Anti-Dynasty Rankings 31-40: Kelly Abandons Buffalo
Our dynasty rankings continue as we stagger into the top 40.
Five of our 10 entries today come from before the founding of the AFL in 1960. Heck, all five come from before free substitution was made permanent in 1950. While there are still a few old-timey teams yet to come, we are more or less closing the book on the 1920s today—these are the last franchises which no longer exist in any way, shape, or form in 2021.
The 1920s clubs that qualified for this list are an interesting bunch. There were plenty of cash-grab teams from the 1920s, franchises which existed for a year or two as a travelling team, just picking up paychecks and patching together a barebones roster to fill contractual obligations. There were sandlot teams that took an occasional paycheck to go get stomped by the Packers or Giants, kind of the equivalent of Alabama playing Western Carolina or The Citadel. But those teams all went under well before they could rack up a record bad enough to qualify for this list. Most of the 1920s teams that do qualify were passion projects. Someone really, really loved the idea of owning and running a professional football team and stuck around long after it was shown that no, they weren't particularly good at it. You have people mortgaging their homes to pay for uniforms, workers looking for breaks from the railroad or the assembly lines, sandlot players trying to show those namby-pamby college kids how to really play the game. Failures, one and all, but somehow more endearing failures than "owner X ran out of money," "coach Y had no idea what he was doing," and "player Z's knees were made of Styrofoam and hope."
Speaking of those last two, we also have a pair of New York Jets teams to get through today, just to show that, no, Adam Gase was not a unique and special snowflake. Let's get cracking.
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. 40: 1982-1987 Buffalo Bills
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 35
Record: 27-61 (.307)
Average DVOA: -17.0%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -21.7%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL
Head Coaches: Chuck Knox, Kay Stephenson, Hank Bullough, Marv Levy
Key Players: T Joe Devlin, G Jim Richter, NT Fred Smerlas, LB Eugene Marve, CB Charles Romes, S Steve Freeman
"Being acquired by Buffalo," Steve Tasker once said, "was akin to being sentenced to prison in Siberia." Buffalo's not exactly known for its temperate climate, but it was the sheer hopelessness of those mid-1980s Bills that made playing there feel like punishment.
It has never been explained to anyone's satisfaction how Kay Stephenson ended up as head coach. We'll get to the reason the job was open in a second, but quarterback coach Stephenson was reportedly stunned to receive the offer, saying that owner Ralph Wilson never actually explained why he was tabbed for the job. Stephenson would go on to be a moderately successful coach, with winning records first in the World League of American Football and later in the Canadian Football League, but as a positional coach promoted directly to the head of a franchise, Stephenson was pretty immediately outmatched. That's not to say he was generic or forgettable or didn't bring his own ideas to the table, mind you. As a former quarterbacks coach, he was concerned with the team's high number of interceptions. So, in 1984, he ordered the team to switch from white helmets to red, to help Joe Ferguson and company identify targets downfield. You see, at the time, the Patriots, Dolphins, and Colts all wore white helmets and played in the AFC East, so Stephenson figured the contrast would help his team identify their receivers downfield. As a result, the Bills' interception total went from 28 in 1983 to … 30 in 1984. Well, A for effort, at the very least.
No one wanted any part of the mid-1980s Bills. The head coaching job opened up because Chuck Knox wanted out. He had brought stability and leadership to a team that was desperately lacking it, and Wilson replied by … refusing to give Knox a raise and letting him flee to Seattle. From 1983 to 1987, Knox's Seahawks would go 48-31 with three playoff appearances. In the same timeframe, the Bills went 23-56, and while you can't blame that all on coaching, you can blame some of that on coaching.
It might have helped if any players wanted to stick around. The Bills picked Jim Kelly in the 1983 draft, but Kelly listed Buffalo as one of the teams he would not, under any circumstances, play for—too cold for the Miami passer, and he was entirely unconvinced Wilson would bring in a winning team around him. He signed with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL instead. Star running back Joe Cribbs also fled to the fledgling league before the 1984 season. Buffalo sued, saying that there was a clause in Cribbs' contract that gave them right of first refusal if Cribbs tried to sign with another team. Unfortunately, that clause only covered NFL teams and not USFL ones, and Cribbs was allowed to leave.
In 1984 and 1985, Buffalo put up DVOAs of -40.6% and -37.5%, going 2-14 both years. In 1984 alone, they gave up a franchise-record 454 points and allowed a then-record 60 sacks. They lost six games by 25 points or more, which remains the NFL record. This was not a pleasant football team to watch! With attendance plummeting, the Bills were very close to being sold—including a swap that would have seen Wilson and Leonard Tose trade the Eagles and Bills.
