Friday, October 14, 2005

Stupor Bowl I-XV

Want to start a long, pointless football debate that will probably turn personal? Ask a group of fans: What was the greatest team in NFL history? You're likely to hear the 1972 Dolphins, or the 1985 Bears, or an old-schooler might chime in with the 1962 Packers, and of course someone will have to holler about the Patriots. But I can guarantee you won't get a consensus. OK, now ask: What's the worst team in NFL history? That's no contest: the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at 0-14 the only team in the Super Bowl era to lose every game. Getting a little more abstract: What's the worst "best" team in NFL history? In other words, what was the least impressive team to win the league championship? You can have a lot of fun with that one. My pick would be the 1988 San Francisco 49ers, but you can make a case for any number of teams. Go ahead and try it at home.

All of which is prelude to today's topic: What was the best worst team in NFL history? So much of sports commentary is about identifying the best of the best. Sometimes it's about finding the worst of the worst, and then piling on it with smug superiority. Me, I want to find the worst of the best -- the team that on first glance appears to be down in the absolute pits of the league, but on closer inspection turns out to be ... not as bad.

So where do we start? First, we have to come up with a benchmark for a truly dreadful season. Zero wins would be nice, but in the past 40 years, that's only happened twice: the 0-14 Bucs, mentioned above, and the 0-8-1 Colts in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Obviously the Bucs are the worst of the worst, and it wouldn't be fair to judge the Colts on only nine games (Frank Kush, you owe me).

So we go to the next-best (or next-worst) thing: one win. That hasn't happened often. Since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, there have been 729 teams that played a full season. Of those 729, just seven -- fewer than 1% -- have finished 1-15. The only record that's been achieved less often is 15-1, done only four times (1984 49ers, 1985 Bears, 1998 Vikings, 2004 Steelers).

1-15. This is our benchmark. This is the sine qua non of a dreadful football team. And these are the contenders:

  • 1980 New Orleans Saints
  • 1989 Dallas Cowboys
  • 1990 New England Patriots
  • 1991 Indianapolis Colts
  • 1996 New York Jets
  • 2000 San Diego Chargers
  • 2001 Carolina Panthers
As we begin to break down these broken-down teams, we must forget everything we know about what happened to them in later years. Yes, the Cowboys and Panthers were both in the Super Bowl within three years. Yes, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl within six years, and the Colts were in the AFC title game in four. It's all irrelevant. The 1979 Buccaneers were in the NFC Championship Game -- but that doesn't mean the '76 Bucs were any less awful. We are scientists here, and such data is just noise. What we need are charts! Our first table deals with the basic units of success and failure in the NFL: points scored and points allowed. Down and Distance uses a formula of these numbers to produce the POW-R score, a jazzy sounding yet eerily accurate assessment of team strength. (POW-R is point differential as percentage of points scored; for more on the formula, read this.) The higher the POW-R score, the better the team. Since these are all god-awful teams that were each outscored by more than 100 points, their scores are all negative, so the closer to zero, the "better." Here's how they rank:

'01 Panthers253410-23.68%
'96 Jets279454-23.87%
'00 Chargers269440-24.12%
'80 Saints291487-25.19%
'89 Cowboys204393-31.66%
'90 Patriots181446-42.27%
'91 Colts143381-45.42%

This gives us a little bit of separation, but just looking at points and POW-R doesn't so much tell us who's the best among them as it helps identify the worst: the '91 Colts. Their 143 points scored vs. 381 allowed means they were outscored an average of 24-9 per game. Ugh. A touchdown and a field goal were all it took to beat the Colts in an average week. As a matter of fact, the anemic 143 points Indy scored in 1991 are the second fewest since the league went to a 16-game schedule:

Seahawks 1992 140 2-14
Colts 1991 143 1-15
Browns 2000 161 3-13
Eagles 1998 161 3-13
Patriots 1990 181 1-15
Bengals 2000 185 4-12
Bengals 1998 187 3-13
Colts 1993 189 4-12
Buccaneers 1991 199 3-13
Bills 1985 200 2-14

In a just world, the 1992 Seahawks would be eligible for our little competition here, but they made the mistake of winning two games. And quite a mistake it was. One of the teams they beat was the Patriots, who also finished 2-14 that year. That Seattle victory gave New England the No. 1 pick in the draft, which became Drew Bledsoe. Seattle got Rick Mirer. But that 10-6 victory sure was sweet! Regardless, the fact that the '91 Colts and '90 Patriots both make this sorry list, too, is enough to eliminate them from competition. You can't be considered for Best 1-15 Team Ever if you're also a serious contender for Weakest Offense Ever.

