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WEEK 12 IN THE NFL

Taunts of Success Too Much to Bear

November 21, 2000|MIKE PENNER

The Saints, having taunted all of New Orleans and its surrounding bayous with a 7-3 start, lose Ricky Williams for the season one week, Jeff Blake the next and now have no choice but to turn the stretch drive over to a rookie named Aaron Brooks and his learner's permit.

The Chargers, having teased all of San Diego and its surrounding bays with six fourth-quarter leads, have blown them all, most recently a 34-17 advantage Sunday in Denver, and are 0-11, going on the league's first 0-16 regular season.

Gimme a U, gimme an L, gimme a C-E-R!

What's that spell?

A dirty, nasty habit Los Angeles was fortunate to have kicked five years ago.

Who needs this kind of gut-ravaging weekly torment, this head-butt-against-the-living-room-wall anguish?

We, the NFLess, are not deprived. We are the lucky ones. Sure, we do not have an NFL team. But we do have 72-screen sports bars and DirecTV's "Sunday Ticket" and, most important, peace of mind.

Who among us today would trade places with fans in New Orleans, where optimism has been crushed, hope dashed and the prospect of another season without a playoff victory now banging on the roof of the Superdome?

(Hmm, let's see: Bananas Foster for breakfast at Brennan's, jambalaya at Mother's for lunch, the turtle soup at Commander's Palace for dinner, followed by a Hurricane chaser at Pat O'Brien's. OK, I could probably sit through five weeks of Aaron Brooks incompletions for that.)

Who among us today would trade places with fans in San Diego, where the only thing standing between the Chargers and all-time NFL infamy is Ryan Leaf? (Not me. I can buy all the fish tacos I need up here.)

And while we're sitting here asking ourselves all these existential questions, let us ponder a weighty one: Which fans are getting the rawer deal--the Saints' or the Chargers'?

Is it better to have had a winning combination and lost it than to have never won at all?

The Saints were 7-3 with Blake handing the ball to Williams--and are now 0-1 with Brooks finishing up handing the ball to Chad Morton. Veteran running back Terry Allen is on his way, but so is Billy Joe Tolliver, signed by the Saints to back up and "mentor" Brooks, as if the poor kid didn't already have enough obstacles to hurdle.

The Chargers, by contrast, are winless with anybody handing the ball to anyone. Their 9-6 season-opening loss to Oakland was a bell-ringer and a bellwether. What has followed has been an NFL record assault on basic decency:

* Most losses in a season after leading in the fourth quarter: Six.

* Most losses in a season by two points or fewer: Four.

* Second-most losses in a season by three points or fewer: Six (one fewer than the 1994 Houston Oilers).

Asked if he could explain why his team can't hold a fourth-quarter lead, especially one that was 17 points--and still was 13 with 7:13 to play--in Denver, Charger running back Terrell Fletcher replied, "I can't."

Which is now the working title for the Chargers' 2000 season-in-review video.

Saint Coach Jim Haslett, however, was more defiant in the face of post-defeat questions about the loss of his two best offensive players in consecutive weeks.

"What do you want us to do, quit?" Haslett shot back. "You want us to walk off the field?"

Pollsters in San Diego plan to ask Charger fans those same two questions in a survey. "Yes" has been established as an early eight-point favorite.

All told, Sunday No. 12 in the NFL was a big day for extremely depressing statistics.

How about Bruce Armstrong surpassing Julius Adams as the New England Patriots' all-time leader in games played with 207? To put it in less abstract terms, that's 14 years of hard labor, including six seasons with 10 or more losses.

Armstrong ordinarily doesn't talk to reporters after Patriot games, but the man has his reasons.

"I don't like losing, never have," explains Armstrong, who dislikes talking about losing even more.

He was prodded into the interview room after his record-breaking performance only because New England had defeated Cincinnati, 16-13.

Would he have come if the score had been reversed?

"Hell no," Armstrong said, managing a rare Sunday afternoon grin.

Good thing record-breaking No. 207 came up Sunday. Next for the Patriots: a Thanksgiving stuffing at Detroit, Armstrong back inside the cone of silence.

At Tennessee, Cleveland became the first team since 1987 to have seven takeaways in a game and still lose. This the Browns accomplished by intercepting three of Titan quarterback Steve McNair's passes, recovering four Tennessee fumbles, still failing to score until the third quarter and eventually losing, 24-10.

Footnote: The last time an NFL team lost a game as its opponent committed seven turnovers, that team consisted of strike replacement players.

Footnote II: Truth be told, the Browns' 2000 roster looks strikingly similar to a 1987 strike replacement roster.

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