The formula that has been a recipe for failure for the Washington Redskins in recent years -- new coach, new players, key injuries -- has become a league-wide lament this season.
With players adjusting to new systems because of rampant coaching changes and injuries decimating rosters already overhauled every offseason because of free agency and the salary cap, teams are finding it harder than ever to play good, consistent football from Day 1 of a season.
Through the first five weeks of the season, close NFL observers are having difficulty identifying more than a handful of solid clubs without significant flaws as teams jockey for position beneath the three remaining unbeatens -- the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets.
"I think the league is so evenly matched right now," Minnesota Vikings Coach Mike Tice said in a conference call last week. "I think the league is so even, there aren't really a whole lot of elite teams, if any. There might be a couple of teams -- the New Englands, the Phillys -- up there at the top that are pretty damn good. And everyone else is about equal."
Much of the early-season talk has been about injuries that have come in waves. Through the first four weeks, 165 players were on the injured reserve list (making them ineligible to play for their current teams again this season), including 34 who had been placed there since the season began.
That figure was up from 21 players who were placed on the IR list during the first four weeks of the 2003 season, 21 in '02, 27 in '01, 21 in '00 and 25 in 1999. The total will increase this week as other players -- such as Julian Peterson, the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers whose season was ended by a torn Achilles' tendon suffered Sunday -- head to IR.
Some in the sport believe that the game has become more dangerous, with bigger, stronger and faster athletes slamming into one another, with teams now practicing year-round and giving players' bodies less time to recover and heal, and with players shedding some of the padding that old-time players used to wear during games in hopes of maximizing speed.
But the league and many teams' coaches and front-office executives maintain that it is far too early in the season to draw any conclusions about the increase in players on IR. They say a small sample of one-quarter of a season offers no firm evidence that injuries are on the upswing, and they point out that the increase in the number of players on the IR list doesn't necessarily mean that injuries are more prevalent.
With this season's salary cap up to $80.6 million per club, they say, teams can afford to put more players on the IR list and sign replacements who are available to play, then they can release players off IR if they get healthy later in the season.
"It feels that way [that there are more injuries this season], but go back and check and it's probably not," Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick said late last week. "It's not. I imagine you go back and look at the same time last year, and it's probably about the same. It doesn't feel that way to the teams involved. It doesn't feel that way to us right now with six starters out. But fortunately with ours, we can anticipate them being back."
Clearly, though, teams are not built to withstand injuries the way they once were. Because of the salary cap, most clubs cannot keep around many veterans as backups. Those jobs go to younger, cheaper players, and there is a drop-off in performance if the starter gets hurt. Lineups are reconstructed during the season after rosters are rebuilt in the offseason, thanks to the cap and free agents scurrying from city to city.
There is little stability even at the position on the field in which continuity is needed the most -- quarterback. Prominent quarterbacks, such as two-time league most valuable player Kurt Warner, former Super Bowl starter Kerry Collins and three-time Pro Bowl selection Jeff Garcia, changed addresses this past offseason. Clubs now make quarterback decisions based on economics as much as ability. The Cincinnati Bengals could have stayed with veteran Jon Kitna and tried to build on last season's 8-8 record, but Coach Marvin Lewis switched to 2003 top draft choice Carson Palmer because so much had been invested in him.
Coaches have even less job security than quarterbacks, but the impatience of owners rarely is rewarded immediately. The seven new coaches this season have a combined record of 13-20. Only two -- the New York Giants' Tom Coughlin and the Atlanta Falcons' Jim Mora Jr. -- have winning records.
Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs is 1-4 with the Redskins, but Billick said before beating him Sunday night: "You're looking at a team that's still getting used to a style and a system of play. Go pick any coach [who's] new this year, particularly offensively, and look at what they're doing, and you're going to see some maturation of the team. They've got a new quarterback. They've got an entirely new system. That takes awhile."
The result is another mad scramble league-wide in which no one seems to know who, aside from the obvious few, is good and who isn't. The Giants have some obvious deficiencies and Coughlin faced a near-rebellion by his players as the season got under way, but they're 4-1 now.
Five teams that had five or fewer wins last season have at least three triumphs already this season -- the Giants, Falcons, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Diego Chargers. Road teams have won 35 of the 73 NFL games this season before last night's game, and only four games have been decided by 20 or more points.
Even a coach coming off his first win of the season can be optimistic.
"We've gone deep into the roster early in the season because of injuries and things of that nature," Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Jon Gruden said during a news conference yesterday. "We've been very, very competitive as a team. . . . Anything can happen.''