- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Redskins conclude their five-week tour of Skid Row on Sunday when the winless Chiefs visit FedEx Field. Which raises the question: Has shantytown in the NFL ever been more densely populated than it is right now? Or to put it another way: Has the league ever had more truly bad, paper bag-worthy teams than it does this year?

It’s entirely possible the answer is no.

Let’s do a head count. Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Tennessee and St. Louis are all 0-5. For the record, only once before in modern NFL history - in 1979, to be exact - have we reached this stage of the season with so many 0-5 clubs. Then you have 1-4 Buffalo, whose only win is over the Bucs, and 1-4 Oakland, whose only win is over the Chiefs. And we haven’t even mentioned 1-4 Detroit, which has lost 21 of its last 22.

Worst of all, Redskins fans can’t even be smug about it. Their team is the Lions’ one “W” in that hideous stretch (as well as the 1-3 Panthers’ only victim this year). That’s right, the Snydermen may not live on Skid Row, but it’s only short a cab ride from Here to There.

But back to our discussion: What’s causing this terrible blight on the NFL landscape - and who should we notify, the Department of Agriculture or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

After all, it’s been this way for several years now. Last season, there were four teams that were either 0-5 or 0-4 at the five-week mark. In 2007, there were three. In ‘06, there were four. That makes 15 clubs in the past four years that have reached this point in the schedule without a victory (or even a tie). No other four-year period has had more than 12.

So again, what gives? Has the recession/depression merely spread to the NFL? Why are we seeing such destitution in a league that hangs its helmet on parity, on leveling the playing field so every team has a shot at the grand prize? And how could this be happening in the era of free agency? Wasn’t free agency supposed to divvy up the talent even further and make the game more even-steven than ever before?

That was a popular prediction, yes. But as it turns out, free agency just gives mismanaged franchises another way to mess up. Some sign the wrong players. Some mishandle the salary cap. Some do both. In the end, though, free agency wasn’t able to prevent the Lions from becoming the NFL’s first 0-16 team any more than it was able to keep the ‘07 Dolphins, ‘01 Panthers, ‘00 Chargers and ‘96 Jets from going 1-15.

If you’re looking for something or someone to blame, you could start with expansion. Since 1995, the league has added four clubs - Carolina, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Houston (the latter two replacing franchises that had moved). Expansion means more of everything, of course, good and bad - more overtime games, more 1,000-yard rushers, more draft picks for Mel Kiper to pontificate about… and more terrible teams. There’s no escaping the math.

It’s also hard to ignore some of the ownership situations. The Raiders’ Al Davis, the Lions’ William Clay Ford, the Titans’ Bud Adams and the Bills’ Ralph Wilson range in age from 80 to, well, Wilson turns 91 on Saturday. Not to be an ageist, but… pro football is a cutthroat, cutting-edge business. How many octogenarians still have what it takes to keep pace?

In the last few years, meanwhile, the Chiefs (Lamar Hunt) and Rams (Georgia Frontiere) lost their owners - and the St. Louis franchise is currently for sale. That certainly hasn’t helped matters any for those two clubs.

Throw in several rookie coaches (Raheem Morris, Todd Haley, Steve Spagnuolo, Jim Schwartz, plus rookie-and-a-half Tom Cable) and the same number of under-development quarterbacks (Josh Johnson, JaMarcus Russell, Matthew Stafford, Trent Edwards, Matt Cassel), and you’ve got all the ingredients necessary to bake a huge batch of cupcakes. Yum.

It’ll be interesting to see, as time goes on, whether this is a temporary trend or a permanent condition in the 32-team NFL. Whatever the case, let’s not forget that horrific teams can become heroic ones rather quickly in pro football.

In 1981, Joe Gibbs’ first season, the Redskins were one of these 0-5 Have Nots we’ve been talking about. The next year they won the Super Bowl. It doesn’t always work out that way, though. The ‘54 Redskins, for instance, also started 0-5; two weeks later, after finally tasting victory, they dropped a 62-3 squeaker to the eventual champion Browns, getting outgained 515-64 in the process.

None of this year’s Winless Wonders have turned in a performance anywhere near as putrid as that. But then, it’s only October.

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