Are the Browns the Worst NFL Team Ever?

Jason Miller/Getty Images

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.




Draft a Quarterback at Your Own Risk

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

If you think you’re having a bad week, consider this: an NFL team may risk everything next week and draft a quarterback in the first round.

To be fair, a team may draft a quarterback and make it work. After all, I’ve been wrong before. But the organization that pulls the trigger first on its franchise QB in round one better be right. If not, they could be setting themselves back for the next five to ten years. It’s sports’ equivalent of Russian Roulette, and sometimes, it’s even more of a life-or-death game.

For a look at all the teams who may be looking for a quarterback early in the draft, we must obviously start with the team that has needed one as long as I’ve been alive: the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have the first and twelfth overall selections in the draft and it would make perfect sense for them to try to trade up from the latter spot. There was a buzz in the league last week when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Cleveland is torn between Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett and North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the #1 pick. Trubisky started for one season at North Carolina and threw for 3,748 yards, 30 touchdowns, and just six interceptions. Garrett was a three-year starter at Texas A&M and looks like one of the best defensive prospects to come into the draft in a very long time. Charley Casserly, who knows a thing or two, says that Garrett is the best defensive prospect he’s seen in fifteen years. Your choice, Cleveland. Of course, the Browns could be conjecturing to get a Godfather offer for the first pick. I’m going to sincerely hope that’s what’s really going on here.

There are other teams who could potentially take a quarterback early in round one. The 49ers sit with the second pick but may trade back for more picks later in the draft. The Bears have the third pick but they signed Mike Glennon to an absurd $15-million-per-year deal earlier in the offseason and probably aren’t looking at a quarterback. The team we turn to next, then, is the New York Jets.

Bypassing the Titans and Jaguars, neither of whom should be looking seriously at a quarterback in the first five picks, the Jets represent the most likely team to fall for the QB ruse. After all, this is the team that once fell for Johnny “Lam” Jones. And Roger Vick. And Kyle Brady. And Blair Thomas. And Vernon Gholston. And Mark Sanchez. The list goes on and on.

But just remember this: GM Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles are likely in make-or-break years after last year’s 5-11 trainwreck that saw the Jets’ five wins come against four different teams with 18 wins between them. If you’re new to the NFL or mathematics, that’s not good. Drafting Trubisky, most likely the first quarterback to go off the board in this year’s draft, would be a last-ditch effort at saving both of their jobs. Incompetence, desperation, and the Jets’ needs are meeting in the exact same place. This never ends well. The Jets actually have needs at most of their positions, so drafting a quarterback makes little to no sense for them. But, if Trubisky is still available at six, don’t be stunned if the Jets pounce.

Of course, part of the Jets’ current problem is ownership. Team owner Woody Johnson will soon turn over day-to-day control of the organization to his brother once he is officially appointed as President Trump’s ambassador to Great Britain, a move that was reported as early as mid-January. It remains to be seen what attitude (and how much patience) Johnson’s brother, Chris, will have with the team. Crazy as it sounds, that may dictate what the Jets do with the sixth pick, and whether or not Bowles and/or Maccagnan are in their current roles at this time next year.

But then, there’s this: if Trubisky (or any other quarterback, i.e. DeShaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, or Patrick Mahomes) bombs in the NFL, the team that drafts him, particularly if they do so in the first round, will face major consequences.

In 2002, the expansion Houston Texans, the NFL’s equivalent of the state of Hawaii, were making their first pick in franchise history at the very top of the draft. They had a choice between North Carolina defensive end and basketball standout Julius Peppers and Fresno State quarterback David Carr. Houston’s general manager who, ironically, was Charley Casserly, chose Carr. It took the expansion Texans ten years to make their first playoff appearance; granted, part of the problem was Peyton Manning’s unwavering presence in the AFC South, but another significant part of it was the selection of Carr over Peppers. Two years later, Houston took South Carolina corner Dunta Robinson with the tenth pick in the draft. With the next pick, the Steelers took Ben Roethlisberger. To say that Casserly speaks from a place of experience on Myles Garrett is an understatement.

In 2007, the Oakland Raiders possessed the first overall pick and had a choice between LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and Wisconsin offensive lineman Joe Thomas. You know how that went. Thomas is still in the league and Johnson may be enshrined in Canton in a few years. Russell has tried and failed two comeback attempts, including one in which he offered to play on a one-year, $0 contract. No one took him up on the offer.

Of course, there are also examples of teams getting it right with quarterbacks later in the draft. For example, the 2014 Raiders took defending Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack with their fifth overall pick. The organization then waited for their second round pick and took David Carr’s brother, Derek, at pick number 36. The lesson? Instead of reaching for Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, or Teddy Bridgewater earlier in the draft, the Raiders patiently waited for the right time to draft Carr, the quarterback they had wanted throughout the draft process. While they were waiting, they may very well have drafted the best linebacker in football. Those two picks are the reason why the Raiders are currently one of the best teams in the league, no matter where they play.

That is the opportunity awaiting the Cleveland Browns next Thursday. While Garrett may be a bust, his hypothetical lack of success would be far less damaging to the franchise’s plans than someone like Trubisky’s. And if Garrett lives up to his potential, he could change the direction of the Browns’ franchise, even if they don’t resolve their quarterback situation this year. Also, don’t forget that Cleveland also has the twelfth pick and could use it on Trubisky, Watson, Mahomes, or whoever they are set on as their next franchise quarterback. Another option that exists for the Browns and every other team is to wait until later rounds to snatch a quarterback like California’s Davis Webb or Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman. The Patriots selected their franchise quarterback in the sixth round of the 2000 Draft. He’s still going, seventeen years and five rings later.

