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The 10 longest, most miserable funks in NFL history

Is the Browns’ funk the worst prolonged run in NFL history? No way. It’s only the third-worst!

In 2007, the Cleveland Browns went 10-6, missing the playoffs by the tiniest of margins. It wasn’t hard to be at least a little bit optimistic. The Browns had just produced a top-10 scoring offense for the first time in 20 years and had done so with a young core — quarterback Derek Anderson, return man Josh Cribbs, tight end Kellen Winslow, receiver Braylon Edwards — and a 28-year old workhorse in Jamal Lewis.

This twinge of optimism, felt in the moments after missing the playoffs, was the high point of the last 15 years of Browns football. Within three years, said young core had disintegrated, and the Browns were back to 31st in scoring. Stasis had been achieved once more.

The Browns have finished over .500 only twice since the franchise fired head coach Bill Belichick and moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens in 1995. The NFL granted Cleveland a new Browns team starting in 1999, but it maybe shouldn’t have. Not doing so might have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.

New quarterback and No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield has backed up just enough of his promise that you can find signs of hope if you squint hard enough. But Cleveland has been here before, and the Browns seem to have a way of extinguishing promise and starting over in quick cycles.

While we wait to find out if Mayfield and the latest exciting young core can break the jinx, let’s turn our gaze backwards.

If there’s anything you can say in the Browns’ favor right now, it’s that the NFL has absolutely seen this type of long-term futility before in its nearly century-long history and that the teams that suffered it all emerged for at least brief runs of high-level play. Some of them even won Super Bowls.

Below is a list of the 10 worst long-term runs of ineptitude in NFL history.

This list is entirely subjective, but I’m using a few numbers as a guideline, namely a team’s overall record during the time span in question, its average SRS percentile rating (you can learn more about Sports Reference’s Simple Rating System here), and the (sparse) number of playoff bids and wins it experienced during the run.

Also: the run in question has to be at least 20 years long, so teams like the Lions of the early-2000s (39-121 from 2001-10) are eliminated, even if they were admirably awful.

First, three clubs that earn honorable mention:

  • Houston Oilers (1963-86): Made the AFL championship three years in a row from 1960-62, then became a pile of cow dung almost overnight. Made the playoffs five times in 24 seasons (twice in the AFL, three times in a row in the late-1970s, and that’s it), won fewer than 40 percent of their games, and enjoyed an average SRS percentile rating of just 33 percent. Bad.
  • Atlanta Falcons (1981-2007): Just missed out on the top 10, primarily because of their 1998 Super Bowl bid. Still, they won double-digit games just three times in 27 seasons, had an average SRS percentile rating of 31 percent, and boasted a scoring margin of minus-100 or worse eight times. Jamal Anderson and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson couldn’t save this team.
  • Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams (1990-2011): How bad were the Rams from 1990-98 and 2005-11? Even with a six-year run of brilliance which included a Super Bowl title in 1999 and another Super Bowl bid in 2001, they still only won 39 percent of their games in this 23-year span, with an average SRS percentile rating of 29 percent and zero playoff bids outside of that six-year span. They lost at least 10 games eight times in nine years in the 1990s, then went 15-65 between 2007-11.

Without further ado, let’s start counting down the top 10. For each non-current example, we’ll also look at how each franchise managed to finally emerge from the muck. (Spoilers: they drafted well and hired good coaches. Crazy, right?)

10. Buffalo Bills (1967-86)

Buffalo Bills v Los Angeles Rams
Joe Ferguson
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images
  • Record: 101-187-3 (0.352)
  • Average SRS percentile: 31%
  • Playoff bids: 3 in 20 seasons, with one win

Obviously we remember O.J. Simpson for different reasons now, but the legendary running back spent almost his entire career on truly horrible teams in up-up-upstate New York. In his first three seasons (1969-71), the Bills won a combined eight games.

After a brief mid-1970s respite — winning seasons each year from 1973-75 but only one playoff bid — they reverted to form. Simpson rushed for 1,503 yards in 1976, but they went 2-12. And after an encouraging start to the 1980s, they went through another eight-wins-in-three-seasons run from 1984-86.

How did they snap out of it?

The draft, of course. Jim Kelly and Darryl Talley in 1983, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed (and Frank Reich!) in 1985, Will Wolford in 1986, Shane Conlan and Nate Odomes in 1987, Thurman Thomas in 1988. Plus, in 1986 head coach Marv Levy came aboard, and in 1987 he added offensive genius Ted Marchibroda to the coaching staff.

The Levy-Marchibroda-Kelly trio patented an early version of the no-huddle offense, with hall-of-fame talent around them, and won four AFC titles. (We won’t mention what happened when they went to the Super Bowl because we’re trying to strike an optimistic tone here.)

