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Winless teams still have plenty to prove; what to watch in Week 5

US Presswire
(Left to right) Jim Caldwell, Leslie Frazier, Steve Spagnuolo and Tony Sparano are all captaining 0-4 teams.


The definition of true character is doing what is right when no one is watching. There are four winless teams in the NFL, and there won't be many eyeballs on them. But will the staffs of the Rams, Colts, Vikings and Dolphins do the right thing while their seasons are in peril?

Losing streaks create numerous problems. They create distractions, rumors and uncertainty. They also keep the focus off the next opponent, making it even harder to win a game. There tends to be a feeling throughout the organization of hopelessness. If everyone thinks the end is near, why waste their best effort on a losing cause? Finding another job becomes more important than spending time on the next game or meeting with the players. There is a sense that one win or two won't change the owner's mind and everyone should start packing their bags.

For the owners of these four franchises, now is the time to find out who will continue to compete at the highest level -- from the players to the coaches to the front office. Who is going to do his job as if the team's 4-0 instead of 0-4?

The first thing the 0-4 teams must do is to embrace their situations. Being angry just brings out bitterness, not solutions. No one should get caught up in the negativity or the outside pressure. Coaches should not attend a press conference and act like a beaten dog (are you listening, Tony Sparano?) as that demeanor will influence everyone in the building in a negative way.

Everything must remain as it was the first day of camp when optimism ran high. All rules and regulations must continue to be enforced. Team discipline has to remain. Each member of the organization must continue to strive for a standard of excellence and everyone has to be held accountable. The first time there is laxity in the rules, the team will start to believe the end is near and no one will care about the games. And then things go from bad to worse.

What the head coach of each of these four teams must do is maintain his level of professional ethics and continue to help others do their job. Isolation is not the answer now. Closing the door and hiding in the office will give everyone a pass to not worry about their responsibilities. Now's the time to lead, not blame anyone for the injuries, the bad decisions and all the losses.

But that said, clearly something is to blame for each one of these four messes.

» In Indy, we now have confirmation that Peyton Manning made everyone on offense better. His loss is devastating because the Colts were built on defense to rush the passer, to play with the lead and not have to go toe-to-toe each week. The defense is only good when the offense can pressure the opponent to take chances and then capitalize on their mistakes. Without Manning, the defense is exposed, as well as the depth of the team. No one is to blame in Indy, but coach Jim Caldwell must make more adjustments to his schemes. With Manning, the Colts wanted to line up in stagnant formations to allow him to read the defense. But without Manning, the Colts need more diversity in their scheme. Caldwell and his offensive staff now have the luxury to try new ideas and concepts that might be even better when Manning eventually returns.

» In St Louis, the organization thought it was getting closer. Going from one win in 2009 to seven in 2010 does indicate improvement. But what the organization failed to understand is that when the level of expectation increases, so should the level of talent. The Rams needed to be more aggressive in every area of player procurement this offseason but chose to only add a few pieces here and there. Some of the players they were counting on being good are not, like right tackle Jason Smith. What appears not to be a need becomes one when Smith plays as poorly as he has this year. The Rams also recently lost corner Bradley Fletcher and receiver Danny Amendola to injuries, two players they could ill afford to be without. The NFL is a passing league, which means the good teams must have great skill players at both receiver and corner, but the Rams are a team with marginal talent at both spots. Now they are paying a huge price for having a team with less talent and depth than is required and not much of a chance to improve.

» In Miami, the stage was set for this horrible season when owner Stephen Ross went to Palo Alto, Calif., in the offseason to recruit then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. Once that plane took off for the West Coast, the Dolphins' 2011 season was doomed. Take the poor decision of not trying to improve at quarterback plus the belief that Reggie Bush is a full-time back, and it all adds up to a bad team. Bill Walsh once said that a civil war is the ugliest war to fight, referring to organizations that have dissension in their own building. Once Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland took part in discussions involving Harbaugh, Ireland's relationship with Sparano was over, making this season tough to navigate.

» And then there are the Vikings. Minnesota actually thought it had a chance to compete for a playoff spot, but in reality the Vikings were in a state of transition. What Leslie Frazier must do in his first year as coach is find out about his young players. Determine which ones have the kind of talent to play well against top competition. The Vikings need to admit where they are, which is the first step in their rebuilding process. What separates the Vikings from the other three teams is Frazier. With a new coach there is an expectation of problems, so there is more leeway and less of a chance of the building being cleared out. Frazier must use this opportunity to his advantage. The more he thinks the Vikings are a playoff-caliber team now, the harder 2012 will become.

