The 10 Worst Teams in NFL History

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 3, 2020

The 10 Worst Teams in NFL History

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    The 2009 St. Louis Rams were one of the worst NFL teams ever.
    The 2009 St. Louis Rams were one of the worst NFL teams ever.Associated Press

    For every NFL team like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2007 New England Patriots that made compelling cases for all-time greatness, a few others barely even tried to win during seasons that were downright atrocious.

    Here, we've laid out the worst of the worst.

    First, a few ground rules: 

    1. The first three seasons of each franchise's history were not eligible. It's only fair to give new teams a chance to get their affairs in order before we rake them over the coals. You're welcome, 1960 Dallas Cowboys, 1961-62 Oakland Raiders, 1967 Atlanta Falcons and 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
    2. Both current and defunct franchises were eligible, provided they existed for more than five years.
    3. Each franchise was represented only once in the top 10. The Browns, Lions and Buccaneers each had multiple viable candidates, but we opted to only include the worst season for each team.

    While winning percentage was the primary factor in choosing the proper candidates, we ranked these 10 all-time worst teams in order of perceived awfulness in the context of their respective seasons. In other words, it's possible for a team that won one or two of its games to be regarded as worse than one that went winless.

    In most of these cases, the team went through a multiseason stretch of terrible play. Those situations will be addressed within. But for ranking purposes, we tried to focus solely on the single season in question.

         

    (Dis)Honorable Mentions: 1949 Green Bay Packers, 1965 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1980 New Orleans Saints, 1987 Atlanta Falcons, 1989 Dallas Cowboys, 2010 Carolina Panthers

10. 1986 Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Steve DeBerg getting sacked.
    Steve DeBerg getting sacked.Associated Press

    The Record: 2-14

    The Good

    Tampa Bay wasn't terrible until later in the season. The Buccaneers started out 2-7 with two overtime losses and three other losses decided by fewer than 14 points. They proceeded to lose five straight games by 20-plus points, but it at least initially looked like they would be better than the 2-14 records they had posted in 1983 and 1985.

             

    The Bad

    Steve DeBerg started at quarterback for the first two games of the season, throwing seven interceptions in the opener. He was replaced by Steve Youngyes, that Steve Youngin Week 3, but DeBerg ended up throwing 12 interceptions on only 96 pass attempts. That 12.5 percent interception rate is the highest single-season mark among all post-AFL/NFL merger QBs to attempt at least 80 passes.

                

    The Ugly

    After this season, the Buccaneers traded Young to the San Francisco 49ers for second- and fourth-round picks. The Bucs took Vinny Testaverde No. 1 overall in the 1987 draft and opted to hitch their wagon to that horse instead.

    Young became a Hall of Fame quarterback, while Testaverde led the league in interceptions thrown four times, and the Buccaneers went another decade before their next winning season. And this came one year after they took Bo Jackson with the No. 1 overall pick, even though he had vowed not to sign with them.

9. 2017 Cleveland Browns

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    DeShone Kizer
    DeShone KizerKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Record: 0-16

    The Good

    The 2017 Browns lost every game, but they were competitive until the bitter end. They lost only one of those 16 games by more than 17 points. They kept the final margin within six points on six separate occasions, including two games that went into overtime. Their average margin of defeat was only 11.0 points. By no means are we trying to suggest this team was kind of good, but at least they weren't a total doormat.

               

    The Bad

    They didn't fire head coach Hue Jackson. Factoring in the 1-15 record in 2016, he had a 1-31 record in Cleveland after this debacle, yet he still got another eight games the following season before receiving the ax. The Browns improved almost immediately without him, going 5-3 under Gregg Williams. One can only wonder whether they could have been a playoff team in 2018 had they moved on from Jackson immediately after the 0-16 season.

                

    The Ugly

    With 41 turnovers committed and only 13 forced, the Browns tied the 2000 San Diego Chargers for the worst turnover margin since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 (minus-28). They did not have a single game with a positive turnover margin, and they went five straight games (Weeks 12-16) without any takeaways. Given that discrepancy in self-inflicted wounds, it's hard to believe they didn't get blown out more often.

    Note: 2000 was actually Cleveland's worst season. The Browns went 3-13, but they were outscored by 258 points. However, it was only their second year in the league as a "re-expansion" team.

8. 1954 Washington Redskins

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    HARRY HARRIS/Associated Press

    The Record: 3-9

    The Good

    At least the Redskins won three games. Every team in our top seven finished its season with either a zero or a one in the win column. And Dick Alban had a sensational season on defense, intercepting nine passes. Only Night Train Lanewho is No. 4 all-time in career interceptions (68)matched or exceeded Alban's total that season (10).

               

    The Bad

    Despite winning three of their 12 games, the Redskins had a scoring margin of minus-18.8 points per game. They lost eight of their nine games by at least 17 points, including a 62-3 stinker against the Cleveland Brownsthough at least that came against the eventual NFL champions. The 30-point loss to the sub-.500 Pittsburgh Steelers was a bit less forgivable.

