Deep down, I never thought Miami would lose every game last year. I have waited all my life for an 0-16 football team -- it's a hobby of mine -- and it just seemed clear the Dolphins just were not it. Oh sure, they had it going for a little while there -- 13 straight losses to start the year -- but I don't know, it always seemed like there was something a little too sturdy about those Dolphins.
Sure enough in Week 14, they put together a confusingly professional effort and beat Baltimore on a long touchdown pass from Cleo Lemon to Greg Camarillo. Those Dolphins just did not seem to have the makeup to lose them all.
Now, the 2000 San Diego Chargers, yes, that team had the wrong stuff. Those guys seemed to give up on coach Mike Riley roughly 12 minutes into the season. Plus, they had Ryan Leaf at quarterback. You can count on a team like that.
Unfortunately, after they started 0-11, the Kansas City Chiefs came to town and, because of injuries and an outdated calendar, the Chiefs started 452-year-old quarterback Warren Moon. It was a sad thing to watch in so many ways. Moon was utterly helpless -- he completed only 12 of 31 fluttery passes -- and the Chargers' John Carney made a 52-yard kick in the fourth quarter to clinch a one-point victory. The Chargers only victory, it would turn out.
The 1991 Indianapolis Colts were a beauty. Behind the rifle arm of Jeff George and the 93-year-old legs of 31-year old Eric Dickerson, the Colts scored a touchdown or less in 11 of 16 games that year. The Colts started 0-9, and seemed like the perfect combination of arrogance and incompetence to pull off the defeated season. Then, on a Sunday in November at the Meadowlands, they faced the Jets, who took the inevitable 14-0 lead. Only then the Colts rather inexplicably scored four touchdowns -- three on George passes and one on a kickoff return -- and won. By coincidence, four was the same number of touchdowns the Colts had scored ALL YEAR coming into the game.
Point is, it has never happened -- no NFL team has ever lost all 16 games it played in a single season. The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers were certainly bad enough to do it but they only played 14 games back then; the schedule did not expand until two years later. The 1982 Baltimore Colts went 0-8-1, but that was a strike year.
So, no, even though I have been rooting for it most of my life, I have never seen an 0-16 season. It didn't happen to the awful Rod Rust New England Patriots in 1990; they managed an early season win against the Colts and got outscored by 264 points the last 14 games. It didn't happen in Jimmy Johnson's first year in Dallas; that was 1989, the year his young and helpless offense was shut out three times. It didn't even happen to the 1980 New Orleans Saints, who fired coach Dick Nolan after the team started 0-12. Interim coach Dick Stanfel* coached only four NFL games, but in one of them he achieved glory, leading the Saints to a 21-20 victory over the Jets.
*Stanfel's a fascinating story. He was a Pro Bowl guard and, more impressively, a member of the 1951 San Francisco Dons team that has a claim as the greatest college football team ever. That team went undefeated and had three future Pro Football Hall of Famers on it -- running back Ollie Matson, defensive lineman Gino Marchetti and tackle Bob. St. Clair (who used to eat raw meat before games). But the greatest thing about that team is that they were invited to play in the Orange Bowl but were told the invitation came with the condition that they leave their black players at home. The team had a meeting and decided to turn down the Orange Bowl instead. Now, you tell me: How has this not been made into a movie?
All of this is a prelude to what I think is the biggest NFL question going: Do the 0-11 Detroit Lions have what it takes to go winless this season? I remained skeptical until last week when the Lions jumped to a 17-0 lead against Tampa Bay in the first quarter. Oh sure, lots of teams can blow a 17-0 lead. But what made me stop in admiration is that the Lions blew the lead BEFORE HALFTIME. That takes something special. And it makes me think that, hey, this might be the team.
The Lions, you probably know, have an amazing history. They have won one playoff game -- ONE -- since 1957. That team won the '57 championship with Bobby Layne and Tobin Rote and John Henry Johnson and Yale Lary and Dorne Dibble -- I'm hoping that from these names you can pick up that this was a long time ago.
The Lions' last winning season? That was 2000, when they went 9-7.
The last playoff win? That was 1991 against Dallas -- and they followed it up with a tight 41-10 loss to Washington in the NFC Championship Game.
The only Pro Bowl quarterback since Bobby Layne? Greg Landry, 1971.
Their most famous quarterback since Layne? George Plimpton.
The coach with the most wins? Wayne Fontes with 66 (to go with 67 losses).
And so on. The Lions have been consistent good humor for going on three decades, but they have only once before made a serious run at the Holy Grail of bad football -- the winless season. That was in 2001 under the lamentable Marty Mornhinweg*, and they started off 0-12. But the Lions won two of their last four, inspiring the team to bring back Mornhinweg for one more season (and the Lions went 3-13).
*I don't know why, but I get the biggest kick out of the fact that the last three people hired to coach the Lions are Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci and Rod Marinelli. They have some sort of crazy "M" thing going on in Detroit. You only wish that one-time Browns coach Dick Modzelewski was young enough to coach in the NFL again.
Does this Lions team have the magic to go winless? Well, maybe. They do have crucial three traits that I think a winless team needs to have:
1. An absolutely terrible defense. You want to hear an amazing statistic -- opposing quarterbacks have put up a 111.2 passer rating against the Lions. To give you an idea, only four quarterbacks in NFL HISTORY (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Steve Young and Joe Montana) have ever put up that high a rating in a season. And, you might note, the Lions have not faced any of those four. They HAVE faced J.T. O'Sullivan, Kyle Orton, Gus Frerotte and Jeff Garcia. They do face Peyton Manning and the Colts in December, which could cause the earth to explode.
Even better news is the Lions also have the worst rushing defense in the NFL.
2. Utter confusion at the top. The Lions have that. They finally -- finally! -- fired general manager Matt Millen after seven of the most remarkably awful seasons imaginable. This pleased the Detroit masses -- who had become convinced that Millen had some sort of invisible force field that prevented anyone from firing him -- but it did have a negative effect on the blossoming Detroit business of trying to find unique domain names for "Fire Matt Millen" Web sites*.
*CanMattMillen.com? BootMillen.org? StepOnTheMatt.net?VillianMillin.edu?
The Lions did keep hard-nosed coach Rod Marinelli, though, which is good because seems sufficiently goofy enough to guide a team to a winless record. Marinelli spent this week saying that he was excited about the Lions getting into the spotlight -- they play Tennessee in front of the nation on Thanksgiving Day. When Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg rather logically suggested to Marinelli that, you know, the spotlight might be a BAD thing for a team two-thirds of the way to a winless season, he responded with this:
"I guess if you're from Hostess Twinkies it would be."
Several of the CIA's best code breakers are working around the clock to try interpret what that means.
It should also be noted that the Lions defensive coordinator -- the man responsible for that amazing defense that gave up 48 points to Green Bay even though it was reported that Brett Favre gave the Lions various Packers team secrets -- is a man by the name of Joe Barry. He is, according to many, a bright young coach. He is also the son-in-law of Rod Marinelli.
3. Scheduling. The Lions have five games left. All five are against teams that still have playoff dreams. They face the Titans this week, and the Titans are coming off their first loss of the season. Then they play the Vikings at home, and the Vikings are tied for the division lead. They play at Indianapolis, and the Colts have won four in a row and look like the Colts again. They play New Orleans, the league's No. 1 offense in yards. Then they finish at Green Bay, where the Lions have not won in 17 years.
It's a good setup. This could really happen. Now it's just up to the Lions to try and finish off this disaster.
"I don't look for disaster," Marinelli said to reporters. "I look for disease." And I think these are comforting words this holiday season.