Are the Browns the Worst NFL Team Ever?

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You may be aware of this, but the Cleveland Browns are very bad at football.

On Sunday, Cleveland’s 16th loss of the season, one that came at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, clinched the team’s place in NFL infamy as just the third team in the Super Bowl era to go winless in a full season and just the second to do so over the course of 16 games. Ironically, Sunday’s tilt was one of the Browns’ better performances this season, and Cleveland had a legitimate chance to win given that none of the Steelers’ three best players (Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown) were playing.

The Browns had the ball with under two minutes to go at the Steelers’ 27-yard line on a fourth-and-two. Quarterback DeShone Kizer rolled out of the pocket and found a wide-open Corey Coleman near the sideline. Coleman, in the most appropriate ending imaginable, literally dropped the ball and let the Browns’ best chance at a 2017 win slip right through his hands. This ending to the Browns’ inglorious season is even more perfect when you consider the series of events that led to Coleman being in a position to throw away the Browns’ last chance at a victory:

  • April 21, 2016: the Browns trade the second-overall pick and a conditional fifth-round pick to the Eagles in exchange for a first-round, third-round, and fourth-round pick in that year’s draft. Philadelphia uses the second pick to select Carson Wentz, who was well on his way to being this year’s NFL MVP had he not been injured in Week 14 against the Rams.
  • Draft night, 2016: the Browns trade their first-round pick (8th overall) and a sixth-round pick to Tennessee for the Titans’ first-round pick (15th overall), a third-round selection, and Tennessee’s 2017 second-round pick. With the 8th pick, the Titans select Michigan State offensive lineman Jack Conklin, and Conklin is selected as a first-team All-Pro offensive lineman at the end of the 2016 season. With the 15th pick, Cleveland takes Corey Coleman, who has played 20 games in the last two seasons and currently has 718 career receiving yards.
  • However, because the Browns drafted Coleman, they had one too many wide receivers in training camp. To combat this problem, they decided to waive Taylor Gabriel. The Falcons picked him up shortly thereafter, and you may remember Gabriel for completely dusting Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler before all hell broke loose in Super Bowl LI.

All of this, of course, happened before Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown was mercifully axed on December 7 after nearly two years on the job. We could devote another four or five full posts to his front office’s incompetence, but just know that they were driven by analytics (or something) and had no idea what they were doing or why they were doing it, which partially explains why they traded out of first-round picks that other teams used to draft Carson Wentz, Jack Conklin, and DeShaun Watson in the span of two years. Even worse, Brown was hired to run the front office by Paul DePodesta, the team’s “chief strategy officer”. So yes, the Browns owe their current incompetence to the guy Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball was based on. I don’t know if that’s bad, but I don’t think it’s good.

With all of this being said, however, the Browns are not, in terms of talent or statistics, the worst team in NFL history. That title still belongs to the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The 1976 Buccaneers were a brand-spanking-new expansion franchise coached by former USC legend John McKay. And by all accounts, McKay was less than thrilled in his new situation; this is a real quote he gave to Sports Illustrated about the difference between coaching in college and the NFL:

I don’t know what this pro football mystique is. I’ve gone to the pro camps. They throw the ball, they catch the ball. Many of them are ex-USC players. I’m not amazed at what they do. I’ve watched the pros play. They run traps, they pitch the ball, they sweep. What else is there?

What ensued in the 1976 season would not surprise you; the Buccaneers lost every game en route to an 0-14 record, becoming the first team in the Super Bowl era to pull off that feat. The team still holds the record for the worst point differential in NFL history (-287) and was shut out in six of its 14 games. Additionally, the Bucs lost each game by an average of nearly 21 points; this was before the era of high-flying offenses and consistently good quarterback play. Speaking of quarterbacks, Tampa Bay was spearheaded that season by former Heisman Trophy winner and future NFL and college head coach Steve Spurrier.

