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07 Dec 2004

Skin of the Teeth: The Worst Playoff Teams Ever

by Michael Tanier

In New York and St. Louis, fans still have their fingers crossed. Hope is still alive in Tampa, in Dallas, even in Detroit and Chicago. It's likely that an 8-8 (or worse) team will make the playoffs in the NFC, and that has fans filling the radio talk shows with pipe dreams when they should be checking their basketball schedules.

Their teams -- the Rams and Seahawks, Giants and Cowboys, Bears and Buccaneers and maybe even the Lions, Cardinals, and Panthers -- are mediocre, stumbling also-rans. But there's still a chance: run the table, get a few breaks, and make the playoffs, presumably to be hammered by the Packers. It's like Monty Python's "Twit of the Year" skit: they're dead, but they aren't necessarily out of it.

This year's weak crop of playoff hopefuls got me wondering about the worst teams ever to make it to the playoffs. Who were the worst teams ever to make the postseason? How bad were they? Did they do anything once they reached the playoffs? I was also curious about what happened in subsequent years. Giants fans, for example, might be realistic about their chances this year, and they would shrug off a token Wild Card bid and a first-round loss. Those fans are more interested in Eli Manning and the team's future. Does history tell us that the weakest playoff teams are up-and-coming squads, or are they one-year flukes who really didn't belong in the postseason?

1978 Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1)

The search for the worst playoff teams really starts in 1978, the first year that the playoffs were expanded to include two Wild Card teams. Before playoffs expanded to that level, a team had to be pretty good to make it in. Ironically, the first of the true postseason weaklings wasn't a Wild Card team but the winner of a truly mediocre division.

The Vikings and Packers each finished 8-7-1 that season, while the Lions and Bears checked in at 7-9. The Vikings were 5-2-1 in the division, helping them to a title despite the fact that they were outscored overall 294-306.

A 10-10 tie against the Packers on Thanksgiving weekend helped the Vikings clinch the division. The Vikings won the first meeting between the two teams, but the Packers would eventually have a better division record (the Vikings had lost to the 5-11 Buccaneers early in the year). A win might have given the Packers the division. Green Bay led 10-3 with under two minutes to play, but Fran Tarkenton led a 57-yard drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Rashad to force overtime. Both teams missed field goals in overtime, and the Vikings emerged with a better head-to-head record.

The Vikings were 7-5-1 after that game and looked like a legitimate playoff team, but after a tight win against the Eagles, the team lost their final two games, including a 45-14 blowout at the hands of the Rams. The weak finish foreshadowed a quick exit from the postseason. The Rams beat the Vikings in the opening round of the playoffs 34-10, outgaining Bud Grant's team 409-244.

Were those Vikings an up-and-coming team? Just the opposite: they were a perennial Super Bowl contender on their way down. They had talent, but players like Tarkenton (38 years old), Carl Eller (36), Jim Marshall (40), Mick Tingelhoff (38) and Paul Krausse (36) were on their last legs. The Vikings had spent the early part of the 1970s beating up on the NFC Central the way the Eagles are crushing the NFC East this year; in 1975, the Vikings went 12-2, and no division opponents was above .500. In 1977 and 1978, they started falling back to earth. Until the Bears rose in the mid 1980s, the Central became what Chris Berman would later call the "Norris Division," a bunch of .500 teams that often provided the NFC with its playoff weak sister.

1982 Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions (4-5)

The 1982 strike wiped out a huge part of the season and forced the league to alter its playoff format. The NFL playoffs became a hockey-style tournament of 16 teams, so it makes sense that some real dubious qualifiers would make the cut. The 1982 Browns and Lions were the only teams in modern history to qualify for the postseason with a sub-.500 record, and they get a labor-related asterisk beside their names.

First, the Lions: probably the better of the two teams. They won their first two games before the strike, then dropped three straight upon their return to action. They were 3-5 entering the final week of the year and needed a win against the Packers to beat the Giants and Saints in the tie-breaking formula. The Packers led 24-20 in the fourth quarter, but Lions FB Ron Rubick scored on a one-yard run to clinch a playoff birth. As the #8 seed in that year's format, the Lions got to face the Redskins. The team that would eventually win the Super Bowl forced five turnovers and led 24-0 at halftime en route to a 31-7 win.