9. Philadelphia Eagles (1956-77)

Ron Jaworski calls the count
Ron Jaworski
Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images
  • Record: 109-178-11 (0.384)
  • Average SRS percentile: 29%
  • Playoff bids: 1 in 22 seasons, with one win (which happened to be an NFL championship)

Dick Vermeil snapped two different teams out of long-term slumps. He was responsible for the start of the Rams’ out-of-nowhere run in 1999 (with help from offensive coordinator Mike Martz and an absurd collection of skill talent, obviously), and he had a decent run in Kansas City in the 2000s, too. But his first reclamation project came in Philadelphia, where he inherited basically the Browns of the 1970s.

When Vermeil took over in 1976, the Eagles had enjoyed just one winning season since 1962, and aside from a brief explosion in 1960-61 (they went 20-6 and won the single-game playoffs in 1960), they had been mostly awful since the mid-1950s. And they went just 9-19 in Vermeil’s first two seasons aboard, too.

How did they snap out of it?

If you remember players from the early-1980s Eagles, it’s probably people like quarterback Ron Jaworski and running back Wilbert Montgomery. That’s fine, but it was defense that dragged the Eagles out of the doldrums. Defensive coordinator Marion Campbell found a dominant rhythm with players like tackle Charlie Robinson and recent draftees.

They made the playoffs four straight years and reached the Super Bowl in 1980. When a burned out Vermeil retired after 1982, Campbell took over and found less success in the head coach’s office, but they enjoyed another run of success in the late-1980s behind head coach Buddy Ryan and dynamic quarterback Randall Cunningham. And a mere 30 years later, they won another championship!

8. Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts (1978-98)

Indianapolis Colts v San Francisco 49ers
Jack Trudeau
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images
  • Record: 117-210-1 (0.358)
  • Average SRS percentile: 25%
  • Playoff bids: 3 in 21 seasons, with two wins (both in 1995)

Before he ended up in Buffalo to help resurrect the Bills, Marchibroda was hired to steady the ship for the Baltimore Colts in the mid-1970s after an experiment with Howard Schnellenberger ended poorly. He won at least 10 games for three straight years with Bert Jones behind center, but Marchibroda’s relationship with owner Robert Irsay was strained at best — whose wasn’t? — and then Jones missed most of 1979-80 with shoulder injuries.

Baltimore went 5-11 both years, Marchibroda was fired, the team moved to Indiana, and the Colts wouldn’t win more than nine games in a season again until 1999. They sneaked into the playoffs with nine wins three times and made a surprising run to the AFC Championship in 1995 behind quarterback Jim Harbaugh and ... head coach Ted Marchibroda.

That was basically the lone highlight.

How did they snap out of it?

They drafted Peyton Manning instead of Ryan Leaf in 1998.

I mean, there’s more to it than that, technically, but still. Everything good that followed came because they drafted Manning.

7. Cincinnati Bengals (1991-2010)

Neil O’’Donnell #12
Neil O’Donnell
  • Record: 115-204-1 (0.361)
  • Average SRS percentile: 30%
  • Playoff bids: 2 in 20 seasons, with zero wins

Ah, the curse of Bill Walsh. In the 1970s, retiring Cincy head coach Paul Brown not only chose assistant Bill Johnson succeed him instead of Walsh, but in order to keep Walsh on the staff, Brown also bad-mouthed his offensive prodigy when other teams inquired. Walsh finally landed with the 49ers a few years later, then twice beat the Bengals (now owned by Brown) in the Super Bowl in the 1980s.

The second loss — Super Bowl XXIII, complete with a Joe Montana comeback and a last-minute, go-ahead touchdown — sent the team into a funk from which it still hasn’t completely emerged. The Bengals hovered around .500 in both 1989 and 1990, then disintegrated. They lost at least 12 games six times between 1991 and 2000, then lost 14 in 2002. They did twice make the playoffs (2005 and 2009) but lost in the wildcard round both times, and in their 2005 loss, quarterback Carson Palmer hauntingly blew out his knee.

How did they snap out of it?

Mainly with defense and continuity. Under long-serving head coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals finished in the top 10 in scoring defense six times between 2009-16 and got just enough offense from new quarterback Andy Dalton and company to reach the wildcard round every year from 2011-15.

They went 0-5, of course, and sank below .500 again in 2016 and 2017, but again, we’re aiming for positivity here. Hey, they’re 5-3 at the moment!

6. New York Giants (1964-83)

  • Record: 100-180-5 (0.360)
  • Average SRS percentile: 30%
  • Playoff bids: 1 in 20 seasons, with zero wins

From 1956-63, the New York Giants of Jim Lee Howell and Allie Sherman made the NFL title game six times, winning once. From 1984-90, they made the playoffs five times and won two Super Bowls.

In between: horror.

