Anti-Dynasty Rankings 1-10: Cleveland Browns Don't Rock
Our dynasty rankings conclude with the worst 10 teams of all time.
Fans of any of these franchises have legitimate points in their favor, arguing that they witnessed the worst football in history. We have stretches that span multiple decades, each putting a stigma on their franchise that took many seasons to overcome (and some which have yet to truly been shaken off). We have some of the most incompetent general managers to ever take the reins of a franchise. We have three teams who completed winless seasons. We have teams that went over 10 years without reaching .500. We have expansion teams that never expanded. We have teams that pinched their pocketbooks tightly enough to strangle a fan base. We have desperate teams—teams desperate enough to change cities, to make crazy trades, to merge with other franchises, to burn a building down. In one sense, every team here is a winner thanks to their inability to win.
But in another, more accurate sense, we can only have one winner. Let's count them down.
THE FULL SERIES
- Defining an Anti-Dynasty (June 2)
- Part I: No. 51-58 (June 2)
- Part II: No. 41-50 (June 8)
- Part III: No. 31-40 (June 10)
- Part IV: No. 21-30 (June 15)
- Part V: No. 11-20 (June 17)
- Part VI: No. 1-10 (June 22)
No. 10: 2001-2015 Detroit Lions
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 82
Record: 78-162 (.325)
Average DVOA: -13.3%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -34.0%
One last-place finish in the NFL, Four last-place finishes in the NFC, Nine last-place finishes in the NFC Central/North
Head Coaches: Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron, Rod Marinelli, Jim Schwartz, Jim Caldwell
Key Players: QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson, WR Roy Williams, T Jeff Backus, T Gosdar Cherilus, G Rob Sims, G Steven Peterman, C Dominic Raiola, DE James Hall, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Shaun Rogers, LB DeAndre Levy, LB Steven Tulloch, CB Dre' Bly, K Jason Hanson
We have talked about teams that outstayed their welcome on this list before, but the 2011-2015 Lions are the standard-bearers. Jim Schwartz and Jim Caldwell's squads were solid, putting up positive DVOAs every year between 2010 and 2015. They just couldn't put together back-to-back winning seasons throughout the first half of the 2010s. Those years of positive DVOA damage the Lions' overall standings here. The 2001-2009 Lions averaged a -25.9% DVOA, with the third- and fourth-worst teams in DVOA history. THOSE Lions are the ones that earned this spot, and more. Cut those final seasons out, extract the pure core of terribleness that Matt Millen and others put together at the turn of the century, and you'd have the fifth-place team on this list.
Millen had had a successful NFL career and a lengthy stretch as a broadcaster before he was approached by William Clay Ford to serve as de facto general manager. Millen had never worked in a front office, never worked in any sort of player management capacity. He told Ford that he was not qualified for the position. Ford told him he would figure it out. He didn't.
Millen was tasked with rebuilding a team that had just lost Barry Sanders to a shocking early retirement, where head coach Bobby Ross had just quit midseason over a team that wouldn't "fight back" when confronted with adversity. Millen was given near complete autonomy to recreate the team in his own image. His own image apparently included an over-reliance on toolsy receiver prospects. Sometimes that worked out—Calvin Johnson needs no introduction, and Roy Williams was a solid player for half a decade. But Williams came sandwiched between Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, a pair of top-10 busts at the position; Rogers busting from injuries and drug problems, Williams from a lack of work ethic and a weight problem. Joey Harrington and Jeff Backus weren't exactly all-time winners either.
Not that Millen's head-coaching decisions were much better. His first choice was Marty Mornhinweg, who had won a Super Bowl ring working with Brett Favre in Green Bay. Much like Adam Gase two decades later, Mornhinweg built his reputation thanks to working with one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, and it didn't translate so well when working with Charlie Batch. In the popular imagination, Mornhinweg's legacy is summed up by electing to kick the ball in sudden-death overtime against Chicago, concerned about the wind more than about the Bears marching down the field and kicking the game-winning field goal. What Mornhingweg's legacy probably should be is a pair of double-digit-negative offensive DVOAs, but then, that's every Lions team from 2001 to 2009. Mornhinweg couldn't revive the offense, but then, neither could Steve Mariucci on the rebound from San Francisco, or Mike Martz with the Greatest Rerun on Turf. All of that failure led to Millen being fired in 2006.
Wait, no, I'm sorry, all of that led to Millen being given a long-term extension after 2006, with the Fords calling Millen the best general manager the franchise had ever had. An extension, after an 0-24 start on the road, after so many draft busts, after terrible free agent pickups, after years of "Fire Millen" chants. In an interview before the 2008 season, Millen admitted the team had been "beyond awful," and that it was part of his job to be blamed. A 31-84 record as general manager sure engenders a lot of blame!
And that doesn't include all of 2008. Millen was finally fired early in that year, but the damage had been done. Rod Marinelli, Dan Orlovsky, and the rest of the 2008 Lions did the unthinkable, completing the first 0-16 season in NFL history. While they were later joined by the 2017 Browns, Lions fans can rest easy knowing that their season was significantly worse—a -45.2% DVOA compared to Cleveland's -28.7%. The 2017 Browns were a little unlucky to lose all their games. The 2008 Lions? We give them 2.3 estimated wins that season. The memories are seared into the minds of Lions fans—Orlovsky running out of the back of the end zone for a safety. Marinelli yelling at a reporter "we're not 0-10! YOU'RE 0-10!" Center Dominic Raiola inviting fans to come to his house to fight him. Being blown out, 47-10, in front of a national audience on Thanksgiving Day. Joe Barry, the defensive coordinator, was Marinelli's son-in-law; after putting up the 11th-worst defensive performance of the DVOA era, Marinelli was asked by a reporter "do you wish your daughter married a better defensive coordinator?" All of it came together to be the fourth-worst team in DVOA history.
And, of course, 2009 saw the Lions put up the third-worst mark in DVOA history. A fitting end to a decade of despair.
So why aren't the Lions No. 1, even if you excise those extraneous years at the back? Well, an eight-year run, even the worst of the last 30 years by win-loss percentage, does struggle to hold a candle to the multiple-decade-long stretches some other teams faced. The Bobby Ross era was still in somewhat recent memory for Lions fans in the 2000s, which is better than some teams had to cling on to, and the Jim Caldwell era is something a bunch of current Lions fans would love to return to. But almost more importantly, the Lions were rarely the worst team in football in this stretch. They were last place in DVOA twice (in 2008 and 2009). In terms of win-loss record, they were only dead last at 0-16; other runs we have seen or will see soon (Dick LeBeau's Bengals, Dave McGinnis' Cardinals, Bill Callahan/Art Shell's Raiders, Dick Nolan's 49ers, Dom Capers' Texans) managed to hit bottom when the Lions couldn't. We have teams in the top 10 that were last three or four times in a 32-team league, and one that finished dead last six times in a smaller one. The 2008-2009 Lions are in the running for the worst team we have ever seen, but it took Millen years to craft that horrible outcome. Other teams got there faster and stayed there longer.
No. 9: 1948-1958 Green Bay Packers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 74
Record: 37-93-2 (.288)
Average DVOA: -19.6%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -33.6%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL, Five last-place finishes in the NFL Western
Head Coaches: Curly Lambeau, Gene Ronzani, Ray McLean, Hugh Devore, Lisle Blackbourn
Key Players: QB Tobin Rote, HB Billy Grimes, HB Tony Canadeo, HB Breezy Reid, E Billy Howton, T Dick Wildung, C Jim Ringo, DE John Martinkovic, DT Dave Hanner, LB Roger Zatkoff, LB Bill Forester, S Bobby Dillon, S Val Joe Walker
We were very, very close to seeing the Milwaukee Packers become a full-time concern. All it took to keep Green Bay in the NFL business was a little case of arson.