For all four teams, the next 13 weeks will be tough. But each organization must continue to do its job as if no one is watching because, in reality, everyone is.

The First 15

1. Week 5 could be the defining moment of the season for the Steelers. Coach Mike Tomlin put his team in pads two days this week to get back to the physical style it has been known for. If it results in a win over the Titans, all is good. If it's a loss, then we will know the Steelers just don't have the right team this year. Everyone talks about the Steelers' age on defense, but one of their young players, LaMarr Woodley, has been invisible all season. That has hurt the team more than its collective age.

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2. Cam Newton has been simply amazing. Never did I think he would be this good this early, but he has been. His play should have people in the league looking at offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski as a viable head-coaching candidate. His design of the offense, as well as Newton's incredible talent, has made the Panthers an explosive team.

3. At the quarter mark of the season, I always look at a few key statistics to gauge the execution of teams. Combining rushing attempts and pass completions is a great way to determine a team's level of execution. Any number over 51 per game is excellent. The top five: New Orleans (56.5), San Diego (54), New England (53), Philadelphia (53) and Houston (52.8). The bottom five: Jets (43.3), Seattle (41), St Louis (41), Chicago (38.3) and Indy (36.8).

4. Newton obviously is the Offensive Rookie of the Year so far, and my nod for defensive rookie honors goes to Aldon Smith of the 49ers. Last week against the Eagles, Smith looked like Charles Haley, rushing from either side. He is going to be a star.

5. I know the Packers drafted Derrick Sherrod to be their eventual starter at left tackle when Chad Clifton finally calls it a career. When right tackle Bryan Bulaga was injured, I thought it'd make sense to move Sherrod over to take over Bulaga's duties. However, the Packers chose to start Marshall Newhouse, their fifth-round pick from 2010, at right tackle. Newhouse might be the only weak link on the Packers right now.

6. Atlanta needs to get more from defensive end Ray Edwards, especially this week against the Packers. The Falcons signed Edwards to help their pass rush, ideally against the good passing teams like Green Bay. But Edwards has not looked good and needs a coming out-party for the Falcons to win Sunday night.

7. I don't think there is a guard in the league playing better than the Bucs' Davin Joseph. He has been exceptional in every game this year.

8. With Nick Fairley coming back for the Lions this week, he increases the depth in their defensive line and will help keep the star players fresh. One of those stars is tackle Corey Williams, who is playing his best football since he left Green Bay. Williams is explosive off the ball and, when fresh, he is more disruptive.

9. The Cardinals' offense has struggled in the red zone, committing three turnovers, and also on third down, converting at a 29-percent clip. Kevin Kolb needs to make plays at critical points in the game -- third down, red zone and 2-minute drill -- but so far he has failed in all three areas.

10. The Browns have only scored three first-quarter points all season and have given up 27. Colt McCoy can't throw the ball 60 times if the Browns expect to consistently win. The Browns must limit McCoy's throws by running the ball effectively and not getting behind. McCoy is not a pure passer; he needs room in the pocket and time to drive the ball down the field. His best plays come when he is on the move.

11. Have you ever heard the name Dave Ball? He is a nickel rusher for the Titans and has been playing really well this year. He only has one sack, but many pressures and has been a disruptive force for the Tennessee defense.

12. The Bengals have two starting defensive ends who were first-round talents but fell on draft day -- Carlos Dunlap went in the second in 2010 and Michael Johnson went in the third in 2009. Both were viewed as not tough enough to succeed, but both have been sensational. Dunlap led the team in sacks in 2010, and Johnson has been really impressive playing the run and rushing the passer. Both have been major steals and are two of the many reasons the Bengals have an excellent defense.

13. The Bears love to draft and sign safeties, but they never seem to solve their problems in the secondary. This year, Brandon Meriweather and Major Wright have missed too many tackles. The Bears are 27th in the NFL in allowing runs of 20-plus yards.

14. I expect the Jets to get back to their normal offense Sunday against the Patriots, but it won't be all run. Look for the Jets to rebuild the confidence of Mark Sanchez by running more bootlegs, nakeds and quick throws. He needs to stay on his feet after the beating he took last week in Baltimore.

15. My prediction is that Tebow time in Denver starts right around Halloween. The October schedule: San Diego this Sunday, then Miami and Detroit. If the Broncos lose to San Diego and Detroit and can't beat Miami, then why not Tebow time? Makes sense to me.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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