The Giants had three winning seasons in 20 years and five seasons with three or fewer wins. Y.A. Tittle ... Craig Morton ... Fran Tarkenton ... Earl Morrall ... these successful veteran quarterbacks all lost a lot of games in a Giants uniform. In the country’s biggest market, they played one playoff game in two decades.

How did they snap out of it?

They drafted one of the best defensive players of all time (Lawrence Taylor), then made one of the best head coach hires of the era (Bill Parcells). And then he hired one of the best defensive minds of the generation, too (Bill Belichick). Funny how that’ll pull you out of a sustained tailspin.

Actually, that last paragraph made everything seem like a no-brainer. It’s worth mentioning that Taylor was the second pick in the 1981 draft (New Orleans selected running back George Rogers instead at No. 1), that Parcells had been nearly out of coaching just a few years earlier, and that, at the time of his promotion to defensive coordinator, Belichick was just 32 years old. None of this was pre-ordained, but it came together beautifully.

5. Pittsburgh Pirates/Steelers (1933-71)

  • Record: 168-270-18 (0.386)
  • Average SRS percentile: 30%
  • Playoff bids: 1 in 37 seasons, with zero wins

It is difficult to describe just how awful the NFL’s Pittsburgh franchise was, right up until the point in the 1970s in which it started vacuuming up Super Bowl titles, but let’s try:

  • As the Pirates from 1933-39, they went 22-55-3, finishing even .500 just once. They changed their name ... and won a combined three games in 1940-41. In their first season after World War II, they won two games.
  • They made the playoffs in 1947! And lost 21-0 to Philadelphia. And then basically went either 6-6 or 5-7 for the next decade and a half. And then it got really bad again.
  • They cut a young Johnny Unitas.
  • They traded their first-round pick in 1965 (which ended up becoming Dick Butkus) for two picks in 1964 (which ended up becoming receiver Jim Kelly and tackle Ben McGee, a.k.a. two guys who weren’t Dick Butkus).
  • From 1965-69, they bottomed out once more, going 14-53-3.

How did they snap out of it?

They stopped trading draft picks and instead went on maybe the best drafting run of all time. Rocky Bleier in 1968. Mean Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood in 1969. Terry Bradshaw and Mel Blount in 1970. Jack Ham, Larry Brown, Mike Wagner, and Glen Edwards in 1971. Franco Harris in 1972. J.T. Thomas in 1973. Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, and Donnie Shell in 1974. And they became the team of the 1970s.

Not sure why more teams don’t choose to go the “draft a bunch of future Hall of Famers” route. Seems pretty foolproof.

4. New Orleans Saints (1967-86)

  • Record: 90-176-5 (0.318)
  • Average SRS percentile: 21%
  • Playoff bids: 0 in 20 seasons

We’re going to focus on the first 20 years of the Saints’ existence, but really, I could have just as easily defined this range as 1967-99. In that 33-year span, they won zero playoff games and enjoyed an average SRS percentile rating of 32 percent. But out of respect for the solid teams that Jim Mora fielded in the early-1990s (teams that always managed to lose in the wildcard round of the playoffs, granted), we’ll just talk about those first two decades.

Holy moly, those first two decades. The Saints went 7-9 in 1978, their 12th year in existence, and it was easily their best season to date. Two years later, they were 1-15. Bum Phillips dragged them to 8-8 in 1983, and it was a legitimate accomplishment. Two years later, he was 5-11 and fired. Poor Archie Manning somehow managed to play in the pros till he was 35 despite playing 11 seasons with New Orleans and getting sacked approximately 16,342 times.

How did they snap out of it?

Resourcefulness! Former USFL coach Jim Mora brought linebackers Sam Mills and Vaughn Johnson over from the failed league and paired them with Saints all-timers Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling to form one of the best defenses in the league, and Bobby Hebert quarterbacked four top-10 scoring offenses. They were among the best teams in the league in 1987, 1990, and 1991 but couldn’t ever get over the hump in the playoffs. Hebert was gone by 1993, and after four straight no-playoff seasons, Mora was soon gone, too.

It wasn’t until head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees came to town in 2006 that franchise fortunes truly began to turn around.

3. Cleveland Browns (1995-2018)

Baltimore Ravens v Cleveland Browns
DeShone Kizer
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
  • Record: 95-232-1 (0.291)
  • Average SRS percentile: 23%
  • Playoff bids: 1 in 20 seasons, with zero wins

I’m not sure which tidbit is more depressing, so I’ll let you decide.

Tidbit No. 1: The Browns returned to Cleveland in 1999, and Belichick returned to head coaching in 2000. Since then, including interims, the Browns have gone through 10 head coaches.