Let's back up just a moment. The 1935-1944 Packers made it all the way to ninth place on our dynasty countdown, with Don Hutson and the Notre Dame Box propelling the Pack to three world championships. But Hutson retired in 1945, alongside Cecil Isbell, Clarke Hinkle, and most of the other war-era stars; it was a significant talent drain. And the NFL was beginning to change. The Bears' T-formation was sweeping the league and would eventually become the offensive formation. But Curly Lambeau stuck with the box, their variation on the single wing, into the late 1940s. Even when he made the strategic shift in 1947, he insisted on having the ball frequently snapped to his tailback, behind the quarterback, just like in the single wing. This did not catch on, you may be shocked to learn. The game had passed Lambeau by, and the Packers were suffering for it.
The Packers were also suffering financially, being the one remaining team in a tiny midwestern market as the league completed its transition into a national concern. Lambeau was spending money like crazy, spending his offseason on team-funded "recruiting trips" which just so happened to be at the beaches of Palm Springs and Malibu. He also purchased Rockwood Lodge, an estate he was going to transform into the NFL's first stand-alone training facility. That's obviously not a bad idea, if perhaps a bit ahead of its time. More questionable was laying the practice fields over beds of limestone, which shredded the players' feet and knees on a regular basis. Three-hour scrimmages on top of barely-sodded jagged rocks is not, it turns out, ideal for players' long-term health, nor their morale. It's pretty good for the local bars that players frequented to help dull the pain, but that's about it.
Players hated the Lodge. And the team executives hated the Lodge, and Lambeau. They hated his spending habits, they hated that he divorced his high school sweetheart and married a wealthy California socialite, they hated his new slicked-back hair and tailored suits, they hated his womanizing around town, and they hated his team's poor performance. Packers co-founder George Calhoun went so far to say that he just wanted to "live long enough to piss on Lambeau's grave."
All that spending, and the tiny confines of City Stadium, meant the Packers were in real trouble towards the end of the decade. Even after cutting payroll (and getting worse on the field because of it), they were still in real danger of not being financially viable anymore. It got to the point where Lambeau held back players' checks for one week, saying that their effort was too lacking to get paid—and then never actually giving them the missing check. But Lambeau had a solution: four investors who would pay $50,000 each for the rights to the team, turning it from a publicly owned franchise into a privately owned one (and, it was widely rumored, with plans on moving everything out to Malibu as part of the league's expansion). The Packers president offered a counter-proposal: a new contract that stripped Lambeau of all authority except as head coach. Lambeau spat on it and left.
That didn't solve the money problems, but the fickle hand of fate did. On January 24, 1950, a mysterious fire ripped through Rockwood Lodge, destroying the site entirely. Thank goodness it was insured! And it just so happened that the $50,000 in insurance money nearly exactly matched the team's debts. What a wacky coincidence! (For legal reasons, I suppose I should state that the cause of the fire was never officially determined. Defensive back Ken Kranz claimed that the team torched it, and star halfback Tony Canadeo said that while he didn't set the fire, he was certainly fanning it. But maybe it was poor electrical wiring … in a conveniently empty lodge. Sure. Let's go with that).
That saved the Packers, although they didn't get on solid financial footing until building New City Stadium, which you know as Lambeau Field, in 1957. They were playing more and more games in Milwaukee just to earn more money from ticket sales in the interim. As for the product people were paying to see? Well, it was better than the end of the Lambeau era; Green Bay put up four seasons of single-digit estimated DVOA between 1952 and 1956 as they rebounded from the dregs of the 2-10 penniless 1949 team. That didn't always translate to wins, howeve. Green Bay did not have a winning season between 1948 and 1958. By the end of the run, they were being run by a local high school coach, Lisle Blackbourn. Liz was a pretty good eye for talent, drafting Forrest Gregg, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Jerry Kramer, and Ray Nitschke. But he couldn't get much out of them on the field, and the team floundered to a -36.0% estimated DVOA in 1958, worst in franchise history. That led to team hiring some guy named Vince Lombardi and giving him complete control over the roster. I'm told that ended up working out OK.
Why aren't the Packers No. 1?
Because I can't prove they burned down Rockwood Lodge Because while the on-field results weren't always there, the team was actually fairly competitive in the 1950s with the likes of Tobin Rote and Billy Howton running the offense. The bad years (1948-1951 and 1957-1958) were very, very bad indeed, but there's too much filler for them to rank any higher.
No. 8: 1960-1972 Denver Broncos
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 80
Record: 53-123-6 (.308)
Average DVOA: -14.8%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -32.2%
Five last-place finishes in the AFL, Eight last-place finishes in the AFC/AFC West
Head Coaches: Frank Filchock, Jack Faulkner, Mac Speedie, Ray Malavasi, Lou Saban, Jerry Smith, John Ralston
Key Players: RB Floyd Little, E Lionel Taylor, WR Al Denson, FL Bob Scarpitto, T Eldon Danenhauer, T Mike Current, C Jerry Sturm, C Larry Kaminski, DE Tombstone Jackson, DT Bud McFadin, DT Dave Costa, CB Willie Brown, S Goose Gonsoulin, S Charlie Greer
It's generally accepted that the quality of play in the AFL was below the quality in the NFL, especially in the early years of the league. It's difficult to ascertain just how far below they were, or when they eventually gained parity—even in 1970, the first year of the merger, the old AFL teams were on average slightly worse than the old NFL teams. Estimated DVOA for AFL teams is simply based on their performance against other AFL teams, with that set as their own league average. What that means is there's a chance that the 1967 Denver Broncos, with an estimated DVOA of -42.7%, might have been the worst professional team in the modern era.
There's no doubt that the Broncos were the worst team in the AFL. Of the eight original teams, six won AFL championships, and Boston at least made an AFL title game. Denver, on the other hand, was the only original team to fail to win 60 games in the league. Or 50. Or 40, while we're at it. They were the only team to fail to have a winning season at any point in the decade. While they may not be tops on our list, they can rest assured that they were the worst franchise in the second-most important football league in history.
The early Broncos were hard to watch, and for two years, I mean that very literally. In part to save on money, the Broncos' first uniforms were leftovers from the defunct Copper Bowl college all-star game, and are quite possibly the worst of all time—yellow on brown, with vertically striped socks to complete the ensemble. When they finally had enough money to switch to orange uniforms in 1962, they famously burned every uniform they could find in a massive bonfire (lots of things going up in flames here in the top 10).
But if they were just dressed ugly, they wouldn't be on the list. Frank Tripucka was retired and came in as an assistant coach on the original 1960 team, but all the passers Denver could find were bad enough that Tripucka strapped on a helmet and ended up as the starter for three seasons—his 34 interceptions in 1960 and the 68 turnovers he, George Herring, and the rest of the 1961 Broncos managed (only one other Denver team has ever even topped 60) both remain franchise records to this day. Tripucka to Lionel Taylor was a deadly passing combination, but you can't win football games with just one explosive player, and the Broncos were otherwise just utterly devoid of talent.
Nowadays, a bad team can count on the draft to quickly bolster their ranks, but the Broncos didn't have that luxury. This was still the era when the NFL and AFL were competing to sign draft picks, and no one wanted to sign with the Broncos; playing for a team that was both new and bad was not an enticing proposition. Now, playing for a team that was new, bad, and paying you a ton of money is enticing, but the Broncos simply didn't have any cash—why do you think they were using second-hand uniforms? Original owner Bob Howsam had expanded his minor-league baseball stadium, expecting a third baseball league to start in 1961. When that fell through, he had a 32,000-seat stadium and nothing to put in it, and the Broncos were an emergency Plan B. So the Broncos mostly avoided drafting superstar college athletes because they couldn't afford to sign them, and even when they made great picks—Merlin Olsen! Kermit Alexander!—those players usually opted to go to the NFL instead. The Broncos drafted 30 players in 1961; only two made the roster. They drafted 34 more in 1962; only two made the roster.
