We are witnessing history.
In an NFL season much maligned for its poor quality of play and lack of compelling teams, and for the rapid decline of quarterback and offensive line play, there is still something pure and beautiful buried within the muck, at the deepest depths of the league, just waiting to be properly examined and explored. Sadly, it is not being given its due.
There is a football team flirting, again, with a perverse form of perfection that is almost being taken for granted nationally, rather than being put in its rightful, deserving, historic context. I'd argue that the Cleveland Browns are putting together the worst three-year run in NFL history -- including all existing franchises from 1920 until now. Of the 32 existing franchises, in every season they have played in every city they have played in, with every wacky nickname attached, no one has had a worse three-season run. And the best part is, you still have time to experience it, as these Browns aren't close to done, yet, I'd suggest. Just think about what they could still accomplish in their final six games, how far they could go to further distinguish themselves from the likes of the 1957-59 Chicago Cardinals (7-28-1) or 1940-42 Philadelphia Eagles (6-36-2).
The Browns have won just four times in over two-and-a-half seasons -- somehow accomplishing this in the salary cap era at a time when they amassed a stunning array of top-10 draft selections -- and are 4-38 since the start of the 2015 season. They are winless heading into Thanksgiving, again, in a season in which there seem to be no truly great teams (outside of the Patriots dynastic run), and with the AFC as weak as it's ever been. While most franchises in the NFL head down the holiday stretch assessing playoff permutations, with even 3-6 teams entering play last Sunday still very much alive, the Browns are left to ponder whether their .095 winning percentage over their past 43 games has them poised to go down as the worst NFL team ever. They still could go 0-16, with games at the Bengals and Chargers looming, then homes games against the Packers and Ravens, before finishing at the Bears and Steelers.
I am transfixed as to how this will end.
Given what we've seen from this team the past three seasons -- finding a way to get systematically worse from that hallowed 3-13 campaign two years ago -- they seem uniquely poised to pull this off. I fancy their chances of ending this season in spectacular fashion. It's going to take a mighty hot streak to catch the 2007-2009 Rams (6-42), whose .125 winning percentage over three full seasons was the worst stretch of that length that I could find in the annals of this league. Could the Browns possibly win twice more to equal that Rams standard, or will they stand alone in sustained failure? The world awaits.
As much as the Matt Millen era Detroit Lions will live in ignominy for that magical, 0-16 campaign in 2008, the 2007-2009 Lions look like a juggernaut at 8-40 compared to Cleveland's current form. Indeed, the 2007 Lions went 7-9 and the 2010 Lions went 6-10; any way you slice it, Millen looks like a master roster builder compared to the assemblage of talent Sashi Brown has brought to Cleveland.
This might be the time to note that the guy appointed to a "strategic" position on par with GM years ago, baseball man Paul DePodesta, still lives on the beach in California. Brown was originally hired to be a chief legal counsel yet now runs all of football operations. The Browns ran off most of their most experienced scouts before the 2016 draft -- many of whom espoused Carson Wentz -- and are now ridiculed for not having enough proven evaluators in the building. The owners -- without a football pedigree -- are more involved with decision-making than ever.
The Browns not only passed on Wentz, Dak Prescott numerous times, Deshaun Watson (twice) and others to end up with Cody Kessler (third-round pick, against all odds and reason) and DeShone Kizer (top of the second round despite a poor season at Notre Dame) as their QBs, after moving up to select Johnny Manziel didn't go so well. They have invested a ton of picks and money at receiver only to have seemingly no one on the roster capable of catching a ball in an NFL game. They paid $16M to rent Brock Osweiler's contract for a few months to invariably cut him, essentially paying $16M for the rights to a second-round pick in total. They have given away Joe Haden, Demario Davis, Mitchell Schwartz, Taylor Gabriel, Alex Mack and Tashaun Gipson in the past few years.
As you might imagine, it takes some serious work to be this bad, especially in this revenue-sharing era of NFL football, where you should be able to win two to three games a year simply by fielding an eligible roster most Sundays. And, to frame the Browns' accomplishments in the most profound current measure, consider they are 4-43 since starting 2014 with a 7-4 record. That is an unfathomable .085 winning percentage over a near 50-game sample. A loss at Cincinnati on Sunday would complete a 48-game span since that improbable 7-4 run, which was undone by the ownership-supported switch to Manziel at QB. That's the equivalent of three full seasons.
Suffice to say, I already knew the Browns were on to something noteworthy when I began this venture, pouring over the annual records of every team that has ever played NFL football for three seasons or more. But even I was, frankly, staggered by what I found.
