Which franchise is the NFL’s poop standard (obviously, the inverse of the gold standard)? Part of what’s fascinating about football’s ongoing analytics revolution is the unknown—that there are possibilities we haven’t even considered for what we may someday be able to do with the application of higher statistics. That said, there are still some basic stats—trivia, you might even call it—that say absolutely everything.
Plenty of fans of plenty of teams will eagerly share their pathos in an effort to lay claim to rooting for the worst the NFL has to offer (I see your unified show of hands, Cleveland and Buffalo). After all, to be a fan is to know disappointment and to wallow in misery, and this is true even for an irritating number of Patriots fans, a subset of whom will no doubt spend the hours before their next Super Bowl parade whining about some questionable decision Bill Belichick made in the first quarter of a random October loss to the Dolphins. You know who you are, and I hate you.
So while there are a lot of valid contenders for worst franchise, with a variety of arguments for them, the Detroit Lions have ONE PLAYOFF WIN IN 62 YEARS. I’ve capitalized, italicized, and bolded that phrase for emphasis, and I’d make it blink if I could. One win. How is that even possible? It’s a staggering degree of nonstop ineptitude across multiple generations. It’s possible to be a Social Security– and Medicare-eligible Lions fan and to have witnessed a single, solitary postseason victory. And to know that it was followed a week later by a 41-10 loss in the NFC championship game. There hasn’t been much to cheer for in all these years, either. Calvin Johnson was extraordinary, Barry Sanders was the coolest player ever, and, um, Billy Sims was fun to watch. The other dude to wear No. 20, Lem Barney, was pretty great, too. Beyond that? I’m sure some pedant in the comments will lecture me about the underappreciated exploits of Joe Schmidt or whoever. But everyone else ought to get my drift by now: The Lions haven’t done jack shit since Bobby Layne shoved off to Pittsburgh and settled his last bar tab.
The Lions won the NFL championship three times between 1952 and 1957. Since then, 18 head coaches have guided them into this never-ending hellhole. Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported last week that Matt Patricia, who might as well change his title to future former head coach, had a hill built next to the Lions’ team facility. The idea was create a conditioning challenge for the players not unlike the grueling terrain that abuts the Patriots’ practice field—but an unnatural phenomenon in the flat Midwest. Sisyphus himself couldn’t have come up with a better metaphor for this franchise.
The NFL has a lot of strong runners-up for the poop standard. Washington is a shit-for-brains franchise that’s rotten from the head of Dan Snyder on down, but the Skins don’t qualify here because they experienced an honest-to-goodness era of glory within the time frame I’m working with. So let’s consider a few others, in no particular order:
Yeesh, there’s some grim history here. The Cardinals made the playoffs just four times in the 40 years between 1958—the year after the Lions’ last title—and 1998, and they didn’t win a single postseason game until ’98, only to miss the playoffs again for the next nine seasons. But in 2008, they got all the way to the Super Bowl. They even took the lead with less than three minutes to play, only to have the Steelers march 88 yards in eight plays to beat them. The Cardinals have made three playoff trips since then, and they’ve beaten the Packers in overtime in the postseason twice in that time. Yes, the Cardinals lost the 2015 NFC title game 49-15, but they still got there. The Lions haven’t played for a conference championship for 28 years.
The Bucs were birthed in 1976, and they have the league’s worst winning percentage in all that time. For years, they were far and away the biggest bunch of horseshitters in the NFL: In 1982, they drafted the wrong player in the first round. They tried to make up for it by trading away the following year’s first-rounder in an attempt to pick the player they meant to select—and that dude turned out to be a colossal bust. They lost at least 10 games every year from 1983 to 1994, then did it again in ’96, just for good measure. The Bucs haven’t been to the playoffs at all since 2007. And even though it’s such an aberration on a résumé that’s chock full of failure, the Bucs did win a Super Bowl in this century. It’s real, and it counts for something.
The Bills have been to the playoffs once this century, and a few months ago ESPN ranked them at the top of their their misery index, in no small part because of the heartbreak of those four consecutive losses in the Super Bowl back in the early 1990s. Still, the criteria for the poop standard is different, and getting to four consecutive Super Bowls once upon a time >>>> whatever the hell the Lions have achieved these last 62 years. It’s science.
The Jets might lead the league in LOLZ across the years. They’ve also won just two division titles since the 1970 merger—the last coming in 2002—haven’t been to the playoffs in nine years, and are 0-4 in AFC championship games in the last 50 years. But from 1998 through 2010, they were in the top third of the league in winning percentage, and they reached the AFC title game three times. The Jets also won a damn Super Bowl 51 years ago, which is a helluva lot more than the Lions can lay claim to in all that time.
Remember, 1958 is the baseline here. And of the franchises that have existed since the merger, the Bengals have the second-fewest playoff victories (five), leading only the Lions. The Bengals have lost their last eight playoff games dating to 1990, and in a 12-year stretch between 1991 and 2002, they lost at least 10 games nine times. But! The Bengals have been to two Super Bowls, and they damn near won one (though that was 31 years ago, granted). They’ve also got four division titles since 2005. Besides, it’s hard to make a genuine argument for a team that shares a division with the next team on the list.
Browns 2.0 have a league-worst .298 winning percentage since their return, and in their one playoff game these last 20 seasons they blew a 17-point second-half lead to Tommy Maddox. And, yeah, Browns fans had to endure the ignominy of having their original incarnation carpet-bagged to Baltimore, only to watch as that franchise won a Super Bowl within five years. The Drive and The Fumble are a kind of shorthand for the Browns’ unique brand of torment, but the ’80s Browns were damn good: They won the old AFC Central four times in five years—at a time when the Bengals and the Houston Oilers were consistent playoff qualifiers—and reached the AFC title game three times. Also, because my arbitrary starting point is 1958, the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship has to be considered. Try as they might, the Browns just don’t measure down.
The Lions have won just three division titles since the merger. All told, they are 1-12 in playoff games since 1958. Only the Texans (eight) have played in fewer postseason games in all that time, and the Texans didn’t exist until 2002. The Patriots, by contrast, have played more playoff games (14) in just the last five seasons than the Lions have in 62 years. What the Lions have accomplished is truly unmatched across the NFL. God help all of you who are doomed to root for them.