From Punch Line to Contender: 8 Teams That Used to Be Terrible

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2017

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 22: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots looks on against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first quarter in the AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium on January 22, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The sports world is a cyclical beast.

Those miserable bottom-feeding teams in each sport at one point qualified for the playoffs, if not competed for championships. The teams running roughshod on leagues and tallying up big totals in win columns used to hang around at the bottom of the barrel.

Exceptions exist, of course. The Cleveland Browns have set up permanent residence at the bottom. The San Antonio Spurs have always had a championship in the crosshairs.

But for the most part, this up-and-down nature holds true. So while some of the sporting world's top teams look incredible right now, devoted fans can tell you things weren't always so bright.

Let's take a look at some of the top contenders on the planet right now who would appreciate if fans didn't look too deep into the history books.


The Oakland Raiders had the 2016 season end on a sour note thanks to an injury suffered by quarterback Derek Carr.

But make no mistake—the Raiders aren't going anywhere. Carr threw 28 touchdowns against six interceptions, the offense around him is well built and the defense has a superstar in Khalil Mack, not to mention rising stars like Karl Joseph.

It's a breath of fresh air for the Raiders.

Oakland is a good example of how sports move in cycles. The franchise didn't make the playoffs for its first seven seasons then grew into a contender before falling off the map again.

Before this recent run to contender status, the last time the Raiders made the playoffs was 2002. Maybe best known as the JaMarcus Russell era, the Raiders went 13 seasons without a winning record.

Disappointing end to 2016 or not, the streak is over. Welcome back, Raiders.    


John Wall and the Washington Wizards are one of the NBA's hottest teams right now and have made the playoffs two years and running.

Doesn't sound like much, but continually making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is the first step. It's more than the team can say about most of its recent history.

Washington, formerly known as the Bullets, was a stepping stone for Michael Jordan, securing just one playoff bid between the 1988-89 and 2003-04 seasons. The team then put together four consecutive playoff appearances before falling out again for the next five years while winning 19, 26, 23, 20 and 29 games.

This is the latest stretch of prosperity for the Wizards, though the franchise's up-and-down nature hangs over Wall and Co. like a mean shadow. Whether Wall, Bradley Beal and others stick around will decide if the Wizards keep contending in the weak conference.


This might, just might come as a shocker—the current World Series champions used to stink. In a bad way.

It's all good now, of course. The Chicago Cubs broke the 108-year curse and all is forgiven.

Except the all-time .513 record and no decade above a .500 mark since the 1930s. Seriously, the Cubs went from 1946 to 1983 without a postseason berth. Heck, start in 1946 and run your finger all the way to 2002—the Cubs didn't win a playoff series during that span.

This wasn't just some unlucky curse when it comes to championships. From 1990 to 2014, the Cubs finished above .500 only nine times.

It seems like the Cubs will finally put together their first serious years of back-to-back contention since they won consecutive titles in 1907 and 1908. Some franchises go through the cyclical nature of sports with quick ups and downs—the Cubs take 100 years.

Enjoy this, Cubs fans.  


It has been a long time since the Seattle Seahawks were one of the NFL's laughingstocks.

The so-called Legion of Boom and Pete Carroll have helped tip the scales in the other direction and mostly erase the memory of the franchise's struggle years.

But never forget—between 1976 and 2002, Seattle made the playoffs just five times. Over that almost three-decade span, the Seahawks won three playoff games.

The arrival of a coach by the name of Mike Holmgren helped turn things around and later bled into Carroll and a defensive-minded team with one of the league's best home-field advantages, not to mention one of the largest fanbases around the world.

It doesn't appear the Seahawks are about to return to the dark ages any time soon, though one would have to wonder how the raucous 12th man would react if they did.


The 2015-16 campaign marked the end of a nasty cycle for the Toronto Raptors.

In fact, it ended a futile existence as just another NBA team.

Debuting in the 1995–96 season with a 21-win effort, the Raptors won a single playoff series through the 2014-15 season. There were seven berths, yet just one actual series win, which came in 2000-01.

Before winning three consecutive Atlantic Division titles, the Raptors had finished with a winning record once in 11 years.

The Raptors don't have a history of turning things around and keeping them that way for extended periods of time. But one can't help but feel now is the time—backed by Drake (kidding), DeMar DeRozan is one of the best mid-range players in the NBA and Kyle Lowry arguably the top point guard.

Perhaps the biggest difference for these Raptors? Guys like DeRozan want to be in Toronto, not escape.


Rather than folding back into the Detroit Lions of old when Calvin Johnson announced his early retirement, Matthew Stafford had the team looking even better without him in 2016.

Call it an anomaly given the franchise's history.

The Lions won three NFL Championships in the 1950s but made the playoffs once between 1958 and 1981. Two appearances in the 80s seemed like spoiling the fanbase before six in the 90s, though the team only won a single playoff game.

Then, another decade of futility as the team went from 2000 to 2010 without a postseason berth, winning more than seven games in a season just once and grabbing the famous 0-16 campaign of 2008.

Detroit has a pair of postseason berths over the past three seasons, and with the way Stafford has directed the offense while the defense has played at a high level, fans can expect more in the coming years.

Usually a team goes south after losing a player like Megatron, so an improvement looks like a green light when it comes to contender status.     


Everybody used to smile when the Golden State Warriors popped up on the schedule over the past 20 years or so.

Sure, the team won a title in 1974-75, but 1994-95 all the way through 2011-12 was a black hole of epic proportions, one with a single playoff berth and just two seasons over .500.

Of course, having Stephen Curry pan out the way he did and building a core strong enough to both win a title and entice Kevin Durant to come to town changed things for the franchise's trajectory.

With Curry and Durant in town and Golden State once again a premier locale, it looks like the Warriors can get back to their dominant ways of old and stay there. It's fitting, really, given the fact the Los Angeles Lakers just cycled out of a competitive stance and seem a long ways from getting back.


The Bill Belichick era has made it easy to forget—the New England Patriots used to be terrible.

In fact, the Patriots were so bad fans used to call them the Patsies. Starting in 1965, New England had a terrible decade, posting one winning season before a smattering of playoff losses and an eventual Super Bowl appearance in 1985.

The Patriots fully disappeared again after, making the playoffs once from 1987 to 1995. They were basically the Browns in patriotic colors, posting one and two-win seasons during the stretch.

These minor details are easy to forget because Tom Brady and Belichick have helped create one of the best dynasties of all time. The Patriots have won four titles since 2001 and missed the playoffs twice, one of those misses laughable after an 11-win campaign.

So it goes when a team formerly known as the Patsies stumbles upon a sixth-round pick who transforms into arguably the greatest quarterback of all time and a studious coach who does the same in his area.

Stats and information courtesy of Sports Reference unless otherwise specified.