The Worst Eras In Post-Merger NFL History

As we burn away the last vestiges of the dead season, and await a resolution on Von Miller’s contract, I put together some quick data crunching on a curious question.  Most of us can identify the best and most dominant stretches by teams in NFL history.  But identifying some of the worst stretches can be elusive, so I decided to put together a list of ineptitude.

Rules

  • The era must be at least five seasons long to qualify.  Every franchise can make a mistake here and there, but this list immortalizes the teams that made repeated or prolonged mistakes.
  • The maximum winning percentage to qualify is .400.  That means teams in the eras in question lost at least six out of every ten games.
  • The era must contain the entirety of each head coach’s tenure belonging to it.  (Ideally I would have gone with general manager tenures but that’s just too difficult to track.) For example, Dick Vermeil went 5-11 and 4-12 in his first two seasons with the Rams, but it’s not fair to split that off those years into a “worst era”, as most Rams fans will have been glad to endure those two years of pain to see Vermeil lead them to a Super Bowl.
  • The majority of the era must be contained post-merger (1970).  However, if that majority requirement is satisfied, years preceding it can be added if one head coach’s tenure straddled between that cutoff.
  • No seasons are broken up: an entire season is credited to the head coach that was in charge Week 1.  To use the 1986 Bills as an example, this prevents someone like Hank Bullough getting off the hook just because he was fired midseason and replaced by Marv Levy.
  • The section of the era with the lowest possible winning percentage is used.  Head coach tenures that would keep the era under the .400 maximum but improve upon the winning percentage are omitted from that era.
  • However, eras can be broken up into two consecutive pieces if they both fall at or below the .400 maximum.  Yes, there are a few teams that qualify for this.
  • Active head coaches are exempted from consideration.  After all, Chuck Noll went 12-30 in his first three seasons and he turned out OK. (However, if you’re curious, if Gus Bradley goes 5-11 or worse in 2016 and gets fired for doing so, the 2012-2016 Jaguars will be #1 with a bullet on this list.

With those rules in place, I identified 31 eras that qualified.  They will be listed in descending order (descending from “least bad” to “the worst”).

T-30: 1975-1991 Green Bay Packers (.400)

The Abyss Between Lombardi & Wolf

Packers fans that are part of the Millennial Generation (born from 1982 to likely 2004) have had it pretty good.  They have tons of positive memories of the likes of Favre and Rodgers at quarterback leading Green Bay to multiple winning seasons and Super Bowls.  But they’re also spoiled in having few, if any, memories from the 1970s and 1980s when the Packers were more like laughingstocks than title town contenders.  This particular stretch of losing with Bart Starr and Tom Braatz in charge is just enough to meet the .400 percentage criteria.

T-30: 1978-1989 St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals (.400)

Last Stand in St. Louis

It’s hard to blame St. Louis for allowing the football Cardinals to skip to the desert in 1988 considering the product that was being put on the field in the 1980s.  Clearly, this would be a team that regretted not hanging on to Don Coryell after he led the Cardinals to three rare 10+ win seasons in the mid-1970s.

29: 1975-1988 Kansas City Chiefs (.386)

The Abyss Between Stram & Schottenheimer

Much like with the Packers, Millennial Chiefs fans are spared the horrors of their team’s putrid performance for much of the 1970s and 1980s.  True, the Chiefs since then haven’t been nearly as successful as the Packers, but not having to remember the team whiffing on Todd Blackledge in the famed 1983 draft is still a major relief.

28: 1976-1982 Seattle Seahawks (.386)

Sleepless Expansion In Seattle

Most expansion teams in sports need a few years to get their bearings, and the Seahawks are no exception.  At least the likes of Jim Zorn and Steve Largent led by GM John Thompson and HC Jack Patera made things entertaining in the Kingdome even if the results in the standings didn’t reflect it.

27: 2001-2012 Buffalo Bills (.385)

The Curse of the Music City Miracle

When you realize that the Tennessee Titans were a foot away from tying the Super Bowl in the 1999 season, and that the Bills had the Titans very much on the ropes in their first playoff game that year until Frank Wycheck’s backwards pass to Kevin Dyson, it’s more than enough to send Bills fans to despondency. They were so close so many times in the 1990s…and since then they’ve been nowhere near close, cycling through four GMs and four HCs in this period.

