The NFL Needs a New Laughingstock

With the NFL having perhaps the most parody among the four major North American sports leagues, there is little that you can count on year over year. Sure, you know the refs will blow some crucial calls, defenders will complain that the league is getting too soft, and Roger Goddell will make a fool of himself, but there aren’t many teams you can count on. For the past 15 years, the two constants before each season have been that the Patriots will be really good… and the Browns will be really, really bad.

In a league that’s constantly changing, Cleveland’s futility has been a comforting certainty. It’s made any preseason power rankings 3% easier – just slot the Browns into 32nd place and go from there. Since 2003, the Browns have never made the playoffs and only topped 7 wins once. They’re now on their 7th head coach and 27th starting quarterback over that period of time. And yet, finally, there is some hope. The Browns seem to have found their franchise quarterback in Baker Mayfield, and are loaded with young talent on both sides of the ball. Yes, they were still below .500 in 2018, but had they fired Hue Jackson sooner it’s conceivable that they would have made the playoffs. As we now look towards the 2019 season, we can no longer count on the Browns to be bad. So the question becomes, who will take their place as the laughingstock of the NFL?

It turns out that we might have praised the NFL for its parody too soon – there are actually a surprising number of candidates that could replace the Browns. But to truly be a laughingstock you can’t just be a consistently bad football team; there needs to be some level of embarrassment and despair surrounding the organization. For the Browns, it was their completely inability to find a quarterback, coupled with their refusal to draft quality quarterbacks when they had the chance. What will it be for our new “kings” of the NFL’s lower class?

Honorable Mentions

It would be easy to just skip to the bottom of the NFL’s barrel, but why pass up the opportunity to make fun of some other teams. These organizations are nowhere near Browns-level bad, but there’s some work to be done before they become legitimate playoff contenders.

Arizona Cardinals: So the team that just finished with the worst record isn’t one of the worst franchises? That tells you all you need to know about how low the bar is. Here’s what’s working in their favor:

  • They’re only three years removed from winning 13 games and making the NFC Championship.
  • They have a promising young quarterback (or they’ll trade him, and get another promising young quarterback).
  • If nothing else, Kliff Kingsbury should make the team fun to watch.
  • No team with Larry Fitzgerald can be the laughingstock of the league.

Cincinnati Bengals: There is officially a new “worst NFL team in Ohio”! The case against the Bengals really isn’t about how bad they’ve been – it’s about how they were good, yet utterly incapable of taking advantage of that fact. From 2009 to 2015, the Bengals made the playoffs six out of seven seasons, but lost on Wild Card Weekend every single time (they haven’t won a playoff game since 1990…). That’s a truly remarkable level of “good, but not good enough”. Even if we assume they were the underdog each time and only had a 40% chance of winning, they still had a 95% chance of winning at least one time. The most remarkable part of all of this is that Marvin Lewis managed to keep his job until the end of the 2018 season. You gotta love Mike Brown, the most loyal cheapest owner there is!

In recent seasons, the Bengals have opted to disappoint during the regular season instead of the playoffs. They have won seven or fewer games in each of the last three seasons, causing them to finally part ways with the aforementioned Lewis. His replacement? 35-year-old Zac Taylor, who could be the next Sean McVay, or just simply a guy who worked under McVay for two seasons. In a roaring start to his tenure, Taylor had considerable trouble finding a defensive coordinator, which might be an important thing for a first-time, offensive-oriented head coach to have (they’ve since settled on Lou Anarumo, who apart from an interim role with the Dolphins in 2015, has never been a DC in the NFL or at a major college). With each word we type, it feels more and more like the Bengals should be more than just an Honorable Mention… but in case Vontaze Burfict ever comes across this article, we don’t want to make any enemies.

Denver Broncos: Okay, they’ve played in two of the last six Super Bowls (winning one), so they don’t really belong on this list. And they weren’t going to be included; that is, until they traded for Joe Flacco. It looks like the Broncos will have $28 million count against their cap in 2019 for Flacco and a released Case Keenum. John Elway: Great quarterback, horrendous evaluator of other quarterbacks.

Detroit Lions: Yes, they’ve made the playoffs three times since 2011, but the Lions haven’t actually recorded a win in the playoffs since 1991. Although it’s faded over time, the stink of the Matt Millen era still lingers over the franchise, and the start of the Matt Patricia era hasn’t been especially inspiring. Speaking of Matts, it’s also fair to wonder if Matthew Stafford is good enough to actually lead a winning team, which might be why the team could potentially trade him before next season. There’s a chance that this situation turns into Cleveland 2.0 if they trade Stafford and fail to adequately replace him, and if Patricia is as much of a dud as some might fear. But for now, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.