Now on to the Browns. They finished third in the four-team AFC Central. During the regular season, they were blown out 31-14 by the Cowboys, 30-13 by the Chargers, and 23-10 by the Bengals in the span of three weeks. Opponents outscored them 140-182. They qualified for the playoffs because they beat another 4-5 team, the Seahawks, 21-7 in the season opener and held a tiebreaker over yet another 4-5 team, the Bills. In the opening round of the playoffs, they met the 8-1 Raiders. The Browns only trailed by three at halftime, but they allowed 14 unanswered points in the second half and lost 27-10.

The Lions and Browns were the worst teams ever to make the playoffs, but while their circumstances were unusual, they are reminiscent of this year's .500 hopefuls. Their best bet is to emerge from a 7-8 quagmire with a late victory and a good resume in tiebreakers. Like the Lions and Browns of 1982, this year's playoff wannabes aren't good teams on a backslide; their poor teams hoping for a miracle.

What became of those 1982 teams? The Lions looked like a team on the verge in 1982, featuring talented players like Billy Sims and Doug English. But thanks in part to a career-ending knee injury to Sims, this group of players only reached the playoffs one more time, 9-7 in 1983. The Browns also reached 9-7 the following season, but coach Sam Rutigliano was fired and replaced by Marty Schottenheimer midway through the 1984 season. We'll see Marty and the Browns again shortly.

1985 Cleveland Browns (8-8)

Schottenheimer's Browns may be the only team on this list destined for better things. They are also the weakest division winner in modern NFL history. Opponents outscored them 287-294, and they were blown out in two of their last three games (31-13 by the Seahawks and 38-10 by the Jets). They took a 21-3 lead over the Dolphins in the playoffs, only to watch Dan Marino and company score 21 unanswered points to win the game.

The 1985 Browns are probably best known for having two 1,000-yard rushers in Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack. Despite that impressive feat, the Browns were only fourth in the AFC in team rushing yards. They were 13th in the conference in passing yards, thanks to rookie Bernie Kosar and journeyman Gary Danielson. What that team did very well was play defense and take advantage of a weak division. The Browns swept the 5-11 Oilers and split with the 7-9 Bengals and Steelers. A 28-21 win in Week 15 against the Oilers proved to be the division capper: Kosar threw three TDs to open up a 28-7 lead, and the defense withstood a Warren Moon comeback.

That Browns team went on to battle the Broncos for the AFC title for several years. In many ways, they looked like this year's Giants. They had the rookie quarterback, a new coach, and some young talent on both sides of the ball. The Giants have the Eagles juggernaut in their division, but the Browns didn't rise until Chuck Noll's Steelers were finally taken down once and for all.

1990 New Orleans Saints (8-8)

The NFL added a third Wild Card team per division in 1990; the league seems to celebrate these additions by inviting a truly undeserving team to the party in the first year. The 1990 NFC looked a lot like this year's NFC, albeit with different teams in the driver's seat. The Niners and Giants were clearly the best teams in the conference. The Eagles, Redskins, and Bears were also good. Everyone else would have packed their bags at Halloween if it weren't for the additional postseason bid.

With two weeks to play, that final bid apparently belonged to the Cowboys. Jimmy Johnson's boys were 7-7 with two games to play and were on a three-game winning streak. The Saints were 6-8 and were about to play the Niners. Four teams from the NFC East? Why not: the other divisions were lousy.

As fate would have it, the Saints would beat a Niners team with little to play for, while the Cowboys would lose to the Eagles and Falcons in the final weeks. So instead of seeing the playoff debuts of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith, the 1990 Wild Card game gave us (drum roll please:) Steve Walsh, John Fourcade, and Ironhead Heyward. The Bears made short work of the Saints in the playoffs, intercepting Walsh and Fourcade three times in a 16-6 win.

