Turning around 0-3 has been done before, but not often
Maybe Bobby Ross wasn't smart enough to know any better. Maybe he was so new to the professional game that he didn't recognize the hole he was in. But the first-year coach of the Chargers had a funny feeling after his team lost its fourth straight game to open the 1992 season, a 27-0 clobbering at the hands of the Oilers.
"I felt very confident,'' Ross said.
It turned out he had a reason to be. The Chargers went on to become only the third team since the NFL merger to make the playoffs after starting 0-3 or worse, winning 11 of their next 12 regular-season games. Only two other teams have overcome such a sluggish start since. To this day, the Chargers are the only team to rise from such ashes to win a postseason game.
So why Ross' confidence?
The Chargers had new quarterback Stan Humphries starting to catch on to the system and young leaders such as Junior Seau and Courtney Hall. Still . . .
"We were terrible,'' Ross said of that fourth loss in Houston. "We didn't score a point. It was really bad. But I talked to the players, I said 'We've got a plan, and we're going to stick with it come hell or high water. If it's going to sink us, we'll go down, but we'll go down together. But I really believe that if we do these things and take it one game at a time, then we've got a shot.' ''
The Giants are dangling over the same early pit of despair. As they try to turn their season around Sunday in Kansas City -- coming off a lopsided shutout loss, just like the Chargers -- some of those who have been a part of teams that went from 0-3 or worse to the playoffs can offer advice for how to overcome such a slow start.
"The biggest thing was that we just didn't panic,'' Ross said. "I tried to be as relaxed with them as I could be. I didn't get uptight with them. We're not going to panic, we're just going to keep our poise and play one game at a time and see how things work out. Fortunately, they came out well.
"It wasn't anything profound. I wish I could say it was, but it wasn't.''
The first post-merger team to about-face from an 0-3 start was the 1981 Jets.
Greg Buttle, a linebacker on that team and now an analyst for SNY, said there was no seminal moment when he realized that the Jets were heading in the right direction.
"The only way you feel it turn around is when all of a sudden you're not 0-3 but you're like 6-3 or 7-3 and you're like, 'Wait a second, that's pretty good,' " he said.
"You can't just snap your fingers and be 3-3,'' said Marty Lyons, who was a defensive lineman on that team and now a radio broadcaster for the Jets. "You have to start believing that you can turn this thing around and you have to take it game by game, week by week. If you start to forecast on a piece of paper -- this is a win, this is a win -- it's gonna bite you in the backside.''
Giants coach Tom Coughlin has been preaching some of the same points to his team that Ross said were keys to his message nearly 20 years ago.
"We emphasized full effort,'' Ross said. "Complete and full effort. I'm not talking about good effort. I'm talking about full and complete effort.''
Ross also said he didn't show any negative plays to the team, but if there were mistakes on the practice field, he would have the players run it again until it was right.
"And then I talked about them staying together,'' Ross said. "I said: 'Look, we're getting a lot of bad pub.' And we did . . . I told them it wasn't a time to panic, it was a time to stay together.''
The statistics are pretty glaring for 0-3 teams. Between 1990, when the current playoff format was adopted, and 2012, 115 teams started a season with three straight losses. Three of them made the playoffs, none since the 1998 Bills.
"You can't ever count yourself out,'' Lyons said. "Statistics might say 0-3 teams don't make it to the playoffs, but there's always an exception, and if I'm in the locker room, I'm saying: 'We're going to be that exception.' "
Many of those teams were 0-3 for a reason. Their inferiority came as no surprise. But then there are teams that truly believe in championship aspirations but stumble out of the starting blocks. For them, a slow start is much more piercing.
"Every player on every team knows, if you start 0-2 or 0-3, your chances of making the playoffs are slim, let alone going to a Super Bowl,'' Buttle said. "They know what's at stake. They don't have to read it in the paper, they don't have to be reminded by their children when they go home. 'Hey Dad, you guys [stink]!' You know what you have to do. The question is, can you do it?''
The question is, can the Giants do it?
"I think they have the tools to get out of it,'' Lyons said. "I think they have the talent, I think they have the leadership, I think they have the coaching staff to turn this thing around. It's going to take week in and week out doing the little things to make sure you crawl your way back in.''
"I really do think they can get it turned around,'' Ross said. "But they have to believe it, too. If they don't, they won't get it done.''
Buttle allowed for the possibility that the Giants might do everything right for the rest of the season and the effort will still fall short. That's something they'll find out in the coming weeks and -- if they can hang on long enough -- months. Because from where they are now, there are only two ways their season can go.
"They're on the edge of the precipice and they'd better understand that there is no hanging on,'' Buttle said. "It's only falling off or winning. There is no in between.''