           

    The Ugly

    Because the losses were so hideous, the Redskins ended up tied with the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the worst Simple Rating System (SRS) mark in Pro Football Reference history with a score of minus-19.66. And while we didn't include the '76 Bucs here because it was their first year in the league, most regard that 0-14 nightmare as one of the worst teams in NFL history. The 1954 Redskins' three wins were all that spared them from landing in our top three.

7. 1966 New York Giants

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    Giants TE Aaron Thomas
    Giants TE Aaron ThomasUncredited/Associated Press

    The Record: 1-12-1

    The Good

    New York's passing game wasn't half bad. Gary Wood, Earl Morrall and Tom Kennedy threw a combined 31 interceptions, but they had a solid three-man receiving corps of Homer Jones, Aaron Thomas and Joe Morrison. Only 27 players had at least 680 receiving yards that season, and the Giants had three of them. Granted, that's a byproduct of constantly playing from behind and having a terrible running game, but let's not focus on that.

                  

    The Bad

    The Giants played in the NFL Championship six times from 1956-63. For the better part of a decade, they were one of the best teams in the league. But in the first year with the AFL-NFL World Championshipsoon to be known as the Super Bowl—they were a catastrophe. They even lost by double digits to the Atlanta Falcons, a 0-9 expansion team that was barely even competitive up until that point.

           

    The Ugly

    The 1966 Giants fielded arguably the worst defense ever. They were one of three teams in NFL history to allow at least 500 points in a season, but they did so in 14 games while the 1981 Baltimore Colts and 2008 Detroit Lions played 16. The G-Men allowed 35.8 points per contest, including a three-week stretch late in the year in which they gave up 72, 49 and 47 in consecutive games. To be fair, six of the 66 touchdowns they allowed were fumbles or interceptions returned for touchdowns. This defense still gets an F, though.

6. 1991 Indianapolis Colts

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    Jeff George
    Jeff GeorgeRick Stewart/Getty Images

    The Record: 1-15

    The Good

    They narrowly avoided a winless season with a 28-27 Week 11 victory over the New York Jets. Clarence Verdin returned a kickoff for a touchdown at the beginning of a 21-point third quarter for the Colts, and they were able to hang onto the lead when the Jets inexplicably settled for short field goals (22 and 25 yards) in the only scoring plays of the fourth quarter.

              

    The Bad

    Indianapolis got the No. 1 pick in the 1992 draft, but it ended up taking one of the biggest busts in draft history. Steve Emtman was a force of nature in college, but the defensive lineman suffered constant injuries throughout his brief NFL career. JaMarcus Russell is still hands down the worst No. 1 pick ever, but Emtman tops the list of "Man, if only he could have stayed healthy" guys who were taken first overall.

           

    The Ugly

    Despite boasting a Hall of Fame running back (Eric Dickerson) and a quarterback who was taken No. 1 overall in 1990 (Jeff George), this offense was all sorts of awful. The Colts averaged only 234.3 yards and 8.9 points per game. The 1992 Seattle Seahawks (8.8 PPG) were the only other team to average fewer than 10 points per game in a 16-game season. Were it not for that narrow victory over the Jets, the Colts might have ended up at No. 1 here.

5. 1973 Houston Oilers

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    Elvin Bethea closing in for a sack
    Elvin Bethea closing in for a sackEd Kolenovsky/Associated Press

    The Record: 1-13

    The Good

    The only good to report is that they weren't down for long. Despite a mind-numbingly foolish trade to be discussed shortly, the Oilers somehow went straight from one of the worst seasons in NFL history to a 7-7 record the following year. Within five years, they were back in the playoffs.

                

    The Bad

    Even with eight-time Pro Bowler and eventual Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea manning the D-line, this defense was atrocious, allowing 447 points in a 14-game season (just under 32 per game). And it wasn't a situation where one or two horrific performances skewed the numbers. They gave up at least 17 points in every game and held only one of their first seven opponents below 30.

           

    The Ugly

    Despite going 1-13 in back-to-back years, the Oilers didn't have a single pick in the first three rounds of the 1974 draft. They traded away the No. 1 pick and their third-round pick for two guys (Tody Smith and Billy Parks) who didn't amount to much. And the guy whom the Dallas Cowboys took with that No. 1 pick, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, was a three-time Pro Bowler who could have helped immensely.

4. 2009 St. Louis Rams

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    Steven Jackson
    Steven JacksonElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The Record: 1-15

    The Good

    Though the rest of the team was awful, Steven Jackson still did his thing, rushing for 1,416 yards and four touchdowns and gaining 322 yards in the passing game. It was the second-highest yards from scrimmage total in his career, and it was enough for him to go to the Pro Bowl. The Rams also got quarterback Sam Bradford with the No. 1 pick in the subsequent draft, but his only winning season was when he went 2-0 with the Minnesota Vikings in 2017.

            

    The Bad

    Not even a decade removed from "The Greatest Show on Turf," this was the Rams' most anemic offense since 1942. They averaged fewer than 280 yards and 11 points per game. They committed almost twice as many turnovers (33) as they scored touchdowns (17). But one of those touchdowns was a Leonard Little pick-six, so the offense did cough it up more than twice as often as it found the end zone. Jackson was seemingly the only one who didn't get the memo about tanking.