The Browns, Jets, 49ers and others have the opportunity to draft their franchise quarterback if they so choose. But they face a daunting gamble:

Get it right, and be successful for the next ten years. Choose incorrectly, and not sniff the playoffs for at least the next five.

Is that a risk worth taking? One team may be about to find out.

The Browns May Actually Know What They’re Doing

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The standards for the Cleveland Browns and their front office are not exactly high.

The Browns have made bad decision after bad decision since their return to professional football in 1999. The team has cycled through nine coaches in the last 18 seasons and only one (Butch Davis) reached the playoffs. Most amazingly, Cleveland has started a whopping 26 different quarterbacks during the franchise’s most recent incarnation, and the debate over which one was most successful is likely a two-horse race between Kelly Holcomb and Derek Anderson. The Browns have had so many quarterbacks that someone made a jersey with all of their names but retired it because, well, there was no more room. So it’s easy to understand why one would be skeptical of just about any move the Browns would make.

Their most recent decision, though, shows that they may have a clue as to what they’re doing.

Yesterday, the Texans traded 72-million-dollar quarterback Brock Osweiler to Cleveland in exchange for the Browns’ fourth-round pick in this year’s draft. The Browns also acquired a second-round pick in next year’s draft and a sixth-round pick in the upcoming draft. The move frees up $18 million in cap space for the Texans to try to get Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who happens to be a massive upgrade over Osweiler. It’s what the move does for the Browns, though, that makes this trade so interesting.

As for Osweiler’s future in Cleveland, the Browns are reportedly expected to trade or release him before the start of next season, meaning that Osweiler will never play a snap for the Browns. As for his $16 million salary in 2017, the Browns will have to pay some portion of it even if Osweiler does not play for the team this season. If he is traded, the team that acquires him will likely pay part of his salary with Cleveland footing the bill for the difference. If he is cut and signs with another team, the Browns would pay the difference between his $16 million salary for this season and his new salary (likely much lower) with his new team. And if you don’t think the Browns can pull this off, just remember that they are literally sitting on over $100 million in cap space.

So, to recap: the Browns took Osweiler’s salary off Houston’s hands, acquired two draft picks in the process, and will never have to deal with Osweiler’s mind-numbingly bad quarterback play. Not bad at all when you think of it in those terms.

Last January, the Browns hired longtime baseball executive and analytics guru Paul DePodesta to head their front office as Chief Strategy Officer. At the time, the moved seemed like a desperate shot in the dark, and frankly, it probably still is. After all, why in the world would you hire a baseball executive to head a football front office? The logic seemed shaky at best, but for a franchise that, at the time of his hiring, had won only 30.5% of its games over the course of nearly 20 years, bringing in DePodesta signified that the Browns had very little to lose.

Sure enough, just like DePodesta’s teams did in baseball, the Browns have embarked on a rather unconventional approach to rebuilding their team. In last year’s draft, Cleveland led the league with 14 selections, and this was in no small part due to their trading of the #2 overall pick to Philadelphia. The Browns have also avoided reaching for quarterbacks in both the draft and the free-agent market, and it’s hard to argue with this strategy; after all, the Browns have needs at just about every spot on their roster and reaching for another potentially disappointing quarterback would set the franchise back for years to come.

This year, Cleveland has the #1 pick in the draft. Pretty much every report out of Cleveland says that the team will take Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with their selection. Personally, I would do the exact same thing if I was Cleveland; Garrett posted one of the best Combine performances in history and looks like a surefire choice at number one, assuming he doesn’t tell the Browns he wants to play for the Cowboys. Assuming they do take Garrett, the Browns could potentially be getting a franchise-altering game-wrecker who could single-handedly improve a defense that ranked second-to-last in the league in total defense a season ago.

Yesterday’s trade pretty much falls in line with what DePodesta and General Manager Sashi Brown are building with the Browns. Acquiring Osweiler for basically nothing allowed the team to stockpile more potential assets for this season and beyond. The Browns know that they are still at least another year away from contention and their strategy of building assets for the next couple of years seems prudent. Yesterday’s trade was merely a means to that end; Osweiler has no future in Cleveland and the Browns only used him so they could acquire selections in the next two drafts.

In fact, it’s probably easier to think of yesterday’s deal in basketball terms. Many times, contending teams, particularly at the trade deadline, will trade away players to give up cap space to make other deals. The team acquiring that player will then immediately release him, as they have no real place for him on their roster. That is what the Browns are doing with Osweiler. The deal works out for everyone except Osweiler, but it’s hard to feel bad for him when it’s blatantly clear he is not worth one-third of his current salary.

This trade is one that only the Browns front office would even think of making. After all, it would probably make Sam Hinkie blush. The Browns’ strategy here is similar to Hinkie’s as GM of the 76ers; stockpile assets for the future, don’t be in a rush to win, draft well, and be very patient. Hinkie was removed as General Manager last season but many of his decisions (i.e. drafting Dario Saric and Joel Embiid) have paid off, and Philly’s new front office has reaped the benefits of Hinkie’s genius.

But Hinkie didn’t get to see his process through. Hopefully, the Browns’ front office team does.

After all, it’s clear they just may be on to something.