But the Buccaneers were an expansion team that was expected to be terrible. Tampa Bay followed the franchise arc you would expect from an expansion team; they didn’t get their first win until the penultimate week of the 1977 season, but by 1979, they were in the playoffs. McKay and his zany persona left Tampa Bay after 1984, but he made two more playoff appearances before leaving the job. The Buccaneers knew what was ahead of them and, in some ways, made the best of their situation. The same cannot be said about the Browns.

The Browns were terrible for the sake of being terrible. Their front office had no plan for success and they also had the talent-evaluating abilities of most of their fans. They had multiple chances to fix their quarterback situation over the past two seasons; instead of doing so, the best answers they came up with were DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan, Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler, and Robert Griffin III. If those are your “answers”, don’t even show me the question.

You could make a case for the 2008 Detroit Lions as the worst team in the history of the NFL, and that would make sense. They had a worse point differential than this year’s Browns and had one more double-digit loss than Cleveland did this season. However, Detroit started three different quarterbacks that season, and not by choice, as starting signal-caller Jon Kitna was placed on IR just five games into the season. The next week, backup QB Dan Orlovsky started for the Lions and gave us one of the dumbest and funniest plays in the history of sports when he ran out of the back of the end zone in a game against the Vikings. In case you were wondering, the final score in that game was 12-10 in favor of Minnesota, which means that Orlovsky forgetting any and all concept of location was the difference in that game.

When the Lions figured out that Orlovsky was not up to the task of being an NFL starting quarterback, the team signed former Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper. Culpepper, despite having Calvin Johnson in Detroit, was not the same player he was in Minnesota, and he injured his shoulder in Week 14, forcing the guy who forgot where he was to start the last three games of the year. Shockingly, the Lions won none of the games started by Culpepper or Orlovsky. The year before, Kitna started every game and the team went 7-9. No one could have foreseen Detroit being that bad, and part of their futility was due to circumstances beyond their control. While none of this excuses the fact that they went an entire season without winning a game, it does at least somewhat explain why it happened.

The Browns’ explanation for their lack of success is simple: their roster was mostly devoid of talent and lacked leadership at quarterback. After Sunday’s loss, coach Hue Jackson boldly declared that no one else could have done the job he did, which is further proof that some jokes write themselves. Before the season, Jackson also said he would jump in Lake Erie if the Browns went 1-15 for the second season in a row. The good news is he won’t have to that; the bad news is that only the Cleveland Browns could make 1-15 look like a high water mark.

Cleveland needs a quarterback. The leader in passing yards for this incarnation of the Browns is Tim Couch, and he wasn’t good at all! In case you weren’t sure of how the Browns have tried to fix the quarterback position through the draft, here is a list of all the QBs that Cleveland has taken since 1999:

  1. Tim Couch (1999)
  2. Spergon Wynn (2000)
  3. Luke McCown (2004)
  4. Charlie Frye (2005)
  5. Brady Quinn (2007)
  6. Colt McCoy (2010)
  7. Brandon Weeden (2012)
  8. Johnny Manziel (2014)
  9. Cody Kessler (2016)
  10. DeShone Kizer (2017)

This list says nothing of the fact that the Browns have trotted out 28 different starting quarterbacks since 1999. They need to fix the position, but it’s hard to do that when you have the reputation of a team that screws up every quarterback you’ve ever had. If you want an example of irony, in the new Browns’ only playoff game, their starting quarterback, Kelly Holcomb, threw for 428 yards. Go figure.

This is why I would argue for this year’s Browns as the worst team in NFL history. The Lions made the playoffs three years after going winless because they drafted Matt Stafford in the subsequent draft (Stafford is still their starting quarterback). The Lions found their way out of the mess they were in by drafting Stafford and building around him. From 2011 to 2016, Detroit went to the playoffs three times while the Browns went 24-72. The Lions have now gotten to the point where they can fire their head coach for going 9-7 and not look like complete idiots.

The 2017 Cleveland Browns may not technically be the worst team in the history of the NFL; that is a title the 1976 Buccaneers may own forever. But due to circumstances they can only attribute to themselves, they may very well be the most pathetic. The reason is that being successful in the NFL, just like in baseball, is a process, one that no other team in the history of the sport has ever executed this poorly.

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