And so the hits kept coming. At least Tripucka was getting the ball down the field; when he left in 1963, so did the offense. Also in 1963, the Denver defense allowed 40 passing touchdowns, which stood as an NFL record until 2015, so it's not like they were holding their own in any defensive slugfests. They could have fixed that in 1965, but they opted to trade out of the first pick instead of drafting Joe Namath. I mean, they did draft Dick Butkus instead, but Namath was fine coming to the AFL, while Butkus was not and did not. In 1966, they became the last team to ever go an entire game with zero first downs in a 45-7 trouncing by Houston—going 2-for-20 passing for negative-1 yard will do that for you. It was a nightmare, wherever you look.
In 1967, the Broncos drafted Floyd Little, which saved the team in two ways. Firstly, on the field, Little immediately became a team captain and arguably the best running back in football, finally making it into the Hall of Fame in the class of 2009. But almost more importantly, Little got Denver fans interested in the Broncos. He literally went door to door, both locally in Denver and as far afield as Wyoming and Nebraska, asking fans for money to keep the Broncos in Denver—because, did I not mention? It's a freaking miracle the Broncos stayed in Denver.
Howsom, the original owner, got out after the 1960 season and very nearly sold the franchise to a San Antonio syndicate. In 1964, very credible rumors published in the Chicago Sun-Times had the Broncos moving to Chicago and playing in Comiskey Park, a replacement for the departed Cardinals. In 1965, a group of minority owners attempted to sell the team to an interested group from Atlanta. In 1968, after the merger with the NFL was announced, the Broncos were required to move into a 50,000-seat stadium, and Birmingham offered them a home. Little was the first Denver first-round pick to sign with the team, and it may have only happened because 1967 was the first common draft between the two leagues. Had the common draft happened a year later, and Little ended up in Detroit, or had Little not cared about keeping the team in Denver, we could be talking about the Chicago or Birmingham Broncos today.
So why aren't the Broncos No. 1? Part of it is artificial inflation of their AFL DVOA; if you assume that AFL teams were 10 points worse than NFL teams, the Broncos would jump to third place. That would get them most of the way there, but the run just doesn't last long enough to get them higher. Lou Saban's teams became at least respectable losing squads, John Ralston got them to competitiveness, and they were in the Super Bowl by 1977. You have to be pretty bad to rank higher than this without multiple decades of failure.
No. 7: 1933-1941 Pittsburgh Pirates/Steelers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 65
Record: 25-71-6 (.275)
Average DVOA: -26.9%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -33.6%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL, Eight last-place finishes in the NFL Eastern
Head Coaches: Forrest Douds, Luby DiMeolo, Joe Bach, Johnny Blood, Walt Kiesling, Aldo Donelli, Bert Bell
Key Players: TB Johnny Gildea, BB Silvio Zaninelli, E Bill Sortet, E George Platukis, T Armand Niccolai, T Sandy Sandberg, G Byron Gentry, G John Perko, G George Kakasic
Before there was the Steel Curtain, there was the Same Old Steelers. One of those off-the-cuff quotes that gains a life of its own, that phrase became Pittsburgh fans' motto throughout the first four decades of the franchise. They never had back-to-back winning seasons until the late 1950s, only made one playoff appearance in their first 39 years of existence, and were never much in contention for anything—we already talked about their 1960s run back at No. 21. And here they are again—this time, with the shortest run of anyone in the top 10, with the fewest Anti-Dynasty points. To get this high with this little resume requires colossal on-the-field terribleness, and yes, their SRS-to-DVOA conversion of -26.9% is the lowest mark in the top 18. Call them the Pirates, call them the Steelers, call them the Rooneymen, call them the Iron Men—a rose, by any other name, would stink just as badly.
We have already talked about how this team ended in the Eagles section from our last article, with the full exchange of franchises in the 1941 offseason. But they started rather oddly as well. You'll note both the Steelers and Eagles sprang to life in 1933, and that's not a coincidence—Pennsylvania's blue laws prevented organized sports competition on Sundays until April of that year. Previous professional football teams had gotten around that by playing home games on Saturdays and road games out of state the next day. Art Rooney got around that by running a semi-pro team throughout the 1920s, known alternatively as Hope-Harvey, the Majestic Radios, and the J.P. Rooneys. Rooney—owner, coach, and quarterback—had success and won some local sandlot titles. Going fully professional when the opportunity arose was a no-brainer. The team renamed themselves the Pirates, as was the style at the time, though most people still referred to them as Rooney's team or the Rooney Men to help distinguish them from the baseball team, because it turns out naming yourself the same thing as a different, better known team is a dumb idea.
It also turns out that by 1933, you couldn't just take a semi-pro team and hope to compete in the NFL, at least not with the Bears, Giants, and Packers. The team wouldn't beat New York until 1936, Green Bay until 1947, and Chicago until 1958. Excluding the Cardinals (and we'll get to them shortly), the Pirates went 0-12 against teams established in the 1920s before finally getting a win; they just could not build a team to compete.
The draft wasn't put into place until 1936, so for the first few years, the Pirates had to try to compete against those three clubs for college players. They didn't have the reputation or cash to do it, but their actual efforts were rather lackluster as well. They didn't try to recruit players until after the college season was over, by which time the big clubs had already gotten commitments from pretty much every prospect worth mentioning; by the time the Pirates came a-calling, the cupboards were bare. Also, they didn't have the money to send someone to watch anything but local games, so they relied on preseason guides (Art Rooney would have loved Football Outsiders Almanac 1934) and on just calling college coaches to ask if anyone was graduating. Even when the draft began, however, the Steelers didn't take advantage—their first ever pick, William Shakespeare (… no, not that one, though he did have the all-time nickname "The Merchant of Menace") never played for the team; they traded away the pick that became Sid Luckman; and while they did get Whizzer White, he only played one year for the team before going on to work on his law degree.
It was an amateur affair, with their entire seasons drawing fewer fans than one game for the University of Pittsburgh. Their coaches treated it as such, too—Aldo Donelli took up the Steelers as a side-job while coaching Duquesne; Johnny Blood once took a trip to the Rose Bowl and completely forgot that his team had a game that day back in Pennsylvania. Blood did manage to drive the team to a -9.0% estimated DVOA in 1937, but the Steelers were last or second to last in SRS in six of these nine seasons. No success on the field led to no fans. If it wasn't for Rooney's fantastic success betting on horse racing and promoting boxing matches, the Pirates would have gone belly-up. It certainly wasn't a money-making enterprise—hence why Rooney was OK selling the team and throttling down to 50% ownership of the Eagles during the big switcheroo of 1941. It was an expensive hobby that really didn't pay dividends until Rooney was well into his seventies.
So why aren't the Steelers No. 1? Because endpoints are hard. Technically, this run ends with the 1942 Steelers going 7-4 and the 1943 Steagles going 5-4-1—back-to-back winning seasons, and so we go kaput. But the Steagles are a combination of two teams, and while the Eagles went on to winning seasons after the merger, the Steelers took a bit longer. In 1944, they merged with the Chicago Cardinals (Card-Pitt) and went 0-10; it's safe to say the lion's share of the Steagles success came from Philadelphia. If we throw out 1943 as being fraudulent, the Steelers run lasts until 1945; enough to bump them up one spot but not more. The Steelers of the late 1940s and early 1950s weren't world-beaters, but they could generally be counted upon to be competent, especially when they became the last team to give up the single wing and join the T-formation revolution in 1952. They graduated from being terrible to being bland, and that's not great for positioning on a list like this.
