The problems that haunted the Miami Dolphins through their first three games did so again here on Sunday. Their defense allowed big plays against the San Diego Chargers -- plenty of big plays. The Dolphins' offense failed to convert its most effective drives into touchdowns.
Again, an opponent embarked on a late scoring drive to put a game out of reach. And again, the Dolphins lost this time a 26-16 defeat that leaves them winless through their first four games. The 0-4 start is their worst since the Dolphins lost their first 13 games in 2007 before finishing 1-15.
"I'm at a loss for words," Dolphins linebacker Kevin Burnett said afterward.
His teammates weren't. Some were subdued, like Brandon Marshall. The receiver stood in front of his locker and spoke softly, perhaps even emotionally, about a game in which he dropped two sure first-down passes one of which, he said, would have been a touchdown.
Others were more outspoken, like the veteran linebacker Jason Taylor. He challenged his teammates.
"If you don't want to be on this train, get off it," said Taylor, who admitted that he, too, needed to play better. "We're about to take a stop here for a week [for a bye week]. Feel free to get off. The guys that are on it down the stretch, we're going to go out there and play our best and hopefully get this thing fixed and turned around.
"We have zero room for error."
But errors, it seems, are what the Dolphins specialize in.
The most obvious one came late in the first quarter here at Qualcomm Stadium after backup quarterback Matt Moore playing in relief of the injured Chad Henne led the Dolphins to an early 7-0 lead. On the Chargers' ensuing drive, a blown coverage left receiver Vincent Jackson wide open.
Jackson caught a long pass from quarterback Philip Rivers, fell down and still had time to get up and run into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown.
"Big plays," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said later when asked if he could point to a couple reasons why his team is 0-4. The Dolphins allowed the Chargers five plays of at least 20 yards on Sunday. Among those were four Rivers' passes that went for at least 40 yards.
The Chargers (3-1) used the big play when they wanted early. And then, nursing a 23-16 fourth quarter lead, they controlled the clock during a 13-play, 60-yard drive that lasted more than seven minutes. That drive ended in a 38-yard Mike Novak field goal that effectively put the game out of reach.
While the Chargers did what they wanted offensively, the Dolphins once again failed to capitalize on their scoring chances. They settled for Lex Hilliard's early 1-yard touchdown run and three Dan Carpenter field goals.
That was the other problem Sparano said has most contributed to the winless start.
"We're moving the ball in the free-wheeling zone," he said. "And moved it again today in the free-wheeling zone we just didn't score touchdowns down there and we've got to score touchdowns."
But again, the Dolphins didn't. And again, they were left to explain what went wrong.
The somber scene in the Dolphins' locker room looked familiar. The words sounded the same.
"Right back to the drawing board," cornerback Will Allen said. "We've got to figure out what the [heck] is going on around here and correct those mistakes we can't keep talking about the same mistakes every week."
But there Allen and his teammates were, talking about the same things the Dolphins have been talking about after each of the past four games.