Side note: While it’s easy (and fun!) to shit on Detroit, we have to acknowledge that they did get unlucky. When they were in full-on tank mode, they drafted Calvin Johnson, Stafford, and Ndamukong Suh between 2007 and 2010. Unfortunately, they were forced to given each an absurdly lucrative rookie contract, which effectively prevented them from building a contender around them. In 2011, the NFL changed its CBA, and rookie salaries were drastically reduced…

Jacksonville Jaguars: Can one flukey appearance in the AFC Championship Game save a team from being one of the worst franchises in the league? Apparently, the answer is yes. The Jaguars almost made the Super Bowl two seasons ago. The freaking Jaguars! That alone is saving them from potentially being the top candidate to the replace the Browns. Otherwise, it’s been a miserable decade for Jacksonville. Since 2008, the Jags have finished with five or fewer wins a whopping eight times, and the whole Blake Bortles experience definitely gives them some serious embarrassment/despair points. Still, in a league where the goal is to win a Super Bowl, being a few plays away from playing for the title has to count for something. Jacksonville is basically a much worse version of the 2012 Baltimore Ravens – made a playoff run based on a strong defense and a quarterback playing better than he had at any other point in his life, reward said quarterback with a contract extension that almost instantly backfired, and then had to pick up the pieces. On the bright side, it looks like it’ll take less time for the Jags to move on from Bortles than it did the Ravens to move on from Flacco (thanks again Denver!).

Miami Dolphins: If you are someone who is morally opposed to the idea of tanking, then give the Dolphins credit. Since 2002, they’ve only finished with four or fewer wins twice. On the flip side, they have only two playoff appearances and no playoff wins over that time. It seems like the Dolphins are tired of being trapped in a state of constant mediocrity, and are finally looking to rebuild. You know what, good for them. They might actually have a definitive plan and direction for the franchise, which automatically prevents you from being one of the four worst NFL teams. It’s also entirely possible that Stephen Ross goes rogue, and demands that the Dolphins go on another ill-fated free agent spending spree. But when you’re in Miami, how bad could things really be?

New York Giants: Their inclusion in the list is almost entirely based on how unbearable it is to watch the current version of Eli Manning play quarterback. How can a team with Saquon and Odell look so bad on offense?! But you can’t argue with the rings Eli somehow managed to collect for New York. And hey, maybe this is the year the front office finally realizes that Eli is over the hill.

New York Jets: One play doesn’t define an NFL team, but in the Jets’ case, there is one play that is a microcosm of their last decade:

As funny as the Butt Fumble is, the ineptitude of the Jets extends far beyond one simple play. This is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs or had a remotely competent starting quarterback since 2010 (this distinguished list of quarterbacks includes pre-FitzMagic Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith, Michael Vick, and, of course, Mr. Butt Fumble himself). They haven’t done much to be proud of this decade, but aside a few unfortunate plays, questionable overpays of past-their-prime free agents, and cringeworthy Rex Ryan moments, nothing sticks out as being all that awful either. Really, for almost 10 years the Jets have just been meh, which is tough to do under the bright lights of New York. But in this case, meh is not enough to carry on the legacy of the Cleveland Browns.

San Francisco 49ers: We almost didn’t include the Niners in this discussion, but when you’re coming off a four win season and haven’t cracked six wins since 2014, you at least deserve to be mentioned in this discussion. In reality, the future actually looks kind of bright in the Bay Area (or at least San Fran’s side of the Bay… more on that later). They have the golden boy Jimmy Garoppolo, so how bad could things be? And once again, the 49ers enter the offseason with loads of cap space and a high pick, so assuming good health from Jimmy G they could actually be relevant again as early as next season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs check all of the boxes. Some off-field embarrassment? Check, courtesy of the one and only Jameis Winston. Bad for a long time? With no playoff appearances since 2007 and no playoff wins since 2002, check. Not likely to improve any time soon? Check, unless Bruce Arians works some serious magic on good old Jameis. The one thing that’s missing for the Bucs is a rabid fanbase. Part of the reason why making fun of the Browns was so satisfying was that there were so many diehard Browns fans. Unfortunately, we’re not feeling the same passion out of the Sunshine State. Can a team really be a laughingstock if there’s no one there to laugh at them?

Washington Redskins: Yikes. A season that started with a pleasantly surprising 6-3 record ended in disaster, as Alex Smith suffered what might be a career-ending injury and the Redskins limped to a 1-6 finish. The Redskins haven’t won a playoff game since 2005, and they definitely scored some embarrassment points with their handling of the Reuben Foster situation and their decision to start Mark Sanchez even though a certain quarterback/activist was on the open market. But still, they haven’t won fewer than 7 games over the past four seasons, which sadly counts for something.

The Final Two

As you can tell, there are a lot of bad franchises in the NFL right now. But two teams truly stand out as the worst of the worst: the Buffalo Bills, and the Oakland Raiders. Before anointing our “winner”, let’s make the case for each of these lovable losers:

Buffalo Bills: In some sense, Buffalo is the perfect Cleveland replacement. The Bills, like the Browns, have some of the most passionate, craziest (perhaps a little too crazy…) fans that want nothing more in life than to have a competitive football team. Unfortunately, just like in Cleveland, Buffalo hasn’t been home to a competitive football team in a very long time. If not for their flukey playoff appearance in 2017, they would undoubtedly be at the very top of this list; however, just like with the Jaguars, recent success (no matter how fleeting) has to mean something.