Some will recall how bad the expansion 1976 Bucs were (0-14), and that they went just 2-12 the following year, finishing the '77 season with consecutive victories. But then they vaulted to 5-11 the following year -- rarified air, I'd posit, that this Browns team won't sniff. The Browns have already joined the 76-77 Bucs and the 83-84 Houston Oilers as the only teams to begin successive seasons 0-10 (Tampa is the only to start two straight seasons 0-12). But the Browns are well positioned to challenge that effort. And the worst three-year run the Oilers put together (83-85) came with a 6-35 mark. Gonna take a hot streak for the Browns to match it.
My only question is, will John McKay's old charges don their creamsicle uniforms and pop champagne corks should the Browns make it to 0-13, again this season? The Browns' victory last season, not that I have to tell you, came in their 15th game, a 20-17 masterpiece over the San Diego Chargers in Cleveland. So, there's a shot the Browns could get to 0-14 in consecutive years and shatter the Bucs' mark. A guy can only dream.
Personally, attending my first NFL game in the late 1970s in Baltimore, I had pretty much taken it for granted that the 1981-82 Colts were as bad as it got. That's always been my baseline for horrible football. It's well known in these parts how they failed to win a game in the strike-shortened '82 season (0-8-1) after going just 2-14 the year before (hastening their eventual move to Indianapolis). But I forgot that both the 1980 and 1983 Colts went 7-9. Alas, these Browns are assured of finishing far worse over three years. Not even close. Browns "win" in a landslide.
Pick your franchise, and I assure you they've never had a stretch like this, especially if the Browns keep up their losing ways.
The old New Orleans Aints? Their worst stretch is 8-30-4 from 1970-72. What about the Cincinnati Bungles? Their worst stretch was 1998-2000, with a scalding 11-37 mark. The old expansion Falcons? They went 6-35-1 from 1966-68. Anyone out there recall the 1939-41 Steelers, who went 4-25-4? The Browns could catch them in terms of total victories over a three-year span by winning once this season, but the Steelers were playing only 11 games a season and their .121 winning percentage just might be safe. The JaMarcus Russell era Raiders? Worst stretch I could find was 10-38 from 2005-2007. The Browns might not amass 10 wins in a four-year period at this rate. (Insert Purple Drank joke here).
Now, if you want to talk inactive/dormant/folded former NFL franchises, I'll grant you, these Browns might not be quite as woeful as the 1922-1925 Rochester Jeffersons (yes, they were a thing), who went 0-22-2 during that span in seasons, which ranged from four-to-seven games. But then again, the Browns are 1-25 since the start of the 2016 season, and they are threatening to go 0-16 after going into December a year ago before finally winning a game. But the Jeffersons, alas, are no longer with us in any incarnation, although that's the type of company the 2015-2017 Browns (4-38 and counting) are keeping.
One could posit, I suppose, whether the Hammond Pros, who existed from 1920-1926 and went 7-28-4 all-time, were better or worse than this current collection of Browns (I'll ask Pete Prisco -- I'm sure he's watched film of those guys). The 1927-29 Dayton Triangles mustered a 1-19-1 mark (original inventers of The Triangle Offense, perhaps?), and that .050 percentage is clearly below the Browns, though none of the Triangles earned millions or was groomed at big-time colleges or had 20-man coaching staffs and elite training staffs, either. (Prisco tells me the drills used at the 1927 combine were antiquated even by 1920's standards, by the way).
Some football scholars might want to interject the 1920-22 Columbus Panhandles into the discussion (I swear I am not making this up, check out pro-football-reference.com if you don't believe me), as they went just 3-22-2. But that .120 winning percentage is ahead of Cleveland's current pace, too. If you want to pick nits, you could bring up the 1922-24 Minneapolis Marines and their 3-14-2 mark (three wins in three full seasons, tied with the Browns!). But, again, these were very short seasons in an era when pro football could only marginally be defined as truly professional, and even then the Marines sported a lofty .176 winning percentage that the Browns could only hope to aspire to.
If I've learned anything from this undertaking, it's how many truly awful football teams accumulated a bunch of ties in their race to futility. Like, a ton of them. I'd go to Vegas and see if you could bet on the Browns tying a game between now and the end of the season. I'm smelling 0-15-1. They nearly tied the Titans a few weeks back. I could see a 9-9 Week 14 tie against Brett Hundley's Green Bay Packers. I'm just sayin'.
So you see, these final six weeks are about more than just the race to win to the first-overall draft pick. Yet again. Far more, in fact. It's about the ongoing quantification of history, in real time. This virtually unprecedented losing is the timeless string that connects Jimmy Haslam's modern, $1.1 billion failure (what he paid for the franchise in 2012) to football's long forgotten barnstorming days. Let us not overlook that. These are the ties (quite literally in many instances) that bind football present to football lore.
Dare not ignore what the Browns could still accomplish. Embrace it. Bask in it. Take it in, as these Sundays now become scarce, and 2017 nearly complete. Do it for the Jeffersons and Triangles and Panhandles not fortunate enough themselves to live in this time and experience it firsthand. For these are the days, my football loving friends. These are the days!