— Tomlin Reactions 🆃 (@TomlinReactions) January 16, 2019
No. 6: 1991-2002 Cincinnati Bengals
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 82
Record: 55-137 (.286)
Average DVOA: -22.1%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -32.8%
Three last-place finishes in the NFL, Five last-place finishes in the AFC Central/North
Head Coaches: Sam Wyche, David Shula, Bruce Coslet, Dick LeBeau
Key Players: QB Jeff Blake, RB Corey Dillon, WR Carl Pickens, WR Darnay Scott, T Willie Anderson, T Joe Walter, T Kevin Sargent, C Rich Braham, C Darrick Brilz, DE John Copeland, LB James Francis, LB Takeo Spikes, FS Darryl Williams
Exhibits 1 and 1A in the "Apple Falls Far From The Tree" competition, NFL edition: Mike Brown and David Shula.
The Bengals' Lost Decade starts with the death of Paul Brown, who has to be on any short list of the most influential and innovative minds in the history of the league. The same cannot be said of his son. Mike had already taken control of the team by the late 1980s, but the elder Brown was still involved with day-to-day operations right until he died in August of 1991. Mike's first significant move after that season was to fire Sam Wyche, who had led the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII and still holds the record for most playoff wins in franchise history. Wyche's replacement was David Shula, son of Don, the winningest coach in NFL history. David did not challenge his father's record.
Let's start with some numbers. Shula only took 69 games to rack up 50 losses, the quickest any coach has pulled that feat off. Every other coach who has 50 losses at least has 20 wins to their name; Shula sits at a healthy 19-52. Not to be outdone, Mike Brown set some records of his own. It took Cincinnati 288 games to get Brown's 100th win as an owner; no other owner has ever taken that long. Brown racked up his 200th loss after only 314 games as an owner, also a record. The Bengals' 52-108 record in the 1990s was worst in the league—and remember, this was a decade that saw two new expansion franchises come into being.
On the field, the actual problem was the defense. The Bengals averaged a 13.1% defensive DVOA throughout the 1990s. That's not just the worst mark in the decade; it's the worst 10-year stretch of defense we have ever recorded. To put that into perspective, only 120 teams have had a worse single-season defensive DVOA than that since 1983 (and, of course, seven of those teams are these Bengals). They managed one year with an above-average defense, and only after two expansion teams lowered the median from 14th to 16th. Outside of that, they never finished higher than 24th on defense, in a league that started with 28 teams. For an entire decade! There were points where the offense was competent, even dynamic; Jeff Blake-to-Carl Pickens is more excitement than a lot of losing teams have. That's great and all, but it doesn't matter if your defense is a wet sponge. And when the offense faltered, then you get the 2000 Bengals and a franchise-worst -40.3% DVOA.
But the real problem with the Bengals wasn't with the personnel, it was with the owner, so let's get back to Brown. I said that Brown's first big move was to fire Wyche, but that's not really the entire story. Brown's first move was to announce that Wyche had chosen to resign, which came as news to Wyche, who had been fired by Brown earlier in the day. The sticking point was that if Wyche had resigned, he wouldn't be due the $1 million remaining on his contract, and Brown simply did not want to pay. While he has loosened up in modern times, 1990s Mike Brown was a notorious skinflint, to the point where he refused to provide his team with water bottles because they had perfectly good drinking fountains, and gave his players used jockstraps to wear. Many a player from this era has come out and spoke out against Brown's handling of the team, to the point where Brown inserted something a loyalty clause into many contracts, allowing them to recoup bonuses if a player publicly criticized the team—for "team cohesion," he claimed. He also tried to fine punter Lee Johnson after cutting him, which is an interesting take on exactly when a contract is enforceable.
Of course, Brown was also let down by his general manager, Mike Brown. The Bengals' drafting in this period was the stuff of legends, partially because they employed a scouting staff of one. We have talked about some horrible organizations from the 1920s and 1930s with no scouting apparatus to speak of; the fact that some pre-war teams spent more time and effort scouting players than a franchise from the 1990s is astonishing. And, man, you can tell. Firing Wyche caused Boomer Esiason to demand a trade, leading to the drafting of David Klingler. Klingler, of course, is an all-time bust and still holds the record for worst single game in our database with -302 DYAR against Houston in 1994. And Klingler begat Ki-Jana Carter (who tore his ACL on his third carry in his first preseason game), who begat Akili Smith (who never fully grasped Bruce Coslet's offense), all billed as franchise saviors, all of whom very much were not. Smith was the worst pick, though, because to take him, the Bengals opted not to accept the Ricky Williams trade—the Saints' entire 1999 draft class, plus first- and third-round picks in 2000. No one should ever be confident enough in their own drafting prowess to turn down an offer like that. And no one with that track record (add in Reinard Wilson, Peter Warrick, Lamar Rogers, Marco Battaglia, Charles Fisher…) should ever be that confident about anything in the draft. Oh, and we mentioned the major problem was the defense, right?
In 2003, Marvin Lewis arrived and convinced Brown of the necessity of entering the modern era in terms of facilities and franchise management. That turned the Bengals from laughingstock to that sort of in-between mediocrity/longshot contender position they were in for the next 15 years. Seven wild-card exits may not be cause for a massive ticker-tape parade, but it sure as hell feels good compared to this lost decade.
So why aren't the Bengals No. 1? While they are one of only five teams on the list to be bad enough to have positive Z-scores in all six categories, they don't excel enough at any one thing to vault into the top five. The offense under Esiason and Blake was good enough to keep their overall DVOA from cratering, and the Sam Wyche and Marvin Lewis eras were "only" a decade apart. Perhaps if there was a variable for "frustration as the team ignores horrible performance and keeps everyone in charge," the Bengals would rank higher.
No. 5: 1967-1986 New Orleans Saints
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 118
Record: 90-196-5 (.318)
Average DVOA: -12.7%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -27.9%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL, Five last-place finishes in the NFC; Ten last-place finishes in the NFL Capital/NFC West
Head Coaches: Tom Fears, J.D. Roberts, John North, Ernie Hefferle, Hank Stram, Dick Nolan, Dick Stanfel, Bum Phillips, Wade Phillips, Jim Mora
Key Players: QB Archie Manning, RB George Rogers, RB Tony Galbreath, RB Chuck Muncie, WR Danny Abramowicz, TE Henry Childs, T Stan Brock, T Dave Lafary, G Jake Kupp, G Del Williams, C John Hill, DE Bruce Clark, DE Bob Pollard, DE Jim Wilks, DT Derland Moore, LB Rickey Jackson, LB Joe Federspiel, CB Dave Waymer, CB Johnnie Poe, S Tom Myers, S Frank Wattelet
We have entered the realm of generational terribleness; a terribleness that seeps so deep into the DNA of a franchise that it becomes synonymous with them in a way that is very, very difficult to ever scrub out. When we talk about the Bengals' Lost Decade or the AFL Broncos or the Matt Millen Lions, we're talking about specific eras; periods of badness that can be isolated off, analyzed and dissected. But when you start talking about 20 years of failure, that's something different.
A Saints fan could have been born, grown up, left school, got a job, gotten married, and had Saints fan kids of his own, all without experiencing a single winning season. That's no longer a football team that is bad, that's a football team defined by being bad. This run in particular ended when I was two years old, and yet the identity of the Ain'ts stuck with New Orleans until well into my adult life, through the Dome Patrol era and realignment and into the 21st century. Even when they were winning, they were still the Ain'ts. Steelers fans have their terrible towels; Saints fans have paper bags on their heads. I'd argue that it wasn't until winning Super Bowl XLIV that this legacy was finally put to bed and relegated as a piece of history—a significant piece of history, mind you, but something that could be safely put in the past, and allow fans to identify themselves as more than just a fan of those losers in the Superdome.
