"Everyone is paying attention to the woebegone boys." -- Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams
It has to be a quirk in the schedule. Who could have planned this? Possibly the four worst teams in the National Football League, three of them winless, will play each other today. Somebody almost has to win. Philadelphia (1-4) is at Buffalo (0-5) and Houston (0-5) at Cincinnati (0-5).
Then again, there could be two scoreless ties.
Linebacker Gregg Bingham, an 11-year veteran, has lived through two starts by the Houston Oilers as bad as this one, but has not yet become immune to winlessness.
"I'm quite nervous," he said, speaking not only for the Oilers, but also for all Bengals, Eagles and Bills. "I don't like our situation."
Who does? Reggie Williams, the Cincinnati linebacker, said he has been yelled at on the highway on his drive home. Joe Dufek, Buffalo's new quarterback, hears about it in the laundry room. People in Philadelphia have told linebacker Jerry Robinson that the Eagles will be lucky to win four games this season. And Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas, who has a radio show in Buffalo from 6 to 7 Monday nights with linebacker Jim Haslett, may have it roughest of all.
"Someone called in and said he was going to throw stones at us the next home game," said Smerlas, who suffered through an 0-11 season his senior year at Boston College. "I told him, 'You throw stones, my brother's going to throw you out of the stands.' Someone else asked, 'Why don't you trade yourselves in for a pro team?' I said, 'When did they let you out of the padded room?'
"The show's going good," Smerlas continued. "Ratings have been good and the station (WBEN) gave us a raise."
Each team has a different reason for its horrendous start; losing merely is the common denominator.
The Bills, without quarterback Joe Ferguson, who has a sprained ankle, seem closest to winning. They have lost three games by a total of 10 points.
The Bengals also have a new quarterback, Maryland's Boomer Esiason, and an injury list 18 names long following their 38-17 Monday night loss to Pittsburgh.
The Oilers, who have lost five games by a total of 90 points, appear on the verge of total depression, based largely on the problems of a new coaching staff headed by first-year man Hugh Campbell.
The Eagles have not been able to stop the big play and have not scored a touchdown in two games, although they did beat Minnesota, 19-17, in their second game.
The Bengals (Sam Wyche) and Oilers have new coaches; the Bills (Kay Stephenson) and Eagles (Marion Campbell) went through that last year. It's never easy.
Tom Landry went 0-11-1 in 1960, his and the Dallas Cowboys' first year; Chuck Noll went 1-13 in 1969, his first year with the Pittsburgh Steelers; Bill Walsh went 2-14 in 1979, his first year with the San Francisco 49ers, and Joe Gibbs started 0-5 and finished 8-8 in 1981, his first year with the Redskins.
Wyche, the former Redskins reserve quarterback, has letters from Walsh, Fran Tarkenton, Rick Forzano and John Ralston sitting on his desk. "They tell me they've seen us play, that what we're doing is sound." Wyche was an assistant with Walsh during his bad years. "I used to worry about Bill," Wyche said. "He took it so hard, he couldn't sleep. That was one of the things I learned from him about coaching. You have to handle setbacks because they will come."
Wyche, 39, is looking at "the half-full glass" these days, which is not all that hard to do in the AFC Central. It's the worst division in the NFL, with only one team (Pittsburgh at 3-2) over .500, followed by Cleveland at 1-4 and then Houston and Cincinnati.
"As skeptical as this sounds," Wyche said, "we've found ourselves in a division where, within a month or six weeks, we can be in the race." Added Williams, who says he identifies with the men who defended the Alamo, "The possibilities to get into the playoffs still exist. A 9-7 record possibly will get into the playoffs in this division."
You would expect the Oilers to feel the same way. Bingham talks a good game, conjuring up memories of rocky starts and playoff finishes under Bum Phillips, but his answers are punctuated with question marks.
"It's not the talent, because everyone in the league has talent. It's who relays the information (from coach to player) fastest. It's not my position to blame anyone," he said. Moments later, when asked about Campbell, he added, "The hardest thing to do is to put together a staff that meshes perfectly in a short time. That's why Bum was so successful. He had great offensive coaches and great defensive coaches."
Bingham said the Houston-Cincinnati game "will be decided early." Does that mean it will be lost by the team that quits first? Not exactly, Bingham said.
"I'm talking about taking the edge off," he said. "Not quitting, just losing the edge. Anytime you're losing, nothing's a little problem. It snowballs, and the bigger the snowball gets, the harder it is to stop."
Unfortunately for Campbell, the Oilers have a history of impatience with losing streaks. In 1973, Bill Peterson lost his first five and was fired. Last season, Ed Biles lost his first six and was fired.
The Eagles are the lucky ones. They've won. Robinson acknowledges as much. "It could be a lot worse. We could be 0-5.
"But I'm mad," he added. "Everyone is mad. It's not like we're playing Appalachian State. We're playing tough teams. I just keep saying, 'It's not over till the fat lady sings.' And I haven't seen the fat lady yet."
Buffalo's Dufek is 23 and optimistic. He is starting in the NFL and loves it. "There's 11 ball games left," he said. "Washington was 0-5 and came back. It's a long season. It's just very important for us to get that first win."
If the Bills don't get it, maybe the Bengals will. Or the Oilers. Somebody has to. Don't they?