Bengals' quest for winless season is historically more daunting than going 17-0

Ron Borges

With the fall of the previously undefeated San Francisco 49ers Monday night, only one NFL team remains with a chance to post a perfect season. If the Cincinnati Bengals can find a way to lose seven more games they will have performed a feat more daunting than what the 49ers were hoping to accomplish.

Since 1934, four NFL teams have finished the regular season undefeated. Since 1946 only three managed to do the reverse.

To go undefeated in the NFL is a difficult task to be sure, and to go the entire year unblemished is damn near impossible. Only the 1972 Dolphins ever managed to take it that one step farther, winning Super Bowl VII to cap a perfect 17-0 season. Yet the historic truth is that it is more difficult to go “0-for” than to go 17-0.

From 1946 to the present, only the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 2008 Detroit Lions and the 2017 Cleveland Browns managed to lose every game. While there were several more during the talent-depleted World War II years, they have to be discounted because talent was so thin some teams had to merge to stay afloat while others folded before the end of the season.

So those post-World War II stumble bums seem to argue that by a slight margin (one team) it is more difficult to lose every game in the NFL than it is to win every game.

Certainly two others – the 1960 expansion Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Colts in the strike-shortened 1982 season – nearly put up perfect goose eggs as well. By contrast, there have been 10 teams since the 14-game schedule was introduced in 1961 that LOST only one game, six of them going 15-1. So it seems what the Bengals are trying to do – or, hopefully, not trying to do – is a more Herculean feat than chasing the long shadow of the ’72 Dolphins.

Try as they might, the 1960 Cowboys came up short of the Bengals “quest’’, their blemish being a stunning 31-31 tie against the New York Giants in the next-to-last game of the season that left them with a 0-11-1 record in Tom Landry’s first season as a head coach.

As for the 1982 Colts, they managed to fumble away history with a 20-20 tie against the Green Bay Packers in front of a home crowd of barely over 25,000 witnesses on Dec.19, 1982, thus ending their pursuit of reverse perfection at 0-8-1.

This week beleaguered first-year Bengals’ head coach Zac Taylor said that, “This league is hard. It’s very unforgiving sometimes, and we’re facing that right now. What we do know is that this is the toughest stretch we’re going to go through in our next 20 years here. This is going to be the toughest one.

“We find out a lot about the character of the people in this building and what the approach is going to be so we can look back on this and say that it made us stronger, because we faced the hardest it was ever going to be — the most adversity we ever faced.’’

Well wait a minute, Zac. You do get to play the lowly Jets and Dolphins (2-7) over the next seven weeks, as well as twice facing the nearly as lowly Browns (3-6). To reach reverse perfection Cincinnati also must lose to the 5-4 Raiders and 5-4 Steelers, which doesn’t seem all that daunting either.

Of course, there are also the 8-1 Patriots, as well, but losing to New England should be easy enough and a trip to the West Coast this weekend could tucker out the Bengals enough to keep their streak alive for another week. But can they not slip up by not slipping up against that array of NFL bottom feeders?

That is their challenge. That is their quest. Or is it?

After a 49-13 loss to the Ravens last weekend, defensive end Carlos Dunlap called his team’s performance “disgusting’’ and "embarrassing.’’ Who could argue with him when you considered that the Ravens could have beaten Cincinnati without using their offense. Their defense scored two touchdowns.

Now that’s “embarrassing.’’

Can they hold off the Jets and Dolphins too and thus join history’s basement elite as the fourth team since 1946 to go utterly defeated for the season? If they do, Cincinnati will get the first pick in the draft as a reward for their pain. That’s a coveted spot that not even a team that was clearly tanking – the Dolphins – appears able to prevent Cincinnati from “winning.’’

Yet as grim as it looks in Bengals’ country, remember this: NFL history says it is harder to go 0-16 than it is to go 16-0.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

Those 3 winless/tieless teams are all more recent than the 1 undefeated team in the Super Bowl era though. Still, your essential point that being winless is historically rare is well taken. The Dolphins had momentum but blew their chance by winning a couple of games.

I suspect Miami tanked their quest for a winless season because they already have so many high draft picks and they wanted to lower this one a few spots for contract reasons.

The 1960 Cowboys actually did well to tie a game and win some starting with the next season's opener when you consider that in their expansion year they had to start a year ahead of schedule to compete with the AFL Texans and didn't even get to participate in the regular draft, let alone get all the extra picks and special perks later expansion teams got. Dallas only got an "expansion" draft from existing rosters where each team was allowed to protect all but a few of their players, leaving mostly dregs. They actually had to fill out their roster with walk ons.

NFL Stories