Of course, it helps that the Saints had no prior history of winning to work with here. Six modern-era expansion teams made this countdown, and the Saints end up the highest. We earlier claimed the Atlanta Falcons to be the worst expansion team as an expansion team, as the Saints managed 12 wins in their first three years. But the Falcons improved and the Saints did not. Only 15 teams have managed to go entire decades without a winning season. The Bengals and Buccaneers managed 14-year stretches and are tied in second place. But to go 20 years without ever going above .500 is a record that may well stand forever. The longest active streaks as 2021 begins are just five years, and even the Browns' recent stretch of irrelevancy ended after a dozen years. To go for multiple decades without sniffing .500 seems impossible in an era of salary caps and free agency.
The Saints, of course, didn't have the benefit of that. So when they did get a legitimate superstar, they couldn't build around him. Archie Manning toiled with a lineup comprised mostly of washouts from other team's rosters; Derland Moore terrorized offensive lines without pass-rushers to back him up; Tom Myers sparked a secondary manned by a couple of tumbleweeds and a "please do not throw the ball here" sign. They tried everything in the book. They tried trading for Earl Campbell, only for the aging back to break down on them. They tried swapping Manning for a past-his-prime Ken Stabler. They traded early first-round draft picks not just for Campbell, but for veterans such as Gary Cuozzo, Richard Todd, and Billy Newsome, all of whom washed out. When they did keep their draft picks, they often whiffed—Rick Middleton over his college teammate Randy Gradishar? Russell Erxleben, a punter (and kicker, to be fair) at No. 11 overall? George Rogers at No. 1, over Lawrence Taylor, Kenny Easley, and Ronnie Lott? They brought in coaches who had success elsewhere—Hank Stram, Bud Phillips, Dick Nolan. Nothing worked.
I can't find a way to work this into the narrative of this section, but damnit, I can't not include this. In 1972, the Saints hired Dick Gordon to be their general manager/executive vice president. Gordon had no previous football experience, but had circled the moon on Apollo 12. When asked about how he hoped to handle the job with no previous experience, he said "I didn't know how to go to the moon before I became an astronaut, either." It turns out, landing a man on the moon was an easier task than landing a winning team in New Orleans.
Over the span of two decades, you can really explore the entire space of losing, giving fans the full gamut of outcomes. You had truly dreadful years like 1975, when they christened the new Superdome by going 2-12. Or 1980, when they went 1-15 and set a then-record for futility in a 16-game season. Or 1973, when after getting blown out 62-7 on opening day, head coach John North allegedly attempted to put the entire team on waivers.
And then you had the gut-punch years. Going 7-9 in 1978 behind Manning's MVP season (well, according to the Sporting News, but it counts) only to miss the playoffs thanks to two heartbreaking come-from-ahead losses to the rival Falcons ("Big Ben Right"). Or missing the playoffs the next year after turning a 35-14 lead against the Raiders into a 43-35 loss. Missing out on the 1982 playoffs during the strike season on complicated tiebreakers, and missing out on the 1983 playoffs by throwing two pick-sixes in the final week of the season. To go 20 years without a winning season, you need to have the ability to pull defeat from the jaws of victory, and perhaps no team has ever been better at doing that than the New Orleans Saints.
So why aren't the Saints No. 1? Those gut-punch years really do water down their DVOA some; four of these 20 years saw the Saints put up positive DVOAs, and five more were only single-digit negatives. Only half of their seasons saw them lose twice as many games as they won and thus qualifies as a particularly bad season; that's the lowest percentage in the top 10. By the end of their run, the Saints had become Anti-Dynasty compilers—the Vinny Testaverdes of the Anti-Dynasty world. Doing anything badly for 20 years will score you high, but New Orleans' occasional flirtations with competency means they were the best of the teams to be terrible for two decades. If that makes sense.
No. 4: 1926-1945 Chicago Cardinals
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 115
Record: 59-142-15 (.308)
Average DVOA: -10.0%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -33.6%
Six last-place finishes in the NFL; Ten last-place finishes in the NFL Western
Head Coaches: Norm Barry, Guy Chamberlain, Fred Gillies, Dewey Scanlon, Ernie Nevers, Roy Andrews, Jack Chevigny, Paul Schissler, Milan Creighton, Jimmy Conzelman, Phil Handler, Walt Kiesling
Key Players: BB Buddy Parker, WB Mickey MacDonnell, FB Mike Mikulak, FB Marshall Goldberg, E Chuck Kassel, E Bill Smith, E Herb Blumer, E Milan Creighton, T Chet Bulger, T Jake Williams, T Duke Slater, T Tony Blazine, T Lou Gordon, T Gil Duggan, G Howie Tipton, G Ross Carter, G Phil Handler, G Conway Baker, G Walt Kiesling, G Bree Cuppoletti
Why have the Cardinals been the least successful franchise in history? Because they're cursed. CURSED!
The 1925 Chicago Cardinals are officially recognized by the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the world champions, but they were not. Not at all. That title rightfully belongs to the Pottsville Maroons, and not just because it's much more fun to say "Pottsville Maroons" than it is to say "Chicago Cardinals."
With no championship game at this point in time, the NFL champion was just determined by which team had the best win-loss record, with ties not counting. And with no set schedules, teams could play as many teams as they wanted. All originally scheduled games were to completed by December 6, though the season would not officially come to an end until December 20—teams were allowed to schedule last-minute games to help them turn a profit for the year. On December 6, the Maroons beat the Cardinals 21-7, taking their record to 10-2, a half-game ahead of Chicago's 9-2-1 record. Your champions: the Maroons. But they still had one more game to play. Before the season started, the Frankford Yellow Jackets had scheduled an exhibition game against the Notre Dame All-Stars, an alumni team. But specifically, they had scheduled it for Notre Dame against "the best team in the east," only to be upset by Pottsville earlier in the year. Pottsville inherited the game and decided to keep it in Philadelphia as originally planned; it was a much larger stadium and they'd get more profit out of it. Frankford claimed this violated their territorial rights—you can't play a game in their backyard. Pottsville claimed the league gave them permission in a phone call that was conveniently never written down. The league suspended Pottsville, and prevented them from playing their last scheduled game against the Providence Steam Roller, so their final record stayed at 10-2. (They beat Notre Dame, for the record).
Meanwhile, the Cardinals were low on cash and needed to schedule some more games. Plus, they saw an opportunity—they were only a half-game behind the Maroons in the standings; they could catch them! Plan A was to schedule the Chicago Bears and Red Grange, but they weren't interested. So instead, the Cardinals contacted two teams that had already disbanded for the year—the Hammond Pros and the Milwaukee Badgers—and convinced them to re-form for games that would count. The Pros game went off without a hitch; a 13-0 win for Chicago. The Badgers, however, had a problem. Their owner lived in Chicago and couldn't really drag everyone from Milwaukee down for one game. So instead, the Cardinals' backup quarterback recruited four players from Englewood High School to adopt fake names and join the Badgers; all four played significant time. The result: a 58-0 win by Chicago. It should be noted that, even in the Wild West that was the 1920s, that was not a thing you could do. Signing a bunch of high school players and passing them off as a rival team was against the rules even then. The league promised that that game would be stricken from the records … but it never was. Both the Cardinals and Maroons had broken league laws, but only the Maroons were punished for it. Chicago's 11-2-1 record thus topped Pottsville's 10-2 record, and the Cardinals were recognized as champions.