And then the USFL collapsed, and the Bills got the rights to Kelly, and Marv Levy, and Kent Hull, and Ray Bentley. And they drafted Bruce Smith, and Thurman Thomas the next year, and things improved rather rapidly after that. The Bills' franchise was on a knife edge; had the USFL continued to play a spring schedule and not tried to go head-to-head with the NFL, the glory years of the 1990s may have never arrived, and Buffalo might well still be the NFL's Siberia.
No. 39: 1946-1949 Detroit Lions
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 37
Record: 10-37 (.213)
Average DVOA: -21.0%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -16.8%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL, Three last-place finishes in the NFL West
Head Coaches: Gus Dorais, Bo McMillin
Key Players: HB Bill Dudley, E John Greene, E Ted Cremer, T Russ Thomas, G Howie Brown
Much like the Bills in the entry before them, the late-1940s Lions struggled in part due to losing players to a competing league.
Y.A. Tittle is a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest passers of the 1950s and 1960s. The Lions took him sixth overall in the 1948 NFL draft, but Tittle went to the All-America Football Conference, where he proceeded to throw for the fourth-most yards in professional football that year, watching the Lions struggle to go 2-10. Moral of the story: make sure you can sign a guy if you're going to draft him.
Imagining Tittle on the late-1940s Lions isn't just your general "hey, if good player had come, that bad team would have been good" theory. The early-1940s Lions were nearly as bad as the late-1940s group until head coach Gus Dorais came over from the University of Detroit. Dorais took the team from an 0-11 record to six- and seven-win seasons in just two years. Specifically, Dorais was credited by experts at the time as having designed the best pass patterns in the NFL—he had practically invented the things, working with Knute Rockne to make the forward pass a regular part of Notre Dame's offenses as a player in the 1910s. His "razzle-dazzle T-formation offensive" worked while he had a half-decent back, such as 1944 MVP Frankie Sinkwich. And remember, this was the 1940s—Sinkwich passed 148 times and ran 150 times; he was a tailback who threw the ball rather than a modern quarterback who ran the ball. But Sinkwich left to join the Air Force and blew out his knee—not in combat, mind you, but playing for the Second Air Force Superbombers football team. This left the Lions in a bit of a bind.
In the mid-1940s, there were only a half-dozen or so players you could identify as a quarterback by any modern standards—you had your Sid Luckmans, your Sammy Baughs, your Bob Waterfields, and so on, but about half the teams out there were still trotting out tailbacks and halfbacks and occasionally letting them throw the ball. There certainly weren't backup quarterbacks freely available, so with Sinkwich out, Dorais didn't have a player who could actually run his offense, with Dave Ryan, Clyde LeForce and Roy Zimmerman all faceplanting. Give those 1940s Lions a Luckman—or a Y.A. Tittle—and we're maybe talking about them as one of the best teams of the 1940s.
Instead, they went 1-10 in 1946 with an estimated DVOA of -36.7%, and things weren't much better the next season. Dorais was fired and replaced by Indiana's Bo McMillin, who went so far as to change the Lions' color scheme from Detroit's familiar Honolulu blue to Indiana's maroon. Somehow, that didn't do the trick. Instead, it was the 1950 trades for Bobby Layne and Doak Walker, former high school teammates, that ended up driving the Lions out of their funk; those two would end up taking Detroit to three consecutive NFL Championship Games.
— 𝐏𝐫𝐨 𝐅𝐨𝐨𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐉𝐨𝐮𝐫𝐧𝐚𝐥 (@NFL_Journal) April 13, 2020
No. 38: 1942-1945 Brooklyn Dodgers/Tigers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 38
Record: 8-32-1 (.207)
Average DVOA: -22.8%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -18.3%
One last-place finishes in the NFL, Two last-place finishes in the NFL East
Head Coaches: Mike Getto, Pete Cawthorn, Ed Kubale, Frank Bridges, Herb Kopf
Key Players: TB Dean McAdams, HB Merl Condit, FB Pug Manders, T Bruiser Kinard, T George Sergienko
… You know what? Hold that thought.
No. 37: 1931-1939 Brooklyn Dodgers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 36
Record: 33-63-8 (.356)
Average DVOA: -17.5%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -23.6%
Head Coaches: Jack Depler, Benny Friedman, Cap McEwan, Paul Schissler, Potsy Clark
Key Players: TB Ace Parker, TB Stumpy Thomason, WB Ralph Kercheval, BB Bull Karcis, BB Father Lumpkin, E Paul Riblett, T Lou Lubratovich, T Bill Lee, G Stu Worden
Ah, there we go. And, with these two entries, we can close the books on the Triangles/Dodgers/Tigers/Yanks/Texans mess of an early franchise. Not quite on the Colts, who distantly inherited all of this, but at least we're through with charting the course of this motley crew. Under one name or another, this set of teams had five winning seasons between 1920 and 1956. It turns out, that's quite bad!