That Saints team featured one of the great linebacking corps of history: Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson, Pat Swilling, and Vaughn Johnson. They had some winning seasons and playoff appearances ahead of them. But they would never win a playoff game, and they'll best be remembered for keeping the real rising powerhouse of the NFC out of the postseason for a year.

1991 New York Jets (8-8)

Bruce Coslet's Jets really had no business in the postseason. They started the season 1-3 and ended it 1-3. In between, they had some big wins, like a 41-23 victory over the Dolphins, but they also gave the Colts their only win of the year. Ken O'Brien threw for 3,300 yards but just 10 touchdowns, as he displayed a knack for the redzone interception. At 7-8, they faced an 8-7 Dolphins team with a Wild Card bid on the line. As fate would have it, the Jets would walk away with a 23-20 overtime victory and a postseason birth. They would lose to the Oilers, 17-10, in the Wild Card round.

That Jets team had a lot of young talent, including Blair Thomas, Mo Lewis, Rob Moore, and Terance Mathis. They would add Jeff Blake and Johnnie Mitchell the following year. Unfortunately, that team also had Coslet. The Jets went 4-12, then 8-8, then switched to Pete Caroll, then (ugh) Rich Kotite. Thomas and Mitchell never developed. Moore, Mathis and Blake would have their best seasons elsewhere. This wasn't a team going places; it was a team that tripped into the playoffs by accident.

1999 Detroit Lions (8-8)

The Lions had just lost Barry Sanders and were starting third-year pro Charlie Batch at quarterback. They were coming off a 5-11 season. Hopes weren't high, but a 6-2 start made the Lions a surprise contender at the midway point in the season. Reality soon set in, however, and the Lions lost their last four straight. Two other NFC teams finished 8-8, but the Lions beat the Panthers during the season and held the tiebreaker over the Packers. Their playoff life was short: the Redskins beat them 27-13 in the opening round.

This was only five years ago, but it seems like something from ancient history. Bobby Ross was the coach in Detriot. Sanders' shadow still loomed large. It's funny to read some of the statements in the 2000 Pro Football Weekly season preview ("Batch is firmly entrenched as the #1 quarterback") with the knowledge of what was to come. There was a sense that this team could improve quickly under Ross. Of course, it never really happened.

What It Means for 2004

The news is mostly bad for this year's crop of 8-8 playoff hopefuls. No team with fewer than nine wins has ever won a playoff game since the start of the 16-game schedule. What's more, only two teams, Mora's Saints and Schottenheimer's Browns, would even reach the playoffs the next year. Only the Browns would win a playoff game, and they are the only team to come within sniffing distance of the Super Bowl.

So not only is this season a wash, but chances for glory a year or two down the road appear to be slim. Schottenheimer's Browns are known for surrendering The Drive and The Fumble, but at least they are known for something. Teams that reach the playoffs at 8-8 appear destined to make history as footnotes.

For some of the teams on this list, the playoff appearance was a mixed blessing at best. The Jets may have stuck with O'Brien, Thomas, and Coslet too long, thinking that 1991 was the start of something good. The 1999 Lions probably put off wholesale changes and put too much stock in Batch. Even Mora's Saints might have been better off with a 6-10 record and a high draft pick than a token playoff appearance in 1990; maybe they could have found a quarterback or running back worthy of their defense if they hadn't slipped into the postseason.

In the next two weeks, most of the weakest contenders will be eliminated. Chances are, there will be three or four teams competing for one Wild Card slot (and/or the division crown in the West) right up until the final week of the year. Coaches like Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden, and Tom Coughlin are in the midst of tough decisions: when to start the youth movement, when to pull the plug. Coughlin, with the least to lose but the best shot at the playoffs, turned the keys over to the rookie a few weeks ago. Parcells and others may soon have to follow. Somebody has to make the playoffs, but sneaking in at 8-8 is nothing to sacrifice the future for.

(Ed. Note: Errors related to the 1982 and 1983 seasons are now fixed. Michael apologizes for forgetting to include the 1999 Cowboys.)

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 07 Dec 2004

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