Tidbit No. 2: Since 2001, when Tom Brady became Belichick’s starter in New England, the Browns have had 15 different leading passers. Only three have done it twice: Tim Couch, Derek Anderson, and Colt McCoy.

Tidbit No. 3: As depressing as things were for most of 1999-2014, the last four seasons have actually been the worst of the run. Since the start of 2015, they are, incredibly, 6-49-1. In the 20th year of this soon-to-be 21-year sample, they became just the second NFL team to go 0-16.

Okay, yeah, Tidbit No. 3 is definitely the worst. And it’s why I’ve put the Browns ahead — well, “ahead” — of the Saints.

How did they snap out of it?

I’ll let you know when it happens. No pressure, Baker Mayfield. All you have to do is become Peyton Manning, and the Browns will be fine.

Make no mistake, though: as hopeless as things have been, the NFL has seen worse.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976-96)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by George Rose/Getty Images
  • Record: 100-223-1 (0.310)
  • Average SRS percentile: 19%
  • Playoff bids: 3 in 21 seasons, with one win

In the 10 years from 1972-81, the surging Steelers won 105 games. In the first 21 seasons of their existence, the Buccaneers won 100.

It boggles the mind how bad the Bucs were. They went 0-14 out of the gates, then “improved” to 2-12 the next year. After a brief run of success — three playoff bids in four seasons from 1979-82, including an NFC Championship Game bid in ‘79, because of a defense led by Lee Roy Selmon — they reverted to form, losing at least 10 games for 12 straight seasons.

This was a football black hole, a hopeless franchise if ever one existed. The only reason it’s not higher on this list is the one-playoff-bid-every-seven-years average (even though all three came within a four-year period).

How did they snap out of it?

Defense, defense, defense. After decades of mostly horrible drafting, the law of averages handed them some good fortune. They snatched up John Lynch in 1993, then landed hall-of-famers Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp in 1995. Fortunes quickly began to improve, especially when defense-friendly head coach Tony Dungy came aboard in 1996. After three playoff bids in two decades, they went five times in six years, reaching the NFC title game in 1999 and, with Jon Gruden replacing Dungy, winning the Super Bowl in 2002.

1. St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals (1977-2012)

Jake Plummer/Rob Kelly
Jake Plummer
  • Record: 218-346-2 (0.387)
  • Average SRS percentile: 25%
  • Playoff bids: 4 in 36 seasons, with five wins

True misery is in the eye of the beholder.

Among the 10 franchises on this list, the Cardinals had a better win percentage during their supposed funks than anyone, and their SRS percentile average of 25 percent, while terrible, was better than No. 2, No. 3, or No. 4. They even made the playoffs four times and made a Super Bowl!

So how are they No. 1 here? Longevity. They made the playoffs four times, sure, but in 36 seasons, a one-in-nine ratio. And to make matters even worse, the Cardinals were always bad but almost never the worst team in the league.

  • They had the No. 5 pick in 1981 when future hall-of-famers were taken at No. 2 (Lawrence Taylor) and No. 4 (Kenny Easley).
  • They had the No. 3 pick in 1998 when the Colts drafted their savior, Manning, at No. 1.
  • They had the No. 2 pick in 2001 when the Falcons took Michael Vick at No. 1.
  • They had the No. 5 pick in 2007 when great receiver Calvin Johnson went to the Lions at No. 2 and tackle Joe Thomas went to the Browns at No. 3.
  • They had the No. 5 pick in 2011 when Cam Newton went to Carolina at No. 1 and Von Miller went to Denver at No. 2.

They did get Larry Fitzgerald at No. 3 in 2004, at least.

Almost never good, but never bad enough to save themselves with top draft picks. That is, for my money, the worst possible existence. And again, we’re talking a span of nearly four damn decades.

From 1977 to 2007, they made the playoffs twice, and one bid came by finishing 5-4 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. They got summarily destroyed in the first round. And after making a miraculous run to the Super Bowl in 2008 despite a 9-7 record, then making the playoffs again in 2009, they averaged six wins a year over the next three seasons.

How did they snap out of it?

I mean ... did they?

Okay, that’s probably unfair. They did record double-digit wins for three straight seasons from 2013-15, and they did make the NFC title game again in 2015. But they were .500 or just below in 2016-17, and they might be the worst team in the NFL this fall. Success remains fleeting.

By the way, the worst 50-year stretch in NFL history, per average SRS percentiles: the Cardinals from 1957-2006.

The second-worst: the Cardinals from 1962-2011.

Third-worst: the Cardinals from 1961-2010.

Fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, eighth-, ninth-, 10th-, 11th-, 12th-, 13th-, 14th-, 15th-, 16th-, 17th-, 18th-, 19th-, 20th-, 21st-, and 22nd-worst: all various iterations of the Cardinals.

That Super Bowl run was pretty fun, at least. I’m sure the Browns would love one of those.