You may have several questions. I'll do my best to answer them chronologically.
Wait, aren't the 1930s teams the same as the Triangles from entry 42?
Yes and no. Two businessmen from Brooklyn bought the franchise and moved it to Ebbets Stadium, and they imported a roster … from the Orange/Newark Tornadoes, a different terrible and short-lived franchise. In the midst of the Great Depression, moving an entire roster from Dayton to Brooklyn wasn't financially prudent, and besides, the Triangles were terrible. One bad roster is very much the same as another in the long run.
The terrible roster actually improved rather quickly, to be honest. At one point or another, the 1930s Dodgers employed a trio of Hall of Famers—Benny Friedman, Ace Parker, and Red Badgro. They also had multi-time All-American halfback Chris Cagle, All-Pro back Jack McBride, and fantastic kicker Ralph Kercheval. The problem is, they rarely had all of these players at the same time, with players coming in only for a year or two before leaving for greener pastures. The 1935 squad was practically an all-rookie select. Frantic ownership changes didn't help, either—owners of the New York Yankees, New York Americans, and Pittsburgh Pirates (baseball, hockey, and hockey, confusingly enough) all owned a piece of the franchise for a year or two. Even in the 1930s, that kind of chaos wasn't conducive to success, and so while the franchise would occasionally flirt with .500, they were generally third or fourth out of five teams in their division.
Well, then, what happened in 1940? Why are these two different teams?
In 1940, Jock Sutherland came in as head coach, and he brought with him his single-wing attack from Pittsburgh. That was an immediate success—Ace Parker won league MVP in 1940, Pug Manders won the rushing title in 1941, and the Dodgers went 15-7, finishing second in their division each year. Those were pretty good teams. We're not here to talk about pretty good teams.
But if the early-1940s Dodgers were good, what happened in 1942?
It's not so much what happened in 1942 as it is what happened on December 7, 1941. The Dodgers lost Sutherland, Parker, and a plethora of other players to service in World War II. With their core gone and fans losing interest, the team floundered and flailed. They went 0-10 in 1944, merged with the Boston Yanks for one season in 1945, and were done.
Yes, the 1945 Yanks (or "Bos/Bkn Yanks/Tigers," as Pro Football Reference so pithily calls them) count for both the 1940s Tigers and the Yanks from entry 45. This isn't the last time we'll encounter the World War II merged teams, though oddly enough it is the only time one team counts for two entries.
So the Tigers just folded in 1945, and that's why their second entry ends there?
No, actually. They moved back to New York and became the New York Yankees in the AAFC—and had immediate success, reaching the AAFC Championship Game in both 1946 and 1947. And then they merged with the AAFC's Brooklyn Dodgers to become the Brooklyn-New York Yankees, as if this mess of a franchise needed yet more complexity in their history. When the AAFC folded, most of the players were given back to the New York Yanks, merging them back into the main branch of pre-Colts history.
I feel like I need one of those crazy-person conspiracy walls to keep this all straight.
Why are the 1940s Dodgers ahead of the 1930s Dodgers?
One of the fundamental questions of this project is whether it's worse, as a fan, to root for bad teams for a long time or terrible teams for a short time. The answer as always depends on just how we're defining "long" and "terrible" in any given case, and this one ends up in nearly a dead tie. Prorating things out to 16-game seasons, the 1930s Tigers basically won five or six games every year for a decade, while the 1940s Tigers won three or four for half as long. That two-game difference basically makes this a dead heat; cut the 1930s Dodgers down to an eight-year run rather than a nine-year run, and they'd slip behind their 1940s counterparts.
In short, the 1930s Dodgers are the 2010s New York Jets; years of mediocre play intercut with occasional false hopes. The 1940s Dodgers are the post-#Sacksonville Jaguars, a team that can never be credited with giving their fans false hopes, or any hope at all, really. Which is worse is a matter of opinion.
No. 36: 1921-1925 Rochester Jeffersons
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 35
Record: 2-24-2 (.107)
Average DVOA: -33.0%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -33.6%
Four last-place finishes in the AFPA/NFL
Head Coaches: Jack Forsyth, Doc Alexander, Leo Lyons, Johnny Murphy, Tex Grigg
Key Players: WB Bob Argus, BB Shag Sheard, E Spin Roy, G Darby Lowery, C Hank Smith
And we've arrived at the last team from the 1920s. Two wins in five seasons, zero in their last four. The Jeffs are the entire reason why teams with fewer than 10 games played in a season have their DVOAs truncated; otherwise, the Jeffersons would be listed as the third-worst anti-dynasty of all time. Averaging a -33.0% DVOA, a mark just 48 teams in the actual DVOA era have ever reached, will do that for you.
