Now, it's funny. The eyes of Ted Cottrell, the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator, sparkle with the amusement of a father recalling the year his 6-year-old knocked over the Christmas tree when he describes his players' early missteps.
There was the time Cottrell looked up and saw 11 players in a defensive formation the Vikings did not have.
There was the time one player said to another, "Watch the screen," when the other team was in a formation from which it never throws screens.
And there was the time when, on consecutive plays, the Vikings had only 10 defenders on the field because of a mix-up by the linemen.
"We've had our moments when we've looked as good as any defense in this league, and some moments when we've let a guy just run around," Cottrell said at the Vikings' Winter Park training site this week. "Part of that is inexperience, more so than anything. We lined up in a couple of things and executed a couple of things we don't even have, and I go, `Where'd you get that from?"'
What else could Cottrell expect? As the fifth defensive coordinator in five years for a team that has not played consistent defense for a decade, Cottrell is mixing veterans from different systems with young players trying to establish themselves. Five starters have three or fewer years of experience, four of them in the front seven. The struggle for cohesion is reflected in the ranking of Minnesota's defense (27th); the 14 dropped or missed interceptions, by Cottrell's count; and the inability to stop the run. A running back has topped 100 yards against the Vikings the last five games.
But in beating Detroit and Jacksonville the last two weeks, the Vikings have permitted fewer yards and points in the second half than in the first, modest progress for a defense that gave up more points in the fourth quarter last season than any other quarter.
"They're starting to come lately," said Cottrell, who was the Jets' defensive coordinator last season. "It really makes me feel good, the way they're progressing."
At this point, Cottrell simply must make sure the Vikings play well enough on defense to make the playoffs, which, with quarterback Daunte Culpepper in the midst of a most-valuable-player-type season, is not asking that much.
The Vikings and the Green Bay Packers share the lead in the NFC North at 7-4. With no second-place teams in the NFC at .500, Minnesota should earn at least a wild card if it wins three of its final five games, beginning Sunday in Chicago (4-7).
If Minnesota reverses a 10-year run of defensive ineptitude -- it has not ranked higher than 13th since 1994, and finished 23rd or worse the last five seasons -- Cottrell may re-establish himself as head-coaching material. His image took a hit when the Jets fired him last season and essentially made him the scapegoat for an aging, slow defense.
"There's a part of me expected to be a head coach by now, and I hope I still get the opportunity," the 57-year-old Cottrell said. "I've got to keep working, though. Sooner or later I'll find an owner who will say yes.
"One thing you have to also remember is, you have to keep up. Whatever you're in charge of must really be performing well."
Helping Cottrell work toward his dream is cornerback Antoine Winfield, who was part of Cottrell's defense in Buffalo that was ranked No. 1 in 1999.