26: 1987-1991 San Diego Chargers (.379)

The Abyss Between Coryell & Ross

It’s tough to put together a good encore once the likes of Coryell and Dan Fouts call it a career, and the Chargers rediscovered this the hard way.  I say “rediscovered”, because they had been down this path before…

25: 1970-1978 San Diego Chargers (.378)

The Abyss Between Gillman & Coryell

You’re going to see a lot of teams from the 1970s in these rankings.  There may not have been another decade in the NFL with such a lack of parity.  Just six teams hogged 77% of the playoff wins, while half of the league failed to win a single playoff game.  Suffice to say, the Chargers were one of those unfortunate 14 teams with no playoff glory.

24: 1978-1988 Detroit Lions (.373)

Russ Thomas’s Subpar Second Act

Unlike some other teams, the Lions could at least maintain mediocrity through most of the 1970s during the first half of Thomas’s tenure at GM.  But the period in which he hired Monte Clark and Darryl Rogers to coach the team allowed the Lions to fail to even achieve mediocrity in most of the 1980s.

23: 1968-1977 Chicago Bears (.365)

The Fourth Hangover After George Halas

Papa Bear had come back to coach the Monsters of the Midway on three separate occasions after brief hiatuses, but when he retired from coaching for good at age 73 there wasn’t going to be a fourth comeback.  The end result was yet another team that endured lean times through the 1970s.  While Halas couldn’t have been happy with these results, he at least set the Bears back on their usual winning track just before his death by hiring former player Mike Ditka as head coach.

22: 1978-1985 New Orleans Saints (.363)

Who Dat Ain’t

This is actually the better half of the stench that infested the Superdome before Jim Mora Sr. could finally get them for the first time in franchise history into the playoffs(?!?).  Dick Nolan and Bum Phillips were actually able to put together some garden variety mediocre seasons in the Big Easy, but it also includes that infamous 1-15 season in which the “Aints” and paper bags over the heads of fans were immortalized.

21: 2003-2010 San Francisco 49ers (.359)

The Hangover After Bill Walsh

Those of us that were accustomed to the 49ers being a perennial contender in the NFL had to be jarred when the team entered such a rotten stretch in the 2000s.  Jim Harbaugh gave them a reprieve in the four years after, but 2015 has seen the team revert back into the same old (new?) 49ers.

20: 1983-1996 Atlanta Falcons (.356)

The Braatz-Herock Abyss

Braatz was mentioned above as contributing to the Packers’ woes.  Perhaps Green Bay should have looked at his tenure before with the Falcons before deciding to hire him.  Succeeding GM Ken Herock didn’t do much better, muddling through with coaches like Jerry Glanville and June Jones before being deposed in favor of Dan Reeves.

19: 1992-1996 Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams (.350)

Gateway To The Worst

This nadir was further bracketed by the ugly ending to the John Robinson era and the ugly beginning to the Dick Vermeil era.  Bringing back Chuck Knox could be seen as an act of placation and/or desperation by the fan base, but either way it didn’t stem the Rams’ newfound losing ways, and Knox was left behind in LA as the team sent its wagons east to St. Louis.  The following two years with Rich Brooks at the helm were only marginally better.

18: 1970-1978 New York Giants (.348)

The Webster-Robustelli Abyss

As with the Packers and Bart Starr, sometimes giving the keys of the franchise to a star player for the team isn’t the wisest decision.  The Giants were yet another franchise that suffered through lean times in the 1970s, and the tenure of Alex Webster and Andy Robustelli showed it.  It’s only fitting that the Miracle at the Meadowlands was one of the closing lowlights on this era.

17: 1966-1977 Buffalo Bills (.347)

The Bob Lustig Abyss

Yet another 1970s team that had tough times, mostly under the operation of Lustig at GM.  Lou Saban had some moderate success in the mid-1970s, but that was bracketed with some truly horrible seasons that help to drag the Bills down the list.

16: 1990-2006 Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals (.343)

Drought in the Desert

Historically the Cardinals franchise has been quite synonymous with losing over its long existence, and this stretch introduced the younger generations and residents of the Phoenix metro era to that losing trend.  From the bluster of Buddy Ryan to Dennis Green’s famous meltdown, a 1997 playoff win over the hated Dallas Cowboys was the only bright spot in this 17-season stretch.

15: 1969-1975 Philadelphia Eagles (.342)

The Santa Claus Curse

An essential part of the lore of the surly Philadelphia sports fan comes from the Eagles’ last game of the miserable 1968 season.  The Eagles had lost eleven straight, and their fans noticed they were poised to select standout USC running back OJ Simpson with the first overall pick in 1969.  Instead, the Eagles couldn’t even lose properly, as two late season victories put the Buffalo Bills in place to draft Simpson with an eventual 1-12-1 record.  In a dreary snow-filled season-ending loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Eagles fans took their anger out on a fan dressed as Santa Claus pulled onto the field as a substitute.

