to pressure quarterbacks,a secondary that can keep five-yard receptions from becoming 20-yard gainsbecause of poor tackling, and five offensive linemen who can work as a unit andkeep defenders off QB Philip Rivers.

Turner has donenothing to dispel the image that he's in too deep as a head coach. Now with histhird team as the main guy, his combined record is 59-85-1. And despite hisreputation for being an elite play-caller, he raised eyebrows in the fourthquarter on Sunday, when on first-and-goal from the five-yard line he calledfour consecutive pass plays. (All were incomplete.) Did he forget about runningback LaDainian Tomlinson's league-record 28 rushing touchdowns in '06?

SAINTS

New Orleansgenerated a league-high 6,264 yards last season largely on the strength of itsline play, but that unit has struggled this season. As a result, quarterbackDrew Brees has been under constant pressure and has already thrown seveninterceptions compared to 11 in all of 2006. Also, the holes haven't been therefor the running backs: The Saints are averaging 79.7 rushing yards per game(29th in the NFL); Reggie Bush is gaining 2.8 yards per carry (and just 4.4 perreception); and the power game took a huge hit when Deuce McAllister went downfor the season with a torn ACL.

Defensively, NewOrleans has to start generating a pass rush. It's the only team in the leaguewithout a sack. With little pressure applied by the Saints, their opponentshave completed 12 passes of 24 yards or longer, six of them for touchdowns. Howbad are things? "Steve Weatherford is playing great," says linebackerScott Fujita, referring to the Saints' punter with a 48.3-yard average."Other than that, we're not playing worth a damn now."

BEARS

They desperatelyneed better quarterbacking and improved health on defense. Coach Lovie Smithfinally pulled the plug on starting QB Rex Grossman, but replacement BrianGriese wasn't the answer on Sunday, throwing three costly interceptions in a37--27 loss at Detroit. Don't be surprised if third-stringer Kyle Orton getsthe call in the next few weeks. Chicago also could use a back who can rundownhill to take pressure off the passers—a guy like their leading rusher lastseason, Thomas Jones, who was traded to the Jets last March. Former first-roundpick Cedric Benson has been inadequate as Jones's successor, averaging only 3.2yards a carry, with one touchdown.

On defense theBears lost tackle Dusty Dvoracek and free safety Mike Brown to season-endingknee injuries in the opener; linebacker Lance Briggs (hamstring), cornerbacksNathan Vasher (groin) and Charles Tillman (ankle), and safety Adam Archuleta(broken hand) sat out the Lions game. When healthy, the unit is among the bestin the league. When ailing, the Bears have no shot—particularly if the offenseis turning the ball over.

Will any of thesethree turn it around? The schedule doesn't help. This week San Diego plays atDenver, where the Chargers haven't won two straight since the '60s. New Orleanshosts Carolina, which has won five in a row in the Superdome. Chicago goes toGreen Bay to face the sky-high Packers. "We're doing all the things poorfootball teams do, and we're doing all the things that keep you from winninggames," says coach Sean Payton, whose Saints are coming off their bye week."We have to get it corrected in a short time. If not, we'll continue [tolose]."

ONLY AT SI.COMThe latest news and analysis from Jim Trotter.

Trotter's Take: Run, Raiders, Run

The most impressive coaching job of the early seasonis that of Oakland offensive line coach Tom Cable, whose zone-blocking schemehas the Raiders averaging a league-best 194.2 rushing yards per game. Underformer coach Art Shell's staff last year the blockers often looked lost andconfused, and Oakland averaged only 94.9 rushing yards (29th in the league).This year the unit is playing with confidence and attitude, opening holes forLaMont Jordan, who's second in the NFL in rushing with 424 yards, and backupJustin Fargas (right), who rang up 179 in a 35--17 win at Miami on Sunday. Theattack will get even better with the imminent arrival of former Colt DominicRhodes, who's completed his four-game suspension for violating the league'ssubstance-abuse policy.... Keep an eye on Seattle wideout Deion Branch, who'sgone over 100 yards receiving in two of his last three games. Last seasonBranch never got comfortable with the offense or QB Matt Hasselbeck after hisearly September trade from the Patriots, surpassing 76 yards only once in 14games. But he and Hasselbeck spent the off-season working together, and Branchsays they're developing the type of rapport he and Tom Brady had. "Thechemistry is getting there," Branch said after catching seven passes for130 yards in a 23--3 win at San Francisco.... Fickle 49ers fans are about todiscover that the offense's main problem isn't QB Alex Smith, who'll miss atleast two weeks with a separated shoulder. Smith hasn't been perfect, butneither has the protection, the receivers or the play-calling.... Dwayne Bowemight be the steal of the '07 first round. The 6'2", 221-pound wideout fromLSU set a Chiefs rookie record with 164 receiving yards on eight catches inK.C.'s win at San Diego. Bowe has TDs in three consecutive games; the last twowere go-ahead scores in K.C. wins. The Chiefs have been looking for a big,physical wideout for years and after repeated misses finally appear to have acapable complement to running back Larry Johnson.

PHOTOPAUL SANCYA/AP (GRIESE)SINKING FEELINGS Griese (14), Bush (25), Rivers (17) and Tomlinson (above and inset) have failed to spark their teams. PHOTOBILL VAUGHN/CAL SPORT MEDIA (BUSH)[See caption above] PHOTODENIS POROY/AP (RIVERS AND TOMLINSON)[See caption above] PHOTOSTAN LIU/US PRESSWIRE[See caption above] PHOTOJC RIDLEY/CAL SPORT MEDIA

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)