On Sunday the 2017 Cleveland Browns completed their descent to a winless, 0-16 season. After years of digging the franchise has finally reached Rock Bottom. Unless the NFL adds more games the Browns cannot do any worse than 0-16 in future seasons (silver lining). However, they were not the first team to go 0-16 either; that dubious distinction goes to the 2008 Detroit Lions, a hapless and helpless unit that became the first NFL team to drop all games in a 16-contest slate. So, now that Detroit has some company in the basement, it is natural to wonder which team was worse in their respective season from hell. WFNY investigates.
**Note: for the purposes of this article we are going to see which team was worse in their most miserable season. So, you don’t want to see your favorite team highlighted unless you are a world-class masochist**
Detroit could not find a reliable starter among a quarterback triad of Dan Orlovsky (0-7), Jon Kitna (0-4), and Daunte Culpepper (0-5). The Lions managed 268 points (16.8/game) which ranked 27th in the league. Detroit gained 4,292 yards (268/game) which ranked 30th. So while they could not win a game, they were not the worse offense in the country. The team lost 29 turnovers during the campaign- 10 fumbles and 19 interceptions. The Silver and Blue scored on 26.2% of their drives (30th) and 15% of their drives ended in an offensive turnover (9th).
The Browns’ offense was their weakest link (good-bye). Cleveland scored only 234 points this year, a skimpy 14.6/game average (ranked 32nd). The Browns managed to gain 4,942 yards (24th), but their drives did not translate to points, mostly because of Cleveland’s turnover woes. Cleveland’s 41 turnovers, 13 fumbles lost and 28 interceptions, ranked worst in the league. Only 22% of Browns drives ended in a score (32nd) while 21% of their drives ended with a turnover (1st). As the below table confirms, the 2017 Browns clearly had the worse offense.
Offense only tells part of the story. In order to go winless a team must field a truly putrid defense as well. The 08 Lions certainly fit that category as their 517 points allowed (32.3/game) ranked dead last. Their 6.470 yards allowed also led the league. Detroit managed only 20 takeaways (26th) with sixteen recovered fumbles and four interceptions. In other words, they averaged one intercepted pass per month. Opposing offenses must have started salivating when they saw a trip to Ford Field on the schedule. Lions’ opponents scored on 45.3% of their drives (2nd highest) and their drives would end in a turnover only 8.4% of the time (31st). Detroit recorded 30 sacks on defense.
The Browns’ defense underwhelmed throughout the season, but still struggled less than their offensive counterparts. Cleveland allowed 410 points (31st) and 5,250 yards (14th). The stats offer a strange pairing; Gregg Williams’ defense readily surrendered points, but got stingy when it came to yards. Some of this can be attributed to the Browns’ giveaway-prone habits which created short fields for opponents. To their great dismay, Cleveland’s defense forced only 13 turnovers, which is obviously a franchise low. Opponents faced little opposition when driving as they scored on 36.2% of their drives (11th) and only 6.9% of drives ended in a turnover (32nd). Ohio’s defenders had a little more success reaching the quarterback; the team recorded 34 sacks led by rookie Myles Garrett’s 7.0.
In the midst of an imperfect season it’s easy to over look special teams as they are often the least of a team’s problems. Still, kicking stats can create a fuller picture of a team’s struggles. The Lions punted 90 times in 2008, with punter Nick Harris averaging a solid 43.9 yards per boot. Kicker Jason Hanson connected on all but one field goal in a rare bright spot for the season. He also missed only one extra point attempt though to be fair he did not have to worry about kicking those as much as his peers. Playing eight home games in a dome may have helped the kicking numbers as well.
Browns’ punter Britton Colquitt toed 80 punts for a 47.6-yard average. Rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez struggled on field goals, connecting on only 75% of them. He missed four field goals at home and only one on the road which is worrisome.
Not all losses are created equal. There is a big difference between a joyless shutout and overtime thriller. In 2008, the Lions did not enjoy many exciting competitions. None of their games went to overtime and most of them were not especially close. The Lions lost by an average of 15.6 points with their worst showing coming in a 42-7 drubbing at home against New Orleans. Their closest loss was a 12-10 defeat in Minnesota in which the Vikings kicked the game-winning field goal with twelve seconds left. In the five games decided by eight points or less the Lions had a real chance only twice. I’m defining a real chance as possession with at least one minute on the clock and an opportunity to tie or win the game with a score. They couldn’t gain any traction against Washington and couldn’t connect on a 32-yard Hail Mary against Chicago. Most of the games were over well before the fourth quarter.
