Imperfect Perfection. Just what does it mean? This is an affectionate look back at some of the worst teams in NFL history.
A Few Ground Rules
First we need to lay some ground rules. This is only for perfectly imperfect teams. Hence teams like the 1960 Dallas Cowboys don’t qualify by virtue of the tie on their 0-11-1 record.
The same rule applies for the 0-8-1 1982 Baltimore Colts who struggled their way through a strike shortened season.
I mention both as they often come up in lists of ‘worst ever’ NFL teams. For us though we are looking for perfect losing – all of the games all of the season.
Further we need a minimum number of losses in a season to celebrate this futility. How far into a season can be considered displaying ‘greatness for losing’.
I have arbitrarily set this at 10 games. Making a double digit losing season is some kind of achievement surely? Having enjoyed the WLAF and seen potentially one of the worst pro teams ever in the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks may well have influenced the 10 game rule!
Before we get to the truly great losers a shout-out to some teams my arbitrary rules have excluded.
The early NFL saw teams come and go with irregular seasons so there are a few 0-2 and 0-3 teams we can ignore.
However the Dayton Triangles futility should not be ignored. They went 0-7-1 in 1925, 0-7 in 1928 & 0-6 in 1929. They had a consecutive winless run from 1927-9 going 0-18-1 before folding for good.
Columbus football fans suffered seeing the Panhandles go 0-8 in 1922 & the Tigers go 0-9 in 1925.
The Rochester Jeffersons went a combined 0–21–2 from 1922 to 1925, but played only partial NFL schedules in those years (0–4–1, 0–4, 0–7 and 0–6–1, respectively).
Finally the short lived Cincinnati reds who only existed for 2 years. Their all-time record of 3-14-1 was built largely on their 0-8 1934 season that saw them cease operations before the season ended.
The Perfectly Imperfect NFL teams
1942 Detroit Lions
The 1942 Lions mirrored their NFL Western Division Rivals Chicago Bears who went 11-0 in the regular season (before falling to Washington in the championship game).
These Lions were shut out five times, and never scored more than seven points in any game. In fact the Lions scored only 38 points across 11 games a mind boggling 3.5 points per game!
At the same time they gave up 263 points meaning their average loss was approximately 24-3 per game.
Harry Hopp out of the offensive backfield threw sparingly going 20 for 68 with no touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
It should be noted that in the US this was the first NFL season of the Second World War.
There had been talk of suspending play, but ultimately it was decided that all professional sports should continue as morale boosters. It remains a moot point how much the Lions boosted the morale of the denizens of Detroit however!
1943 Chicago Cardinals
In a slimmed down NFL Western Division the Cards were looking to improve on their 3-8 outing in 1942. Perhaps they were ‘inspired’ by the Lions of the year before as they went 0-10 instead.
Before being much travelled as the St Louis Cardinals, Phoenix (and latterly Arizona Cardinals), the oldest team in the NFL was from Racine, a district in Chicago.
Like the Lions the season before the Cardinals looked up at the Bears taking another Division Title (this time following their 8-1-1 season with the NFL championship).
The Cardinals scored 95 points and conceded 218 over their 10 games giving them an average ppg defeat of 22-10 (allowing for rounding up).
Six different players attempted a pass for the Cards and mustered 6 touchdowns between them. Sadly they also threw 39 interceptions!
1944 The ‘Card-Pitt’ Merger
If you appended this season to the one before it (above), the Cardinals would be the only NFL team to have back-to-back full seasons without a victory.
Fortunately for the Cardinals the NFL does not see it that way. Instead over the two seasons the franchises are seen as two separate entities.
As war-time took its toll the Cardinals & Steelers merged. This was an arrangement made necessary by the loss of players to the war effort.
In fact it was the second such merger for the Pittsburgh Steelers who had merged with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1943 and finished 5-4-1 as the ‘Steagles’.
The Card-Pitt team opened their season at home before 21,000 fans and despite trailing 16-0 early were leading the Cleveland Rams late in the fourth quarter. They ultimately lost a close game 28-23 before upending the Giants in an exhibition game 17-16 the following week.
If that had not been an exhibition game we wouldn’t see them listed here of course.
Two days before the team’s second regular season game against Green Bay, starting quarterback Coley McDonough was drafted into the U.S. Army and the Card-Pitt team never again contested a close match up.
They did however see police storm the field in a match-up with Washington as a brawl broke out on the way to the the Card-Pitt team going down 42-20 (their best result of the season after the opener).
They were outscored 328 points to 108 over 10 games. An average defeat per game (allowing for rounding) of 33-11.
Card-Pitt passers had a 31% completion rate, and threw for just eight touchdowns whilst amassing 41 interceptions.
1944 Brooklyn Tigers
A Brooklyn franchise played in the NFL from 1930-1944. Right up until their last year they were the Dodgers. They only ever accumulated 4 winning seasons and 1944 was the pinnacle of their futility going 0-10 as part of a three year 5-26 run.
Unlike a lot of teams on this list the Tigers were arguably competitive at times. They lost by a touchdown or less seven times, including consecutive 3 point defeats in weeks 4 and 5 of the season.
The Tigers were outscored 166-69 over the season. Allowing for rounding an average defeat of 17-7.