How bad can a team be? Only one team has ever dipped below -50.0% in actual DVOA—the 2005 49ers, and we'll get to meet them later on in these pieces. Two more teams—1976 Tampa Bay and 1954 Washington—also hit -50.0% in Andreas Shepard's estimated DVOAs. That makes those teams the worst ever in 16-, 14-, and 12-game seasons, respectively. But in short spurts, teams can put up much worse numbers than that. The worst single-game mark in 2020, for instance, was the Patriots' 33-6 loss to the 49ers, which gave them a DVOA of -110.3%. Small sample sizes can produce spectacular results.
With that in mind, let's meet the 1923 Rochester Jeffersons. The Jeffs opened their season on the road at Normal Park in Chicago, where they put up a valiant effort against the Cardinals, losing 60-0. Things got a little better the next week, as their trip to the Rock Island Independents saw them battle their opponents to a 56-0 loss. To put those numbers into context, the average team scored 7.9 points a game in 1923; allowing 60 back then is somewhat like allowing 188 today. The Jeffs then enjoyed their six-week break from NFL action, mostly playing sandlot teams, and that helped them get into shape for 12-6 and 13-0 losses to the Toledo Maroons and their cross-state rival Buffalo All-Americans. And that ended their season, going 0-4 against four average opponents (estimated DVOAs ranging from -12.5% to 9.8%) and being outscored by 34 points a game.
The end result? An estimated DVOA of -91.6%, which is worse than any real four-game stretch I could find in our database. They followed that up with a -57.2% DVOA going 0-7 in 1924, again worse than any seven-game stretch I could find. In an earlier entry, I stressed that the Dayton Triangles were not as bad as their record indicated. The Jeffersons most definitely were. They had 23 straight games without a victory, a record only beaten by the 1976-1977 Buccaneers. Their only wins in this stretch came against the 1921 Columbus Panhandles, who we already saw on this list, and the 1921 Tonawanda Kardex in their one and only game in the NFL. This is the worst team of the 1920s, at least among those that managed to survive more than a handful of games.
And it's sad that that's the case, because owner/general manager/promoter/doctor/photographer/financier Leo Lyons is a really interesting and important historical figure in the NFL. His histories of the league and its predecessors are the gold standard of this era. He helped found the Hall of Fame, and in fact much of the Hall's early exhibits and collection consists of stuff that Lyons had accumulated over the years. He has been nominated several times for the Hall, but never been inducted. And before his Jeffersons were too bad, they were too good.
The Jeffersons were semi-pro and sandlot stars in the teens, and the Rochester fans loved their sandlot football. Lyons gambled that they'd love to see one of their local teams join the pro leagues as well, but that turned out not to be the case. Fans in Rochester didn't want to see the best players from around the country wearing a shirt that said Rochester on it; they wanted to see local Rochester people playing each other. The more players Lyons brought in, the less fans cared. And the Jeffersons were good enough that they would routinely blow out local teams, but poor enough that they'd get blown out by pros. That's a bad spot to be in—if none of your games are competitive, people aren't going to show up. Lyons put every penny he had into the team, even mortgaging his house to try to keep it afloat, explaining why they managed to last long enough to appear on this list. In the end, though, if you don't win any games for four years, you're not going to be able to keep a team alive, and the Jeffs folded after the 1925 season.
No. 35: 1987-1996 New York Jets
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 50
Record: 54-104-1 (.343)
Average DVOA: -11.0%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -22.2%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL; Three last-place finishes in the AFC; Five last-place finishes in the AFC East
Head Coaches: Joe Walton, Bruce Coslet, Pete Carroll, Rich Kotite
Key Players: QB Ken O'Brien, WR Al Toon, T Jeff Criswell, C Jim Sweeney, DE Marvin Washington, NT Scott Mersereau, LB Kyle Clifton, LB Mo Lewis, CB James Hasty, S Erik McMillan, S Brian Washington
As this goes live, Jets fans are taking a sigh of relief as the Adam Gase era has finally ended. But as bad as Gase was, I'd argue he doesn't take the title of worst coach in Jets history. That honor remains firmly in the arms of Rich Kotite. But before we get to Kotite, we have to acknowledge that the Jets were not in the best of places before he took over in 1995.