The Browns “enjoyed” a more competitive season overall even if all games ended the same way. The Browns kept it slightly closer with an average margin of defeat of 10.8 points. Five games ended within six points and two went to overtime. Of those, Cleveland had a real chance in three of them. Week 7’s contest with Tennessee went to overtime, and in the extra period the Browns possessed the ball twice and cumulatively lost ten yards. Week 14 brought more overtime against Green Bay which ended after a DeShone Kizer interception. Most recently, the Browns were driving in the Steel City before Corey Coleman failed to pick up a 4th-and-2 pass from the Steelers 27 yard line that would have extended the game.1 Bottom line: the Browns winless season was more competitive than the Lions.
There are a handful of miscellaneous statistics that help fill in the gaps when comparing these two teams. For example, neither sent a player to the Pro Bowl though Cleveland could still end up sending an alternate or two to Orlando before all is said and done. Also neither team played in prime time so a national audience did not see their embarrassment. Detroit committed 88 penalties for 729 yards while the Browns committed 110 for 924 yards. Despite those overall gaudy numbers, Cleveland managed a penalty-free game for the first time since 1962.
Based on points scored and allowed, the indispensable Pro-football-reference.com calculates an Expected W-L record as well as Simple Rating System (0.0 is average, higher is better). PFR expected Detroit to go 2.8-13.2 with a SRS of -13.11. Cleveland, meanwhile, was expected to go 3.3-12.7 with an SRS of -10.95. In other words, the teams are fairly evenly matched.
Beyond statistics, there are moments or plays that help define a season – a still image or clip that leads fans to say “That’s all you need to see to understand what’s happening here.” Detroit’s moment came in Week 6 at Minnesota. Facing third and ten on their own one yard line the Lions called for a bootleg pass. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky has no idea where the back line is and he naively runs out of bounds untouched for a safety. The moment says it all: the Lions cannot get out of their own way and are their own worst enemy. Oh, and the Vikings won by two points that day.
There are a few candidates for the Browns’ equivalent moment. A certain still shot of AJ McCarron, Jimmy Haslam, and coach Hue Jackson comes to mind.
There was also Coleman’s drop against Pittsburgh. As gut punching as that is, it’s more failure to execute and does not encapsulate the entire season of madness. Instead, I think the moment that best summarizes the Browns winless year came in overtime against Green Bay. Facing 3rd-and-2 on his own 33-yard line, Kizer drops back to pass. When the pressure arrives he considers running right before doubling back to his left. When he crosses his own 20 he indicates something with his left hand, perhaps trying to hot route a receiver somewhere. In the next second Packers linebacker Clay Matthews arrives which forces Kizer to lift up what I can only describe as a “playing Jackpot at recess” throw. It would have been enough for a first down except for the seven players converging under it like pigeons at the park. Green Bay picks off the errant pass and scores on the ensuing drive. That play really does say it all doesn’t it? Things look manageable at first, but as the protection breaks down Kizer panics and does something foolish which leads to a turnover. That’s all you need to see to understand what’s happening here.
There are literally no winners here. No matter how you slice it the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns suffered through sixteen games of hideous, miserable football. There is no disputing that the Browns offense was worse both in terms of scoring ability and their failures in protecting the ball. The Lions, however employed a worse defense, punted more, and could not remain competitive in their games. It’s not entirely scientific, but I will rule that the 2008 Detroit Lions had a worse winless season than the 2017 Cleveland Browns. Let’s hope the Browns players have some Natural Lights to crack open in celebration. There is one thing the Browns can learn from their Michigan neighbors, however, and that’s how to recover from a winless season.
After the final whistle sounded the Lions hired a new head coach and cleaned house in the front office. In 2009 they drafted quarterback Matthew Stafford first overall from Georgia and managed two wins. In 2010 they added Ndamukong Suh from Nebraska and jumped up to six wins and a third place finish. By 2011 Stafford had grown into a more effective quarterback and another strong draft helped them to a 10-6 record and playoff appearance. Three seasons after mocking signs and miserable Sundays Detroit advanced to a playoff game. For the Browns it’s simple: use some cap space, utilize draft picks wisely, and pick up a franchise quarterback.
Let’s hope you never have to read an article like this one again.
- They arguably had real chances against the Jaguars too, but not in their final possession. [↩]