- Even if Cleveland completes its ignominious winless campaign, it won't be the worst team ever. A writer who covered the only 0–16 team in NFL history from start to finish is confident that Detroit's historic futility is safe.
The Cleveland Browns are an awful, unwatchable mess, and they may finish this season at 0–16, which would tie them with the 2008 Lions for the worst record in NFL history. I’m not impressed. Well, I guess I’m not supposed to be impressed.
When it comes to the title of worst team in NFL history, the Browns are posers. Frauds. Don’t-wannabes. I consider myself the official historian of those Lions—three other people applied for the job, but they were rejected for being overqualified—and as the Browns inch backward toward 0–16, I want all of Cleveland to know: I’m not buying what you’re not selling.
The Lions were worse.
I don’t mean they were worse on the field, though that may be true. Those Lions were bad at almost everything. They were 30th in the league in offense and 32nd in defense. They lost 38–14 at home to a Jaguars team that would finish 5–11. They were the Tom Bradys of not playing like Tom Brady.
But comparing the teams on the field misses the point. When you finish 0–16, then by NFL standards, you stink. The Browns stink. I will grant them that.
The real reason the Lions were worse than the 2016 Browns is that the Lions were trying to win.
I mean, of course the players on both teams tried to win—that Lions team played hard, and I’m sure this year’s Browns play hard. But as an organization, these Browns basically punted on 2016. The Browns have 19 rookies, including one from Harvard and another from Princeton, so if nothing else, they should lead the league in finding tax shelters. The Browns put Sashi Brown and Paul DePodesta in charge, hired Hue Jackson as coach, traded the second pick in the draft for a bunch of others and are essentially tanking.
They are the NFL’s version of the 76ers. I don’t fault them for this approach—the Browns have acquired so many draft picks that they are pretty much guaranteed to be a solid team by 2018, and if they find a quarterback, they could become a contender. But you can’t even call ’16 a big failure for them, because they were built to fail. This was a tear-down.
Those 2008 Lions were supposed to be the opposite of a tear-down. They were supposed to be move-in ready, but then they showed up to put their keys in the front door and realized there was no house there.
I was a columnist for the Detroit Free Press at the time, and as the season wore on, I often joked that they were trying to lose. (My slogan for their 0–16 quest: Nothing is possible.) But I was just joking. Anybody could see that they went into that season planning to win.
Matt Millen was in his eighth year of running the team. Even with the Lions, where time moves so slowly it is in danger of moving backward, Millen knew he was running out of time. He had tried everything—hiring a hot young coordinator (Marty Mornhinweg, who was meant to be a coordinator), hiring a proven head coach (Steve Mariucci, who had apparently proven enough and lost his fire in Detroit), drafting receivers in the first round, drafting other receivers in the first round.
Millen finally decided he needed a coach that players liked and respected. He hired Rod Marinelli. And players loved Marinelli.
In Marinelli’s second year, 2007, the Lions went 7–9. That might not sound like much to you—Bill Belichick’s cocker spaniel could go 7–9. But this was a big deal in Detroit. It earned the Lions a little respect and the chance to blow a less valuable draft pick. Things were looking up.
So the Lions had a coach entering his third year and a general manager in his eighth. They were done waiting. And this is where the Lions really did their best/worst work. They fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz, which was defensible, and replaced him with Jim Colletto, whose schemes were defensible. They kept Marinelli’s son-in-law, Joe Barry, as defensive coordinator. They traded their most talented player, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, because they didn’t like his attitude.
They expected this to work.
And in the preseason, they went 4–0. This also may not impress you, and it shouldn’t. But it added to the sense of optimism. The Lions were tougher. Their coaches were on the same page. They believed.
Before the season began, Marinelli said, “All I can tell you is, I like what I’ve seen so far.” And nobody laughed!
Defensive tackle Cory Redding told the Detroit News: “We’re done molding folks, we’re done trying to get guys to develop. If you’re not developed now, you need to be out of here. Right now, we’re doing some great things.” And again, nobody laughed!
It’s not that people expected the Lions to be good. But they looked primed for some healthy mediocrity. I just looked back at a bunch of predictions for that season. I predicted 6–10, and I was on the pessimistic end.
Then the season began, and it became clear very quickly that mediocre was a pipe dream. After 15 minutes, the Lions trailed the Falcons 21–0. They lost by 13. Then they lost to the Packers by 23. Then they lost to the 49ers by 18.
The ship never even took on water. It just vanished. Millen finally got fired. Quarterback Jon Kitna, who was loyal to Martz, was placed on injured reserve, mostly because the Lions didn’t want to look at him anymore.
The Lions traded receiver Roy Williams to the Cowboys for draft picks, but that was partly because they had a better receiver, a guy named Calvin Johnson, on the roster. The Lions were still trying to win. It was hard to tell sometimes. Kitna’s replacement, Dan Orlovsky, infamously lost track of where he was in Minnesota … well, he knew he was in Minnesota. He just didn’t realize he was stepping out of the back of the end zone for a safety. The Lions lost, 12–10.
Now people were laughing. But that was the first of four relatively close losses, which dropped the Lions to 0–7. It had become clear: Marinelli was a defensive line coach or coordinator who was over-promoted to head coach. Colletto was an offensive line coach who was over-promoted to coordinator. Barry was over-promoted from son-in-law.
At 0–7, teams may give up—if not individually, then collectively. But not the Lions. They were still trying to win. They signed former Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper (to a two-year contract!) and gave him five starts. Shockingly, a quarterback who was available in midseason could not save the team. But hey, Culpepper tried.
By midseason, 0–16 felt likely. By Thanksgiving, when Jeff Fisher’s Titans beat the Lions 47–10, it felt inevitable. The Lions kept competing, and they still liked Marinelli, who managed to keep his dignity and grace while people like me kept mocking the franchise. But it was hopeless.
And when it was over, they had a new general manager (admittedly, promoted from within), a new coach, the No. 1 pick, and an understanding they had to start over. They were built to win, and they won nothing. It was the worst season in NFL history. The Browns can match the 2008 Lions’ record. But they can never match the failure.