The inclusion of Joe Walton's last teams stretches this to another Decade of Despair, but his squads really weren't that bad. They only had a losing record in 1987 thanks to going 1-2 with replacement players, and they had a winning record the next year. Ken O'Brien never could get past his reputation as the guy the Jets drafted instead of Dan Marino, but he was a better quarterback than you remember, a multi-time Pro Bowler with an Alex Smithian penchant for avoiding difficult throws, and New York had a top-10 offense in 1988. The bottom fell out the next season, though, and chants of "Joe Must Go" filled the Meadowlands as the Jets stumbled to a 4-12 season. That kept Walton from being the first coach in Jets history to retire with a winning record, as he was let go after the season. Suffice it to say that none of Walton's successors really came close to sniffing a winning record themselves.
Bruce Coslet did at least manage to pull the 1991 Jets into an 8-8 wild-card berth, but his Jets tenure ended up being defined by unavailable players, due to injury, holdout, or both—1992 saw the Jets attempt to play most of the year without Pro Bowler O'Brien and pass-rusher Jeff Lageman, and saw career-ending injuries to both Al Toon and Dennis Bryd. Bringing in Boomer Esiason gave the Jets a bit of a spark in 1993, but losses in the last two games of the season kept them out of the playoffs and ended Coslet's reign. Coslet was replaced by Pete Carroll, a go-get-'em, enthusiastic, young guy, who started out 6-5. Then Dan Marino pulled his famous fake spike, the Jets lost every game the rest of the way, and Carroll was done. All of that sucked, for sure, but not bad enough to make it onto the list.
While all of this was going on, the Jets were also becoming infamous for their drafting, er, prowess, aided by the fact that Jets fans filled Radio City Music Hall year after year. I can't think of the 1990s Jets without hearing "New York Jets first round selection … fullback (ooooh nooooo!) Roger Vick" over Harris Barton or Bruce Armstrong. Jeff Lageman over Steve Atwater or Andre Rison. Blair Thomas over Cortez Kennedy or Junior Seau. Johnny Mitchell over Chester McGlockton or Dale Carter. Kyle Brady over Warren Sapp. Every team misses on the draft every now and again. The Jets turned it into an art form.
So in 1995, Rich Kotite, Mr. "Eight-and-Eight is Great" who had just been fired from the Philadelphia Eagles, became head coach and general manager of a team that was underperforming both on the field and in the draft. A strong Xs-and-Os guy, or a brilliant front office mind, could take the pieces of the Jets franchise and turn them into something respectable. "I'm not a genius," Kotite said in his introductory press conference. "But if you have a team that you prepare, that plays hard for 60 minutes, you have a chance to succeed." Kotite did not give his teams a chance to succeed.
The 1995 Jets lost 13 games, the most in franchise history. And then the 1996 Jets lost 15 games, which became the most in franchise history, while also setting a then-team record for DVOA futility at -33.6%. It's not that those Jets didn't have any talented players—Keyshawn Johnson, Wayne Chrebet, and Adrian Murrell were on an offense that ranked fourth-worst in DVOA; Mo Lewis, Hugh Douglas and Aaron Glenn were all part of a the second-worst defense in football. Years later, Johnson would recall Kotite just standing to the side smoking cigars and talking on his phone while the team would run through practice, describing his one year under Kotite as "major hell." Kotite just managed to get the worst out of everything and everyone. The Jets went from subpar disappointments to cellar-dwellers in Kotite's years, and then immediately went back to contention once he left—stepping down, he wanted to make sure people knew, rather than being fired or quitting. Jets fans would be happy to dig deeper into their thesauruses if it meant seeing the back of Kotite.
The Jets wanted Bill Parcells of the Patriots to replace Kotite, but were told that would cost them draft picks, so they hired Bill Belichick as a planned one-year stopgap with Parcells as a "consultant." That fooled absolutely no one, so they ended up just giving Parcells the head coaching job, demoting Belichick to defensive coordinator, and giving the Patriots a passel of picks to liberate Parcells. Yes, that means Belichick was technically head coach of the Jets twice without ever coaching a game for them. Whatever—it all worked out, as Parcells took Kotite's Jets and went 9-7 the next year, then 12-4 with a conference championship game appearance the year after. And Jets fans never had to worry about anything ever again.
No. 34: 1990-1998 Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 54
Record: 45-99 (.313)
Average DVOA: -14.8%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -18.9%
Two last-place finishes in the NFC; Eight last-place finishes in the NFC West
Head Coaches: John Robinson, Chuck Knox, Rich Brooks, Dick Vermeil
Key Players: QB Jim Everett, RB Jerome Bettis, WR Isaac Bruce, WR Henry Ellard, G Tom Newberry, C Bern Brostek, DT D'Marco Farr, LB Roman Phifer, CB Todd Lyght, S Keith Lyle
Finding blame for a team relocating is often a difficult and complicated process. The Rams had played in Southern California since 1946, making them one of the original professional football teams on the West Coast. While they had already abandoned Los Angeles proper before their eventual move to St. Louis, the fact that the second-largest market in the country could lose not one but two football teams in the span of five months is something of a black mark on the history of the NFL. The Raiders leaving may have been inevitable, considering Al Davis' long-documented wanderlust and continual antagonistic relationship with the league. The Rams, though? The Rams left because they sucked.