As a team throwing for 3 touchdowns against 29 interceptions and averaging 2.6 yards per carry cannot have helped their cause.
1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
All of the teams we have seen so far competed in the straitened circumstances of the Second World War. In some respects we can forgive them how bad they were as they struggled for survival & to provide a distraction.
Our next team can point to the fact that they were struggling as an expansion franchise. Although it should be noted that the expansion Seahawks managed to muster 2 wins during the same season.
Where to start with the Buccaneers? They were the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to complete a winless season.
They went on to lose an NFL-record 26 consecutive games before their first win against the Saints.
Tampa were shut out five times, including in their season opener and their home opener. This was a record until 1977 when six shutouts were suffered – by the Buccaneers!
As well as being shut out 5 times in 1976, the Buccaneers didn’t score until Week 3, and never scored more than 20 points in a game.
Perhaps one of the most fondly remembered aspects of this Tampa Bay team was the acerbic wit of their coach John McKay.
If a coach were to come out with lines like “We didn’t tackle well today but we made up for it by not blocking” these days it would be a dream for reporters. He also likened coaching an expansion team to a religious experience, saying, “You do a lot of praying, but most of the time the answer is ‘no.”
In fairness to McKay he could coach. He spent 16 years at USC and delivered 4 national titles and is in the college football Hall of Fame.
The Buccaneers were outscored 412 -125 over 14 games. Allowing for rounding, an average points per game loss of 29-9.
The closest they came to success was a 14-9 defeat to Buffalo in week 3 and an agonising 13-10 defeat against the Seahawks in a week six ‘expansion bowl’ game.
2008 Detroit Lions
The 2008 Lions cannot point to the vicissitudes of war. Nor were they an expansion franchise. This was the franchise’s 79th year in the league.
They would however set a new benchmark for single season futility, becoming the first team to lose its way through an entire 16 game schedule.
The Matt Millen Effect
For Lions fans this was the ‘pinnacle’ of the much vilified Matt Millen era. As GM or President Millen oversaw 8 seasons as the Lions went 31-97.
Millen oversaw a series of disastrous drafts and free agent signings, infamously choosing wide receivers first in three consecutive drafts even as there were holes at other positions. His Free agent signings weren’t much better.
Millen was fired in September, and his replacement, Martin Mayhew, immediately began building for the future, trading star receiver Roy Williams and placing veteran quarterback Jon Kitna on injured reserve.
Even with this background it was not that obvious this was coming at the time. The year prior to this QB Jon Kitna and the Lions’ offense had the ninth-best passing attack in the league and a 7-9 record.
Kitna started the season for the Lions and they had two one-score losses in the first four weeks.
After Kitna suffered a back injury in Week 4 he missed the rest of the 2008 season. The Lions used second-year Dan Orlovsky and 32-year-old Daunte Culpepper at QB the rest of the way without much success.
The 2008 Lions were outscored 517 to 266. Allowing for rounding an average points per game defeat on the season of 32-17.
The only mitigation you could point to for Detroit was that they did not play any of the other six worst teams in the league this year.
In 2009 the Lions went 2-14 and their combined 2-30 record trumped the 2-26 record of the 76/77 Buccaneers.
Pro Football Reference has argued that, based on strength of schedule, the 2009 Lions were actually a weaker team than the 0–16 2008 Lions.
2017 Cleveland Browns
The 2017 Browns took losing to a new height. They ‘improved’ on the Lions 2 year 2-30 record by going 1-31 over two seasons between 2016 and 2017.
Because this was part of a 4-44 three year run, some analysts were left to wonder at such an achievement in a modern NFL specifically designed to encourage parity.
The Browns also became the first franchise in NFL history to have multiple seasons with 15 or more losses and the first to start consecutive seasons with at least 14 losses.
Since their return to the league the Browns have been in a cycle of despair. The maths is incredible. Their 2018 season showed promise however, and the seeds of that were in the previous seasons, including this winless year.
In mitigation of the Browns imperfect season is the fact that despite being the youngest team in the NFL and featuring a rookie quarterback for 15 starts, the Browns lost six games by one score, and went to overtime twice.
Injuries throughout the defense and along the offensive line thinned the Browns depth chart, and they faltered in every close game they played.
The worst moment came in Week 14, when Cleveland wasted a 14-point advantage early in the fourth quarter. Their largest lead of the season was blown and the Packers escaped with a win.
The 2017 Browns were outscored 410-234. Allowing for rounding an average points per game defeat on the season of 26-15.
Who Are the Worst?
There are arguments that can be made for a lot of teams on this list. We could point to the Browns 1-31 two year record as part of a two decade span of misery.
We could talk about how the 76 Bucs were a national punchline on the Johnny Carson show & were long the marker for terrible play. Or look at the wartime teams terrible offensive output.
For me it has to go to the 2008 Lions due to the lack of mitigating factors. They weren’t an expansion team, they weren’t tanking, they weren’t depleted by war.
They still went 0-16 & were outscored on average 32-17. It’s a tough year for Lions fans to look back on but it was a truly remarkable one.
Maybe you disagree? All I will say is it is all subjective & arguing over things like this is part of the joy of being a fan.
Long live the terrible teams – can’t wait to see another some day!
Banner image the 1976 Bucs in action from ESPN.
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