The football gods did not take kindly to disrespecting such a highly revered figure as Santa, as the Eagles suffered seven more seasons of non-winning records until Dick Vermeil came into town to pull these birds out of the tailspin.

14: 1966-1974 Houston Oilers (.340)

The Blueness Before Luv Ya Blue

The Oilers’ starting AFL history was stellar, winning two championship and losing a third.  But then the wheels started falling off, with the tenure of HC Wally Lemm spanned past the merger, including an ending 3-10-1 season.  Instability plagued the Oilers during this period, with four GMs and four HCs hired.

13: 2011-2015 Tennessee Titans (.337)

The Hangover After Jeff Fisher

Fisher has currently endured criticism for his mediocre tenure with the Rams, but Titans fans might have pined for that mediocrity instead of what they got after Tennessee fired him after 16 full years as head coach: a period that included a 2-14 and 3-13 season under Ken Whisenhunt.

12: 1976-1984 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.332)

The John McKay Era

McKay shouldn’t be tarnished too much here, as he’s a proven winner based upon his days at USC, and he did take the Bucs all the way to the NFC Championship Game in 1979.  Still, it’s too difficult to overcome losing the first 26 games of a franchise’s existence in avoiding making this list.

T-10: 2009-2015 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.319)

The Hangover After Jon Gruden

Letting go of their only Super Bowl winning head coach in history has not worked out well for the Bucs, as recent years have harkened back to the bad old days that met their expansion era in futility.

T-10: 1990-1996 New York Jets (.319)

Rock Bottom with Rick Kotite

Kotite’s reputation among Jets fans is well earned, but his short tenure is the only thing that saves him from being worse on this list.  The merely less than average tenures of Bruce Coslet and Peter Carroll, however, still get dragged down thanks to Kotite.

9: 1999-2015 Cleveland Browns (.319)

The Factory of Sadness Era

There’s actually an in-depth video on most of this era.  But it still doesn’t beat the short summation.

T-7: 1992-2002 Cincinnati Bengals (.295)

The Bungles Era

This is a clear case when ownership made a difference.  Under Paul Brown the Bengals were at least a consistently competitive organization, even if they never attained the ultimate goal.  But when Brown died and was succeeded by his son Mike, the team entered an 11-year death spiral.  Marvin Lewis deserves credit for pulling the Bengals out of that spiral, even if the status quo ante has returned of being competitive but not succeeding in the playoffs.

T-7: 2004-2014 Oakland Raiders (.295)

The Last Stand of Al Davis

If you went back in time to 20 years before this abyss and told people this would happen, people would have said you were crazy.  But that is how the Hall of Fame career of Davis will always be remembered as concluding.  This span also includes the first few years of the Reggie McKenzie era with Dennis Allen as head coach, a testament to just how far Davis had sunk the Raiders upon his death.

6: 1997-2001 San Diego Chargers (.288)

The Ryan Leaf Era

Is there any more that needs to be said than this being the Ryan Leaf era?

5: 1980-1986 Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts (.271)

Mayflower Mayday

The travails of former Colts owner Bob Irsay is stuff that’s made of legend, but at least there were periods of play on the field when they were at least moderately competitive with the likes of Ted Marchibroda or Ron Meyer at head coach.  But the string of coaches during the early 1980s that also included the botched draftings of Art Schlichter and John Elway, and above all the infamous relocation, really highlights the Bob Irsay Colts at their worst.

4: 1967-1977 New Orleans Saints (.269)

This Ain’t The Expansion You’re Looking For

Yes, the Saints were so bad during those days that we can split this mega-era into two pieces and they’ll make the list twice.  Browns fans may legitimately lament on how terrible their expansion team has been, but they can at least take solace in the fact that the Saints’ expansion era was even worse.

3: 1981-1985 Houston Oilers (.247)

The Hangover After Bum Phillips

Compared with other stretches on this list, this Oilers’ period of awfulness between Phillips and Jerry Glanville at head coach was at least short.  But this five year period included some incredibly terrible seasons, including records of 1-8, 2-14, and 3-13.

2: 1985-1991 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (.243)

The Deeper Abyss After The John McKay Era

If you remember the reputation of the Bucs before Rich McKay and Tony Dungy came into town, you’ll know that, like the Saints, it isn’t a surprise that they could also get their early years split into two appearances on this list.

1: 2001-2008 Detroit Lions (.242)

The Matt Millen Abyss

There’s a good reason why the likes of Walter Cherepinsky have turned Matt Millen into a punchline for poor GM ability. If anyone dares to try and tell you that there has been a worse general manager in post-merger NFL history, just point them to the bottom of this article to set them straight.