Big winners, big losers not normal for NFL

It's clear that there are some odd happenings around the NFL this year. Through four weeks of the season, there are five unbeaten teams and six winless clubs — the highest percentage of defeated and undefeated teams at this stage in 21 years, according to Football Outsiders, a Web site devoted to statistical analysis of the NFL.

It's an aberration for a league that prides itself on the competitive parity among its teams.

"It's been an unusual year," former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "Let's put it that way."

Just about everything in the NFL is set up to promote competitive balance. The 32 franchises share revenues to a high degree, keeping a team in tiny Green Bay on relatively even financial footing with a club in New York. The clubs' spending on players is regulated by a salary cap. The draft gives the highest selections in every round to the teams with the worst records, and the scheduling format makes things tougher for the clubs coming off better seasons.

And yet, two seasons ago the Patriots became the first team to go 16-0 in a regular season. Last season, the Lions became the first club to go 0-16 in a season. And now, the large number of undefeated and winless teams one-quarter of the way through this season is raising the eyebrows of some knowledgeable observers.

"I think it's too early to tell on the 4-0 teams," Charley Casserly, former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager and a former member of the league's competition committee, said by phone last week. "The schedule can have something to do with that. But I think with a lot of the 0-4 teams, they are what they are. They're rebuilding and they're going to be battling for the No. 1 pick in the draft.

"It just seems this year that there are more teams in that rebuilding mode right off the bat than you usually have. That's just my impression. Someone said to me, 'Go back and look at last year.' I haven't done that. But to me, there are more teams than normal that will be fighting just to get one or two wins all season."

The Giants, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts are 4-0. The Rams, Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans are 0-4. The Panthers, coming off their bye week, are 0-3.

Theismann said the Titans and Panthers, who are a combined 0-7 after going 25-7 last season, are "not bad football teams, but they're getting bad performances."

"It's not systematic. There is parity in the league," Theismann said in a telephone interview. "Remember, it's the first month of the season. I don't put a lot of credence into where you are four weeks into the season, unless you're 0-4. But where we are right now, it is unusual."

The reasons aren't entirely clear. Theismann said some teams are thriving in part because there has been more good play at quarterback than has been on display league-wide in quite some time. Some clubs are struggling, Theismann said, because "you have some organizations that have not kept pace," suggesting that some teams have not demonstrated the ability to consistently pick the right coaches and players and maneuver through the complexities of the salary cap system.

Yet it's not, to a large extent, a matter of the same teams winning and the same clubs losing from one season to the next. Few expected the Titans and Panthers to be winless at this point. Perhaps even fewer expected the Broncos to be undefeated after a turbulent offseason that included trading away quarterback Jay Cutler following his clash with the organization and with Josh McDaniels, the club's first-year coach. The Saints are coming off consecutive mediocre seasons.

"I'm not sure I would draw any conclusions about the 4-0 and 0-4 teams yet at this early point in the season," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last week. "If you look at the games, they're more competitive than ever. I think the competitiveness of the league is extraordinarily high right now. You can go from winning to losing very quickly."