Team owner Chris O'Brien refused to recognize the championship, saying he did not want to win the title that way. The Cardinals didn't start claiming it until 1933, when Charles Bidwill bought the team; the franchise continues to claim it to this day. And, because they claim a stolen title, the story goes, the franchise is now cursed—they have the longest active title drought in American professional sports.
That's crazy talk, of course. If that were to be true, we'd see a clear differentiation in quality between the 1926-1932 Cardinals, when they didn't claim the title, and the team from 1933 on. The 1926-1932 Cardinals had an average SRS-to-DVOA conversion of -3.7%. They were boosted by members of the All-1920s team: Ernie Nevers, Guy Chamberlain, and Walt Kiesling are all deservedly in the Hall of Fame, joined by recent 100th anniversary inductee Duke Slater. With a record of 27-40-7, they certainly weren't a successful team, but they were a pretty clear stepping stool between the dominant teams that still exist today (the Packers, Bears, and Giants) and the fly-by-night teams that all folded in the first half of the century—a middling, inconsistent team that just produced a few more lowlights than highlights.
From 1933 to 1945, the Cardinals had an average SRS-to-DVOA conversion of -13.4%, including averaging below -30.0% over the last half-decade of that span. The war-era teams were particularly putrid, having been hit very hard by the draft. The 1942-1945 teams lost 29 games in a row, still the record for longest losing streak in NFL history, including back-to-back 0-10 seasons in 1943 and 1944; they are the only team in league history to have back-to-back winless seasons playing a full schedule. That 29-game losing streak came in the middle of a 1-36 run and opened the door for the fledgling AAFC to put a team in Chicago—they couldn't be more popular than the Bears, but they could certainly have been more popular than the Cardinals.
The 1944 team was another one of those merged war teams; with the Rams re-entering the league in 1944, the league had 11 teams and couldn't figure out a way to make the schedule work. The Steelers, who had merged with the Eagles the year before, were fine with merging again, but no one else was particularly interested. The league finally decided the 0-10 Cardinals were insignificant enough that it wouldn't be a competitive advantage for the Steelers to get their players. Art Rooney later called Card-Pitt the worst team in NFL history—trying to run the T-formation without a quarterback; getting dinged by their coaches for "indifferent play"; getting involved in a brawl on the field bad enough that Rooney, a former boxer, actually stormed the turf to take part in the fracas; inspiring star players such as John Grigas to retire rather than finish the season with such a putrid squad. Maybe Rooney has a point; our SRS-to-DVOA conversion clocks them in at a franchise-worst -48.3%.
So, uh, yeah. Maybe the Bidwills should consider giving up that title, just for a little cosmic cleaning. The Cardinals rebounded after the war, winning a title in 1947. But then the 1950s happened, which we covered down at No. 23. And then the team moved to St. Louis, and—and I can't believe I'm saying this at No. 4—you'll have to hold that thought for a couple more entries.
So why aren't the Cardinals No. 1? The late 1920s teams, while unsuccessful, were talented enough to keep Chicago's DVOA from plummeting too far down. Nevers, especially, was fantastic, one of the best football players from the first half of the 20th century. He holds the oldest individual record to never be broken or tied, scoring 40 points against the Bears in 1929, one of multiple occasions he accounted for all of Chicago's points. We joked about the curse coming in with the Bidwills, but Nevers retired in 1932 after breaking his wrist, saying he wanted to get out of the game while he was still in one piece. Nevers' teams were good enough to keep Chicago out of the very bottom of the cellar.
No. 3: 1983-1996 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 95
Record: 64-159 (.287)
Average DVOA: -24.4%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -35.3%
Three last-place finishes in the NFL; Four last-place finishes in the NFC; Eleven last-place finishes in the NFC Central
Head Coaches: John McKay, Leeman Bennett, Ray Perkins, Richard Williamson, Sam Wyche, Tony Dungy
Key Players: QB Vinny Testaverde, QB Steve DeBerg, FB James Wilder, WR Mark Carrier, WR Gerald Carter, T Paul Gruber, T Rob Taylor, G Ian Beckles, C Randy Grimes, C Tony Mayberry, DE Lee Roy Selmon, DE John Cannon, LB Hardy Nickerson, LB Jeff Davis, CB Ricky Reynolds
The other four teams in the top five all put up 20-plus years of misery to earn their spot. That the Buccaneers get to join this elite company with "only" 14 seasons is a testament to just how bad the Creamsicles were in a relatively compact period of time. The thing is, all those other teams had brief moments of hope; a rare winning season shining through the darkness. Not these Buccaneers—all 14 seasons here saw the Bucs finish with a losing record, the longest such streak in NFL history. No team has ever gone so long without even the faint hint of hope. But it gets worse.
Between 1983 and 1994, the Buccaneers lost at least 10 games every single year. That's not just an NFL-record 12 straight seasons; it's not even a particularly challenged NFL record. The 2000s Raiders put up seven years in a row of double-digit losses; the Browns, Lions, and Jaguars teams highest on this list all had six. Those are the only teams to even reach half of Tampa Bay's futility mark. The section in Tampa Bay's history page on Wikipedia simply titles this era as ""The worst team in the league." We just finished adding 1983 to our DVOA tables this summer, and I can confirm now that the Buccaneers averaged a -24.4% DVOA over these 14 years; everyone else was better than -18.0%. It's the second-worst DVOA over a 14-year stretch we have ever seen, which is an odd set of superlatives to boast about, but never you mind. Advanced stats can confirm that the Bucs were truly the worst in this era.
The most frustrating part of being a Buccaneers fan in the late 1970s/early 1980s is hard to pin down, although I'm sure our commentors will have some suggestions. I think I'd probably focus in on the great players who did play for the Bucs, and then left to become great elsewhere, or refused to sign with the team in the first place. In 1983, Doug Williams bolted for the USFL when owner Hugh Culverhouse refused to increase his salary; Williams was the lowest-paid starting quarterback in the NFL at the time and was making less than his backups. I suppose 1983 was the time to lose out on a starting quarterback if needs be, considering it was the most star-studded quarterback draft ever. Except, oh, darn the luck, they had traded their first-round pick to the Bears so they could draft Booker Reese the year before—and they only needed to do that because they had accidentally submitted the wrong card and drafted Sean Farrell in the first round. Dan Marino was still on the board when the Buccaneers' pick came up, as was better-than-you-remember Ken O'Brien. Reese played two and a half seasons with the Bucs before being traded for a 12th-round pick. Marino played zero.
Williams was just the first of many good players to become ex-Buccaneers. Steve Young was traded in 1987 after Tampa Bay drafted Vinny Testaverde, and then Vinny left after 1992 and became a multiple-time Pro Bowler. The Bucs drafted Bo Jackson with the first overall pick, despite Jackson swearing he'd never play for Tampa Bay and holding on to his end of the bargain. Imagining Young and Jackson in the same backfield is tantalizing, to say the least. Never happened.
Then there was the terrible misuse of draft picks. The Buccaneers didn't have a first-round pick in 1983 because of the Reese move. That meant they didn't have a first-round pick in 1984, because they traded that pick (No. 1 overall!) to get quarterback Jack Thompson, a bust from Cincinnati. Their 1986 first-round pick was Jackson; he never played for the team after they cost him his NCAA baseball eligibility with an illegal plane ride. The 1989 draft was an unmitigated disaster, with only Broderick Thomas providing any value whatsoever. They traded their 1992 first-round pick away for Chris Chandler, despite Testaverde already being on the roster; Chandler was gone before the 1992 draft occurred. And when they stood pat, they took players such as Keith McCants (over Junior Seau).