OK, that might be a bit harsh. Georgia Frontiere, the owner of the Rams at the time, blamed the outdated stadium and poor fan support for the decision to move to St. Louis in 1995. That doesn't really ring true to me, however. The Rams had moved out of L.A. to Anaheim Stadium in 1980 and, for a decade, it was fine. John Robinson had given the Rams a much-needed youth movement and the Rams made the playoffs in six of seven years to close out the 1980s, reaching the NFC Championship Game in 1985 and 1989. It was a good, competitive football team—clear second-fiddles in the division to the 49ers, mind you, but a deep playoff run or Super Bowl appearance would not have been overly surprising. There were no complaints about the stadium then—it had just been renovated in 1980 to draw the Rams in, and it was usually sold out while the team was good. Fans were more than willing to drive out to Orange County to watch a successful football team.
Poor fan support came when the Rams started floundering. 1989 was the Rams' last winning season in their first Los Angeles stint, as they finished with double-digit negative DVOAs in each of their last five seasons in SoCal. The return of Ground Chuck Knox didn't help, either—while Knox's run-first style had brought Los Angeles success in the 1970s, by the 1990s it was woefully out of date. While his plans did help make Jerome Bettis an All-Pro right out of the gate as a rookie, he clashed with his offensive coordinator and with quarterback Jim Everett—and, quite frankly, with fans who enjoyed the 1980s Rams throwing the ball around. All that might have been fine, and Knox's Rams were generally slightly above average on offense, but your offensive performance doesn't matter so much when you're constantly behind. From 1990 to 1994, the Rams never ranked higher than 24th in defensive DVOA, which is not an ideal place to be when you're facing Steve Young's 49ers twice a year. The once-tight rivalry became a joke, with the Rams losing 17 straight games to San Francisco, all in this time frame. So, we have an ancient offense that is generally losing and can't challenge their big rivals, and you have to drive for an hour on Los Angeles' famously clogged freeways to get there? Yeah, I'd stay at home too, if I were a Rams fan, and if the game was blacked out? I'd watch one of the other umpteen zillion pro teams in L.A.
I still think the team could have waited it out and survived in Los Angeles; teams have gone through worse stretches without relocating. But Frontiere was from St. Louis, and St. Louis had just lost the Cardinals less than a decade prior. You can understand the desires from both sides. It turns out, being in a shiny new stadium in a new town did not immediately make the Rams good, though! With Everett and Bettis traded away, replaced by Tony Banks and Lawrence Phillips, the new Rams were the opposite of Knox's Rams—solid on defense, but putrid offensively. And they would remain that way until some stockboy was forced into action in 1999, but that is another story .
No. 33: 1969-1975 Chicago Bears
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 47
Record: 28-69-1 (.291)
Average DVOA: -17.1%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -21.1%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Six last-place finishes in the NFL/NFC Central
Head Coaches: Jim Dooley, Abe Gibron, Jack Pardee
Key Players: QB Bobby Douglas, WR Dick Gordon, OT Randy Jackson, DT Wally Chambers, LB Dick Butkus, LB Doug Buffone, CB Joe Taylor, CB Charlie Ford
Stop me if you've heard this one before: the Chicago Bears were solid enough on defense, but a lack of consistent offensive performance severely limited their ceiling. You can take that sentence and apply it to basically any Bears team post-World War II, or at least post-George Halas; it is the history of Chicago in a nutshell. The exact definitions of "solid on defense," "constant performance," and "ceiling" have varied over the years, but since Halas retired for good in 1967, the Bears have had a better DVOA (or estimated DVOA) on defense than offense 39 times in 53 seasons. Only five of the 14 teams that were better on offense actually had a positive DVOA—generally, their offenses only look better when the defense is actively crumbling. Their longest stretch of offense-lead teams was 2013-2016, with Jay Cutler and Matt Barkley as their quarterbacks. The fact that a franchise can have this sort of identity for more than half a century defies belief; how can a team fail to replace Sid Luckman for 60 years?
The Bears were better on defense than offense in each of these seven seasons, as one might expect. It also nicely fits in the pocket between Gale Sayers' 1968 knee injury and the selection of Walter Payton in 1975; in the run-first 1970s, it makes sense that a gap between Hall of Fame rushers would have a negative impact on your offensive performance. Instead, the Bears' leading rusher in this run was quarterback Bobby Douglass, who may well have been ahead of his time.
