When the Bengals, Bills and Raiders find ways to lose, no matter how creatively, the refrain remains the same: They can't finish. But why? And how does a team learn how to win when it has been mired in mediocrity or worse for so long?
That all three teams lost their openers in the final seconds merely emphasizes the struggles they have had for just about the entire decade. And accentuates how difficult it is to turn things around.
When Tom Cable took over as coach from Lane Kiffin in Oakland, where the Raiders have compiled the worst six-year record in the league (24-72) and became the first NFL team to lose at least 11 games in six straight seasons, he got a bit unsettled by the challenge.
“I thought it was a mouse when I took over, but it really was an elephant,” Cable said.
After the opening loss to San Diego, he updated his observation.
“You feel good about playing that game last night the way we played it against that particular opponent, all those things, and that's all fine and dandy,” Cable said. “But … we didn't get it done at the end, and that's the next step.
“I think we really tasted it. Certainly going into this thing our expectations are high and they should be, but now we have to learn how to close out and win those close games. Because quite honestly in this league, when you play at a high level, almost every week's going to be like that.”
Cable meant competitive, not a close Raiders loss.
While the talent level at the top of the league — defenses in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tennessee, offenses in New Orleans, New England and San Diego — is beyond what the Raiders, Bills and Bengals have collected, those three franchises should be closer to the middle of the pack from which some playoff teams emerge. Yet, they haven't sniffed the playoffs on a regular basis in years.
Try leadership, and the offshoots from a lack of it that plague many losing clubs.
In Oakland, the problems stem from the top. Al Davis has made a series of bad moves ever since the Raiders lost in the Super Bowl in 2002, and actually before that when he forced out Jon Gruden as coach. The lack of stability on the roster and throughout the organization has been overwhelming.
In Cincinnati, ownership issues also are front and center, mostly in the way the Bengals deal with player personnel. Their drafts have been disappointing considering how high they tend to pick. And while owner Mike Brown likes giving troubled players second chances, the reclamation projects rarely have worked out.
Buffalo, a dominant franchise in the 1990s, seems to struggle with communications, an aspect of leadership that can't be underestimated. Leodis McKelvin's decision to run a kickoff out of the end zone with a five-point lead late in the game at New England never should have been in his hands. Yet, despite having perhaps the best special teams coach in the NFL, Bobby April, McKelvin did the unadvisable, and the Bills paid for it with another avoidable defeat.
It's not as if these rosters are peopled with nothing but losers, either. Bills linebacker Kawika Mitchell won a Super Bowl with the Giants two seasons back.
“We just have to be different. We can't be like the other teams,” Mitchell said of the losers' syndrome. “When I was with New York, we opened our first two games, we allowed 80 points on defense and we had to get over that fast.
“I think it's up to the leadership. We have some players in there, including myself, that have a lot experience, and we need to let everybody know that you can't sit around and think about the last one. There's no time for it.”
Nor is it productive. It's important to learn from the kind of mistakes McKelvin or the Bengals' Leon Hall made on that deflected pass on opening weekend. But to harp on them will impede progress, curtail improvement.
One team that seems to be morphing from also-ran (or worse) to success is San Francisco. The 49ers are 6-4 under Mike Singletary, and their win last Sunday at Arizona could be a signature moment for the franchise that won five Super Bowls in a bygone era, but has gone 32-64 since a 10-6 mark in 2002.
They play hard and physical — what else would anyone expect under the Hall of Fame linebacker known as much for his purposeful glare as his sideline-to-sideline pursuit. They tend to play smart. And they are growing in confidence.
“I think for us right now, the biggest thing is we put in a lot of extra work to get to this point,” center Eric Heitman said. “I think the more confident you are as a team, the better chance you have of turning things around. You build confidence through consistency. With all the extra reps we've taken in training camp, all the extra padded work we've taken, that's what's helped build that consistency.
“Coach Singletary's been a great leader. He's got this entire team behind him. He just needs guys who will work hard for him and he definitely has that with this team. Guys come together and they're willing to put in the extra work to get to where we need to be.”
The 49ers figure to get there a lot sooner than the Bills, Bengals, or their Bay Area neighbors, the Raiders.