Even talking about their playoff run in 2017 provides a perfect opportunity to make fun of the Bills as, if not for some last-minute Andy Dalton heroics, the Bills might have just missed the playoffs because of their decision to bench their starting quarterback in favor of the one and only Nathan Peterman. Their decision to go back to Peterman at the start of the 2018 season also provides some nice embarrassment points, as he had a truly horrendous 1:7 TD/INT ratio before being benched and subsequently released. We also can’t forget to mention that a player literally chose to retire rather than go out for the second half of a Bills game this past season.

Amazingly, the further back in time you go, the worse it gets for poor Buffalo. Before 2017, the Bills hadn’t made the postseason since 1999 and they still haven’t won a postseason game since 1995. When you look at the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s it’s easy to understand Buffalo’s struggles – the only two players on the list that suited up for the Bills were a way, way past his prime Terrell Owens and punter Brian Moorman. Sometimes fans can stomach watching a bad football team so long as there are a couple star players, but no, for an entire decade, the star attraction for the Buffalo Bills was their punter…

Oakland Raiders: Or should we call them the Las Vegas Raiders? The situation for Raiders fans was bleak ever since the team announced that they’d be moving to Las Vegas. But give the team some credit. They wanted to help ease the blow, so they went out and hired Jon Gruden and turned their team into an absolute dumpster fire.

Sadly, the Raiders are familiar with dumpster fire status. Between 2003 and 2009, the Raiders never won more than five games. During that span, they had some laughable draft miscues. In 2004, Robert Gallery was a bust with the second overall, while future Hall of Famers Larry Fitzgerald and Philip Rivers were the next two players off the board. After getting burned by an offensive lineman, Oakland decided to prioritize speed above all else instead, which led them to select Fabian Washington, Michael Huff, Darren McFadden, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. What do those players have in common? They all ran the 40 in 4.34 seconds or less at the combine, and they all flamed out in the NFL (it’s also worth nothing that everyone but Washington was a top-seven pick). The one pick we haven’t touched on from that era is Mr. Bust himself, JaMarcus Russell. You could say that picking Russell first overall set the team back for years… but based on the other signs of mismanagement, it seems that the Raiders would have been a train wreck regardless.

Those were dark days for the Raiders franchise. The only thing stopping them from being the Cleveland Browns of the 2000s was, well, the Cleveland Browns. But in recent seasons, it actually looked like they had turned a corner and were ready to return the relevance. In 2016, Oakland finished 12-4 and could have made some noise in the playoffs if not for Derek Carr’s injury. That season, they had a young QB that was a fringe MVP candidate in Carr, a second-year wide receiver that had started his career with back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in Amari Cooper, and a young stud pass-rusher that had combined for 26 sacks in the past two seasons in Khalil Mack. How does a team with that much promise end up going 4-12 two seasons later? They hire Jon Gruden.

Blaming Gruden for all of Oakland’s problems is a little unfair, but if we’re doling out some blame pie, he’s definitely getting the largest piece (by far). He opted to trade Mack rather than pay him what he’s worth, and then lamented how difficult it is to find good pass rushers. Amari Cooper played only six games with Gruden’s Raiders before being traded. In two of those games, he was targeted 10+ times and was very productive. In the other four, Cooper saw 10 targets total and was unsurprisingly not so productive. Gruden had apparently seen enough, and shipped Cooper out in a trade that many considered to be a win for Oakland at the time. Unfortunately, the Dallas Cowboys realized what the Raiders never did – that if you pass Cooper the ball, he’s pretty good – and made Oakland and Gruden look silly. Then there’s Carr, who regressed to the point of crying in the huddle. It’s safe to say that year one (one of ten) of the Jon Gruden era didn’t go according to plan…

So who are the new Browns? It really comes down to what you think the Cleveland Browns have represented. Were they just a franchise with a long, tragic history of poor performance and general incompetence? Were they just a poorly constructed team that you could safely write off at the start of each season? Or were they some pathetic combination of tortured past and uninspiring future?

In terms of having a tortured past, the Buffalo Bills are tough to beat. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1995! In that span, the Raiders have four playoff wins and one Super Bowl appearance. More recent history still isn’t in the Bills’ favor – no Buffalo team has been as promising as the Oakland trio of Carr, Cooper, and Mack was in 2016. But if you were to ask which team is most likely to be laughably bad in 2019, the answer would undoubtedly be the Raiders. Plus, we have to give the Raiders “credit” for picking up Buffalo’s disgraced castoff, Mr. Nathan Peterman. So with that in mind, we’re going with the team that truly strikes the Browns-esque balance of depressing past and present (with a nice side of generally embarrassing behavior) – the one and only Oakland, soon-to-be Las Vegas, Raiders. Congrats Jon, this might be the only thing you win for a while.

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