There had been scrambling quarterbacks before, and tailbacks who threw the ball, but not really rushing quarterbacks until Douglas came along. Douglas ran for 968 yards in 1972, which remained the record until Michael Vick broke it in 2006. He topped 400 yards twice more, joining Randall Cunningham and Steve Young as the only quarterbacks to top 400 rushing yards three times in the 20th century. Nowadays, of course, this isn't uncommon at all—Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson have done in each of their first three seasons, and players such as Vick, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson have made rushing a significant part of their games—but to do this in the 1970s was unheard of. Maybe if Douglas had come out today, he'd be the centerpiece of a modern RPO system—or maybe not, because he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. He had a 42% completion rate in Chicago, and while you do have to take into account that this was the 1970s, teams were completing more than 50% of their passes back then. That year he ran for 968 yards? He only threw for 1,246, while tossing 12 interceptions in just 198 pass attempts. Those are worse adjusted numbers than even rookie Josh Allen's most memeworthy terrible games. When your best offensive player is a quarterback who can't pass, you are going to have problems.
It didn't have to be this way, either. The 1969 Bears went 1-13, the worst record in franchise history. That one win came against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also went 1-13. Pittsburgh thus got the first overall pick in the 1970 draft, and they selected Louisiana Tech quarterback Terry Bradshaw. The Bears traded their second pick for Lee Roy Caffey, Elijah Pitts, and Bob Hyland, who played a combined 28 games for Chicago. Now, Bradshaw probably doesn't become Bradshaw away from the Steel Curtain and the excellent drafting of the 1970s Steelers, but he would still have been backed by Dick Butkus' defense, and would eventually have Walter Payton instead of Franco Harris at running back; maybe that pick alone could have avoided years of pain for Chicago. At the very least, we likely wouldn't be sitting here in 2021 wondering if the Steelers were ever going to find a quarterback better than Sid Freaking Luckman.
No. 32: 1970-1977 New York Jets
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 43
Record: 37-75 (.330)
Average DVOA: -17.6%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -24.6%
Three last-place finishes in the AFC East
Head Coaches: Weeb Ewbank, Charley Winner, Ken Shipp, Lou Holtz, Mike Holovak, Walt Michaels
Key Players: QB Joe Namath, RB Emerson Boozer, FB John Riggins, TE Rich Caster, OT Winston Hill, OG Randy Rasmussen, LB John Ebersole, S Burgess Owens
"We're going to win the game. I guarantee it."
—Joe Namath, three days before Super Bowl III.
"Perhaps the best thing to say about the 1976 New York Jets season is that it's over."
—John Facenda, narrating the 1976 Jets NFL Films highlight reel.
It can be hard for fans who weren't around in the 1970s to really grasp how big Joe Namath was, not just to the Jets but to the NFL and pop culture in general. Namath often shows up on lists of players who should not be in the Hall of Fame, or is used pejoratively in defense of other candidates: "if Namath is in Canton, how can you possibly not put Eli Manning in?" and so on and so forth. Boxscore scouting is not kind to Namath; he has the seventh-lowest Hall of Fame Monitor rating among Canton quarterbacks and a relatively paltry 94 career Approximate Value—less than Dave Krieg or Alex Smith.
None of that gels with the player Namath was, or the reputation Namath had at the time. This was a player in so much demand that his refusal to sign a deal with the World Football League in 1975 single-handedly caused the collapse of that organization. "Get Namath," the WFL's TV provider said, "or we'll stop broadcasting." ABC made sure their first Monday Night Football game featured Namath. He starred in dozens of advertisements, hung out with gangsters at his bar, wore fur coats on the sidelines. He was a phenomenon—and a damn good passer when healthy. His lightning-quick release meant that he was very difficult to sack, and while he led the league in interceptions on multiple occasions, he also led it in yards per pass. While Namath was active, the only passers who topped his 7.35 yards per attempt with at least 2,000 attempts were Len Dawson, Roger Staubach, and Johnny Unitas, and that's including Namath's broken-down years. Namath was a gambler and a risk-taker, but those gambles paid off, and the Jets had success because of it. He absolutely deserves his spot in Canton.
But those broken-down years, oh boy. That's the 1970s Jets for you, and the terribleness of the teams surrounding Namath really do leave a black mark on his on-field legacy. This Jets run can be broken down into "Missing Namath" and "Statue Namath" eras, and both were terrible.