Or maybe it was the coaches that were the worst. Leeman Bennett was fired after back-to-back 2-14 seasons, which is fair enough—but he was fired during a press conference that he thought was being held specifically to announce that he was staying on. Surprise! Culverhouse called the next coach, Ray Perkins, "my Vince Lombardi" which, no. I suppose he meant that Perkins would be tough, and he was; he instituted three-a-day practices that caused all his players to be A) tired, B) injured, C) pissed at him, or D) a combination of the above. In 1987, he fought lineman Ron Heller at halftime. Heller had told the team "don't quit"; Perkins only heard the last word and threw a bunch of punches, breaking his thumb on Heller's helmet. That wasn't the only coach-player feud in this era, either; Perkins fought with Vinny Testaverde for years, while Sam Wyche and Trent Dilfer never saw eye-to-eye. It took Tony Dungy arriving in 1996 to finally give the franchise a sense of professionalism once more.
The question, then, is why the Buccaneers aren't No. 1—and unlike some of our other teams, which get vague "they weren't bad enough" answers, Bucs fans have a serious sticking point. The 1976-1980 Buccaneers appeared back at No. 27; that was the team that went 0-26. They get broken from this group because of a brief period of playoff success; John McKay led the Bucs to three playoff appearances in four years between 1979 and 1982, which shuts the door on that. But McKay was still the coach when this bad run began, and there were only two seasons between them. Is it fair to consider them two different runs? Should we artificially stitch them together, and create a Super-Bucs Anti-Dynasty? If we did so, then yes, the 1976-1996 Buccaneers would go down as the worst Anti-Dynasty of all time. Adding those extra few years helps, and the negative DVOAs of the 0-26 squads outweigh the positive DVOAs from the playoff appearances.
The thing is … there's no way we can justify a team who makes the playoffs in three out of four seasons as being part of a terrible run. That's just too much success. If anything, calling the 1976-1980 Bucs one coherent run is misleading; they were in the NFC Championship Game in 1979, and 1980 was really only a poor season thanks to injuries (and a boatload of cocaine, allegedly). It really should just be that 1976-1978 run, and at that point, you're talking half a decade and multiple playoff appearances between the two squads. No, I'm comfortable with shimmying a gap between the 0-26 team and the 14-straight-losing-seasons team. That leaves the Bucs just short of the top of the mountain. It's certainly an arguable point, but we're leaving Tampa Bay here for now.
No. 2: 1985-2006 St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 106
Record: 121-229-1 (.346)
Average DVOA: -20.4%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -36.4%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Five last-place finishes in the NFC; Eleven last-place finishes in the NFC East/West
Head Coaches: Jim Hanifan, Gene Stallings, Hank Kuhlman, Joe Bugel, Buddy Ryan, Vince Tobin, Dave McGinnis, Dennis Green
Key Players: QB Jake Plummer, QB Neil Lomax, RB Stump Mitchell, FB Larry Centers, WR Anquan Boldin, WR Frank Sanders, WR J.T. Smith, WR Rob Moore, WR Roy Green, T Luis Sharpe, T Leonard Davis, T Tootie Robbins, G Lance Smith, DE Freddie Joe Nunn, DE Michael Bankston, DE Simeon Rice, DT Eric Swann, LB Eric Hill, LB Ronald McKinnon, CB Aeneas Williams, S Tim McDonald, S Adrian Wilson
I'm not sure the common perception has caught up to just how bad the Cardinals were in their first decade and a half in Arizona. No, they weren't competitive, and they were essentially always in the basement of the NFC East, but I think if you were to poll people today, they'd come up with the Buccaneers and Bengals as the worst teams of the 1990s before they mentioned Phoenix. The Cardinals were only last in the league once, in 2003, and at 4-12, they shared that honor with the Giants, Raiders, and Chargers. Heck, they even made the playoffs in 1998 behind some Jake Plummer magic. Sure, they had the worst winning percentage in the league over these two decades and change, but that's just because of our particular endpoints, right? It overlaps the Bengals Super Bowl appearances and Tony Dungy's Bucs; shave it off on either end and the Cardinals can't be the worst, yeah?
Let's put things in terms of actual DVOA, which stretches back to 1983. The 1999-2004 Cardinals have the worst six-year stretch in history, averaging a -31.9% DVOA. They also have the worst seven-year stretch in history. And the worst stretch over eight years. And nine. Ten, 11, 12, all the way up to all 38 years of DVOA we have in our database, as they have averaged a -13.2% DVOA from 1983 to 2020. This hasn't always shown up in the win-loss column; the Buccaneers, Lions, and Browns all have worse winning percentages in the ever-expanding DVOA era. But those three teams have all made the playoffs at least eight times; they have had periods of being significantly good mixed in with the bad. The Cardinals—not just in this era, but in their entire franchise history—have never made the playoffs more than two years in a row. They have never had a winning record more than four seasons in a row, and never more than three since arriving in Arizona. Picking between these two decades and the two decades in Chicago we discussed two entries ago is difficult, and the fact that one franchise could register multiple double-decade runs of futility seems nearly impossible.
The St. Louis era was a relative period of calmness for the Cardinals. Yes, they only made the playoffs three times, but this was in an era of smaller postseasons, and they were generally a competent-ish team; their .480 win percentage was 18th in the league over their time in St. Louis. But with attendance dwindling and the promise of a new stadium flashing in the Bidwills' eyes, the Phoenix Cardinals were born in 1988. Never mind that the team has never actually played in Phoenix. And never mind that, because of financial issues, the Cardinals didn't get a new stadium for 18 years in the desert. It was going to be a fresh new start, and just what the Cardinals needed to get over the hump in the post-Jim Hart era.
The late-1980s and early-1990s Cardinals suffered from playing in an NFC East which routinely produced Super Bowl-winners; dealing with Washington and Dallas twice a year sort of puts a crimp in your potential win total. From 1985 to 1994, the Cardinals averaged 5.6 wins a season and a -12.4% DVOA, which would have gotten them on this list but dodged the top 10. They were a subpar team in a division of giants; it happens, and there was only so much Joe Bugel could do about it. Even Buddy Ryan managed a bit of success, though his 46 defense was no longer cutting-edge in 1994. They had gone 8-8, and it looked like things were going to turn around.
Well, I suppose they did, but not in the direction the Cards were hoping for. The 1995 Cardinals crumbled under the heightened expectations, as it turns out an aging Dave Krieg was not the answer at quarterback. Ryan and his staff were fired, and an era of cycling through coaches began. Vince Tobin got the Cards to the playoffs in 1998 … with a -17.8% DVOA; a colossal fluke of a team that picked up six wins in their last nine games, all over teams with 6-10 records or worse. Dave McGinnis is one of the most enthusiastic coaches in league history, but enthusiasm didn't lead to wins as the Cardinals bled talent—draft busts such as Andre Wadsworth, Wendall Bryant, and Tommy Knight weren't exactly satisfactory replacements for a defense that ranked 30th or worse between 2000 and 2003, and below average in every season from 1995 to 2008. As for Dennis Green's reign, he did bring a bit of respectability and professionalism back to the team but, at the end of the day, they were who we thought they were.
The Cardinals had a few brief highlights offensively—Jake Plummer was fun to watch, and they got a good one-off season from Boomer Esiason—but by the end of the 1990s and into realignment, you could count on the Cardinals being in the bottom 20 on both sides of the ball; they managed that six times between 1996 and 2003. They finish higher on this list than their Chicago counterparts because they didn't have someone such as Ernie Nevers, a game-changing superstar who could bring them close to competence on his own. Heck, they didn't even have a Jim Hart to pave over deficiencies elsewhere. Their high points, even with a 1998 playoff win over the Cowboys, aren't nearly high enough to make up for the nearly endless gallery of lowlights.