Now that we've dealt with team performance over the course of a season, let's start looking at performance in individual games. The teams have equal 1-15 records, but not all individual losses are equal. Was a team getting blown out week after week, or were they keeping it close? Were they at least putting points on the board, even if it wasn't enough to win? And, most important, were they getting shut out? The POW-R formula detests shutouts and assigns them the lowest possible score: -100%. It doesn't matter whether you get shut out 6-0 or 52-0, you still get a -100% for your efforts. In fact, losing 6-0 is arguably worse than 52-0, because it means all you had to do to win was score one measly touchdown and you couldn't do it.

So let's look at how they lost. Here are the number of times each team was shut out; the number of times they scored fewer than 10 points; the number of times they lost by a field goal or less; the number of times they lost by a touchdown or less; and the number of times they were blown out by at least three touchdowns:

-10 PTS
1-3 PTS
1-7 PTS
21+ PTS
'80 Saints 03342
'89 Cowboys 34143
'90 Patriots15446
'91 Colts 211034
'96 Jets 03375
'00 Chargers04664
'01 Panthers05684

(Note the Colts' horrid offense and the Patriots' weak defense. Further evidence of why they've already been eliminated.) The three shutouts on the '89 Cowboys are what dragged down their POW-R rating the most and, frankly, are enough to disqualify them at this stage. True, the shutouts came at the hands of the 12-4 Giants (15-0), the 11-5 Eagles (27-0) and the 9-7 Saints (28-0), but the '96 Jets, '00 Chargers and '01 Panthers played a lot of winners (at least eight games each against playoff teams) and never got shut out. The Panthers played both Super Bowl teams, including the Rams twice, and kept the goose egg off the scoreboard.

Moving across the chart, we see pretty good evidence of which teams represent the cream of this ragged crop. The Panthers and Chargers came within a field goal of victory in six of their 15 losses. Further, the Panthers came within a touchdown in more than half their losses, and the Jets were within a TD in seven of 15. The Saints? They scored more points than the other teams, but they gave up a lot more, too. They didn't come close all that often; they didn't get blown out all that often. They just lost a lot of games by 14 or so points. They aren't serious contenders.

This brings us to the final variable: strength of schedule. Let's take each team's opponents and combine their records -- minus, of course, the 16 games played against our Magnificent Seven. We find that the opponents' records are clustered pretty close to each other, with one notable and predictable exception:

'90 Patriots137-103 .5719
'89 Cowboys 134-105-1.5606
'01 Panthers132-108 .5508
'96 Jets 130-110 .5429
'00 Chargers130-110 .5428
'80 Saints 124-116 .5175
'91 Colts 114-126 .4757

(Good gravy, the Colts!) The last column is the number of games each club played against teams that made the playoffs. Those numbers are roughly equal when you consider that from 1990 on, there were 12 teams instead of 10 in the playoffs. And some of those teams made the playoffs only because they had one of these 1-15 patsies on their schedules. In 1996, for example, the Colts got to go to the playoffs at 9-7 only because they beat up on the hapless Jets twice. What I'm saying is, the number of playoff teams on the schedule isn't as reliable an indicator as the overall strength.

So what's our conclusion? Of our final three contenders, the '01 Panthers had the toughest schedule. Playing that schedule -- which was only a hair easier than those at the top of the chart -- they were within a touchdown of victory in more than half the games. Their POW-R score is tops among the 1-15 clubs. Ladies and gentlemen, the best worst team in modern NFL history, your 2001 Carolina Panthers.

That's right. The only team to lose 15 consecutive games in a season is also the best team to lose 15 games in a season. I'm sure George Seifert feels vindicated.

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