From 1970 to 1973, Namath started 26 out of 56 possible games as he worked his way through injury after injury. It's not a coincidence that the Jets went 7-7 in his one healthy year in this period and 14-28 otherwise; Al Woodall and Bob Davis weren't exactly one-for-one replacements for Broadway Joe. It wasn't just Namath, though; quite a bit of the Super Bowl III team had been cut, retired, or otherwise demoralized by Weeb Ewbank, general manager. Don Maynard, George Sauer, Gerry Philbin, Larry Grantham, Jim Hudson, Johnny Sample—all major contributors in 1968, all gone by the middle of this era. Further complicating things was the success of the New York Mets—as the original tenants of Shea Stadium, they had first dibs on the field until their season was over, meaning the Jets would have to start on the road every year. In 1973, the Mets made the World Series, so the Jets didn't get to play at home for the first six weeks of the season. It's not surprising that poor starts like that led to poor results at the end of the year.
By the end of this era, Namath's knees were shot. He went from a 3.1% sack rate up through 1972 to a 6.4% sack rate the rest of his career; he could not move in the pocket and the Million Dollar Statue became a target for opposing defenses. He was still effective when he could get rid of the ball, but that became a harder and harder task as he was no longer physically able to do the things he had done just a few years before. But you can't take the ball out of Joe Namath's hands! Pro Bowl running back John Riggins left over this, feeling that the overreliance on the fading Namath was hurting the team. And yet Charley Winner and Lou Holtz kept feeding the ball to Namath, leading to three consecutive 3-11 teams.
Finally, after the 1976 season, the Jets cut Namath. Just two years after the WFL attempted to give Namath his own franchise and part of their television revenue, the Jets couldn't get anything in return for the broken-down legend.
No. 31: 1970-1973 Houston Oilers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 42
Record: 9-45-2 (.179)
Average DVOA: -24.4%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -19.5%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL; Three last-place finishes in the AFC Central
Head Coaches: Wally Lemm, Ed Hughes, Bill Peterson, Sid Gillman
Key Players: QB Dan Pastorini, DE Elvin Bethea, DE Pat Holmes, CB Zeke Moore, S Ken Houston
The 1970s Oilers are the last team to make our list without lasting five full seasons, and thus taking a penalty to their bottom-five DVOA. They're also just one of two teams to pull this feat off since the merger; most teams that stopped after three or four seasons did so in the 1920s and 1930s, and they "stopped" because their franchise stopped existing. This is the epitome of the short, sharp shock team—a quick spiral into absolute terrible football, and nearly an equally quick recovery.
Nine wins in four years. Since the NFL went to 14-game seasons in 1961, no team has managed to match that level of futility. The Oilers had an 18-game losing streak, a record at the time and still third-worst in NFL history. They had back-to-back one-win seasons; since the merger, only the 2016-2017 Cleveland Browns have matched or surpassed that feat. It's not like these were close losses, either. They only had 11.7 Pythagorean wins per Pro Football Reference's metric. This is a team that earned its terrible record.
This wasn't a talentless team by any stretch. Elvin Bethea (unofficially) recorded 16 sacks in 1973, which would still be an Oilers/Titans record if individual sacks had been recorded back then. To pull that off in the run-happy 1970s, on a one-win team, in a 14-game season, stretches belief. It also gives you an idea of just how terrible the rest of the defense was. They gave up 447 points that season, the most in the 1970s. They tied the 1970s record by allowing 30 points in nine different games. They were terrible—and the kicker is, the defense was the strength of the 1970s Oilers teams.
The 1970 Oilers actually started out OK; opening 2-2 is reason for song and dance for this squad. But starting quarterback Charley Johnson broke his clavicle in Week 5, and while he was shockingly able to return after just a month, he couldn't line up under center and tanked. The next year, the Oilers used their first pick on Dan Pastorini. You can't say Pastorini wasn't a tough player, as he played through broken ribs and even a punctured lung, but the fact that he had to do so tells you a thing or two about the state of the Oilers' offensive line. Now, Houston didn't allow the most sacks over this time period ("just" 152), but that's in part because Pastorini and Johnson were good at throwing the ball away … into the hands of the other team. Their 110 interceptions these four years led the league. At least the defense had Bethea playing out of his mind; there is nothing positive to take from the Oilers' offense.
Things weren't much better off the field. Center Jerry Strum was approached at the end of the 1971 season by gamblers, asked to shave points through a series of bad snaps. Head coach Ed Hughes resigned after trying to fire the team trainer and equipment manager behind owner Bud Adams' back. Hughes' replacement was Bill Peterson, offered a contract reportedly between 10 and 15 years. It lasted 22 months, with his .053 winning percentage being the worst for any coach since the merger who lasted a full season. Things were bad enough that the most popular team in Houston was the Dallas Cowboys. That's not great!
Legend Sid Gillman came in after Peterson was fired and righted the ship before handing things over the next year to Bum Phillips, starting the Luv Ya Blue era and winning back the hearts and minds of Houston fans. And Houston never had to worry about a bad football team ever again.