              

    The Ugly

    This was merely the lowest point in a hopeless half-decade. The Rams went 13 years between winning records, and they suffered at least 13 losses in four out of five years from 2007-11. They were outscored by at least 175 points in each of those four seasons, topping out at a putrid minus-261 scoring margin in 2009.

3. 1990 New England Patriots

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    Steve Grogan
    Steve GroganAnonymous/Associated Press

    The Record: 1-15

    The Good

    At least the Patriots gave their fans a little bit of hope to start the year. They almost won the season opener against Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins. They did win the Week 2 game at Indianapolis. Things snowballed in a hurry from there, though. QB Steve Grogan was the starter for the lone win of the season, which was a nice send-off for him. He battled through/back from just about every injury known to man to win at least one game in 16 consecutive seasons.

                  

    The Bad

    Poor Rod Rust. After nearly four decades of coaching football, mostly as a defensive coordinator, he finally got his chance to be an NFL head coach at the age of 62. And this is the hand he was dealt. This was his only season as a head coach, so he finished his career with a winning percentage of 0.0625.

                    

    The Ugly

    After losing the first game by three and winning the second game by two, the Patriots proceeded to lose the next 14 by a combined margin of 264 points. Only three of those losses were decided by fewer than 13 points, and one of those close ones was a complete embarrassment. Despite forcing five turnovers and committing zero, they lost 17-10 to the Dolphins to fall to 1-5. That was the moment when historical ineptitude became a legitimate possibility. They didn't quite catch the 1981 Baltimore Colts for the worst scoring differential in a 16-game season (minus-274), but they came close (minus-265).

2. 1942 Detroit Lions

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    Even the winless Dan Orlovsky Lions weren't as bad as the 1942 team.
    Even the winless Dan Orlovsky Lions weren't as bad as the 1942 team.Associated Press

    The Record: 0-11

    The Good

    Most people don't consider this the worst season in Lions franchise history since they went 0-16 in 2008. We can call that a good thing for the 1942 Lions. They also produced two All-Stars (it wasn't called the Pro Bowl until 1950), though heaven only knows what the voting was based on. Harry Hopp got in despite throwing 13 interceptions and accounting for zero touchdowns. The other selection, RG/K Augie Lio, went 0-of-4 on field-goal attempts.

               

    The Bad

    Turnovers were much more commonplace during this era of football, but this still might blow your mind. In a 42-0 loss to the undefeated Chicago Bears in the next-to-last game of this awful season, the Lions committed 12 turnovers. The 1950 Chicago Cardinals and 1965 Pittsburgh Steelers later tied that record, but it should still be an undisputed crown (of thorns) for the Lions because they committed those 12 turnovers in only 50 plays. The Cardinals and Steelers needed 66 and 73, respectively.

                    

    The Ugly

    The No. 1 team on this list has the worst average margin of defeat ever, but these Lions aren't far back in the record book, losing by 20.5 points per game. The defense was awful, but the offense was the most anemic of all time. Detroit scored 38 points in the entire season, which equates to 3.45 per game. At least the 2008 winless Lions scored on occasion.

1. 1944 Chicago/Pittsburgh Cardinals/Steelers

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    Chicago/Pittsburgh vs. New York
    Chicago/Pittsburgh vs. New YorkAssociated Press

    When players were serving in World War II, rosters were compromised, so two teams were merged into one. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles did this in 1943 and went a respectable 5-4-1. When the Steelers merged with the Chicago Cardinals the following year, things didn't go so well.

    The Record: 0-10

    The Good

    The "Card-Pitts" weren't the only team to go winless in 1944. The Brooklyn Tigers also went 0-10. But while the Tigers had a somewhat respectable average margin of victory (minus-9.7), this Chicago/Pittsburgh mash-up had a much worse mark that we'll get to shortly. Even so, they almost won the season opener against the Cleveland Browns and they did win an exhibition game against the New York Giants the following week. So at least it wasn't until the third week that it all went to hell.

                    

    The Bad

    One could almost do a top-10 ranking of all the laughably bad statistics here. The Card-Pitts threw 41 interceptions for a 4.1-per-game rate that still stands as the worst ever. They also averaged just 32.7 yards per punt, which is quite pathetic. And my favorite of them all: Their adjusted yards gained per pass attemptwhich combines yards, attempts, touchdowns and interceptionswas minus-1.7. That means every time they dropped back to pass, they effectively lost 1.7 yards.

                 

    The Ugly

    For whatever reason, this season counted against the Cardinals in the history books instead of against Steelers, even though the Steelers got three of the five home games. Because of that, the Cardinalswho also went 0-10 in 1943are the only team to have back-to-back winless seasons. Tack on the six-game losing streak at the end of 1942 and the 0-3 start to 1945, and the Cardinals hold the NFL record for longest losing streak at 29 games.

    And that isn't even the ugliest part. The Card-Pitts were outscored 328-108 for an average margin of defeat of 22.0 points per game, which is another dubious NFL record.

                       

    All statistics and records via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.