The Cardinals have not had an Anti-Dynasty since 2006, with Ken Whisenhunt finally breaking the streak, but the damage has been done. We mentioned that the Cardinals have the worst average DVOA in the DVOA era, but we can go beyond that. We can average actual DVOA from 1983 to 2020, estimated DVOA from 1950 to 1982, and SRS-to-DVOA conversions from 1920 to 1949. In fact, let's pretend this is a stats article and put in a table right here, showing just how all 32 franchises score in all our various types of DVOA.
|Average DVOA*, 1920-2020|
|Franchise||First Year||DVOA||Est DVOA||SRS-DVOA||Total|
The Cardinals come in second, just behind the Buccaneers and essentially tied with the Texans. But the Cardinals have had over a century to try to put quality teams on the field; no one has failed more frequently than they have. In my mind, there's no question that the Cardinals are the worst franchise in NFL history.
But they're not No. 1 on this list.
No. 1: 1999-2019 Cleveland Browns
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 119
Record: 101-234-1 (.302)
Average DVOA: -16.6%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -33.9%
Four last-place finishes in the NFL; Five last-place finishes in the AFC; Fifteen last-place finishes in the AFC Central/North
Head Coaches: Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, Hue Jackson, Gregg Williams, Freddie Kitchens
Key Players: QB Tim Couch, WR Josh Cribbs, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Dennis Northcutt, WR Braylon Edwards, WR Kevin Johnson, T Joe Thomas, T Ryan Tucker, G Joel Bitonio, G John Greco, C Alex Mack, C Ryan Pontbriand, DE Orpheus Roye, DE Kenard Lang, DT Ahtyba Rubin, DT Gerard Warren, LB D'Qwell Jackson, LB Andra Davis, LB Jamir Miller, LB Kamerion Wimbley, LB Joe Schobert, LB Christian Kirksey, CB Joe Haden, CB Daylon McCutcheon, S T.J. Ward, K Phil Dawson
And so we have arrived.
I worry, sometimes, that there's recency bias involved here. After all, both the greatest dynasty and greatest Anti-Dynasty come not just from the 21st century, but the 2010s. Is it really possible that after a century of football, the best and worst teams of all time are ones we have just happened to watch in the past handful of years?
Then I look again at the resumes, and no, I stand by it. The New Browns manage to collect many of the highlights of all the other Anti-Dynasties we have talked about, refined them, and brought them back out as a greatest hits collection of the worst teams of all time. If it's over—and we can only officially close the book on the Browns if they manage a winning season in 2021—then at least we'll have the memories of the greatest collection of failures in NFL history.
Technically, if we were playing by the rules we set up for every other franchise in NFL history, this entry should be the 1995-2019 Browns, including the last year for the Old Browns in Cleveland. I love that fact, because it means Bill Belichick was the head coach of both the worst and best runs in history. But it also means we can tie the Browns into both the long list of teams that relocated and the 1920s teams that ceased play for a few years due to financial concerns. The 0-16 2017 season lines the Browns up with the 2010s Lions, 1970s Buccaneers, and 1940s Cardinals, Steelers, and Tigers for ineptitude in one year. The not one but two 17-game losing streaks are tied for the sixth-worst streak of all time, bringing to mind teams such as the 1970s Oilers, 1960s Washington, and 1920s Triangles.
You want poor drafting? Take Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Barkevious Mingo, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving, and Corey Coleman, all taken in the first round between 2012 and 2016. You want legendary players seeing their careers wasted? Ernie Nevers, meet Joe Thomas. You want Al Davis-esque cycling through head coaches? How about no coach lasting more than two years since Romeo Crennel in 2005? You want eternal floundering, trying to find an answer at quarterback? By my count, the Browns had 15 different first-string quarterbacks—not injury replacements, not temporary benchings for disciplinary reasons, but 15 different guys trotted out because they were considered the best option the Browns had. Five of those guys were first-round picks. None were any good. (OK, Baker Mayfield has turned into "any good," at a bare minimum, but he wasn't in 2019, so I'm sticking with my point!)
The Browns have had three different owners, nine different general managers, two different stadiums. They tried focusing on the analytics. They tried focusing on tough-guy macho-man attitudes. They had strict coaches, player coaches, defensive coaches, offensive coaches. They built from the lines out, from the skill positions in. They built through the draft, they built through veterans in free agency. We have never seen a team try to many different things to just reach basic competence, and fail for so long.
Then there are the individual moments. Losing 43-0 to the Steelers in their first game back from hiatus in 1999, gaining just 40 yards and setting the tone for everything to come. Bottlegate, when fans pelted the field with debris after a bad call went against them in 2001. Dwayne Rudd tossing his helmet to cost the Browns the 2002 season opener. The staph infections that plagued the team in the late 2000s. Losing to the Ravens on a blocked game-winning field goal attempt in 2015. Just … Hue Jackson. All of Hue Jackson, who has the second-worst winning percentage of any qualified coach in NFL history, and I'm using the word "qualified" ironically here. The parade after completing the 0-16 season. Trying to trade for AJ McCarron to solve their quarterback woes, only for the trade not to be completed before the deadline because the team was celebrating having completed the trade. Those terrible 2015 uniforms which were undone the moment the team was allowed to do so. We could go on…
... and so we will. Being shut out four times in 2000, still the second-most for any team ever; even the 1-31 Browns of 2016-17 managed to score every game. The false hope of the 2002 playoff run, a year with an 0.8% DVOA that quickly crested back downwards in ensuing seasons. LeCharles Bentley blowing out his knee on the first day of training camp in 2006, triggering a sequence of events that left the Browns without any centers on the roster for nearly two months. Finally getting double-digit wins in 2007, only to miss the playoffs on tiebreakers. Josh Gordon's repeated suspensions. Picking Johnny Manziel over Kyle Shanahan in 2015.
It's hard to even pick the worst of the worst of the Browns here. How can you sort between the first-round bust passers? Manziel versus Weeden is an impossible decision. Hue Jackson should be a shoo-in for worst coach, but he's competing against Eric Mangini's micromanaging and utter disregard for the franchise's substantial history. The Factory of Sadness defies inspection. It's fractal—every depressing fact you can dig up is composed of multiple other depressing facts, which are then composed of multiple MORE depressing facts. It's bottomless. Trying to sum up a generation of terrible Browns football, of hopeless years and of crushing near-misses, could be an entire series of articles on its own.
And would any of us really be surprised if the Browns tumbled down in 2021 and kept this going? They haven't had a positive DVOA since 2007; they slipped into the playoffs last year at -5.7%. Would it stun anyone if they fell to 8-9 or worse? I mean, you'd bet against it, surely … but it is a tough schedule, and the front seven is questionable. And, again, it's the Cleveland Browns. This is what I was talking about when I said that for these final five teams, losing has become part of their DNA. It will take years—decades, even—for the effects of a stretch like this to fade from the fanbase's psyche.
They're the top of the bottom; the best of the worst. It's not a runaway, but the Browns have the longest run we have ever seen at 22 years. They have the most last-place divisional finishes with 15. They have 15 years where they lost at least twice as many games as they won, most on the list. If anything, incorporating DVOA hurts them as they mostly put up very bad DVOAs instead of all-time terrible seasons; they "only" have two of the worst 20 seasons we have seen in the DVOA era. Plenty of other teams can argue that they were worse than the Browns, at least for brief periods of time.
But to average less than five wins a season for nearly 25 years? I'm sorry, but all the advanced stats in the world can't make up a gap like that. The Cleveland Browns put together the worst run of all time. Here's hoping it's over—for their sakes.
The Final Rankings
The following graphic shows the rankings of all teams. Click the image to open it in a larger size in a new window. You can also find a sortable table with the actual numbers (not z-scores) in the original article that explained the Anti-Dynasty rankings.