The past 15 years have seen some of the greatest teams to ever grace an NFL field. Tom Brady’s Patriots have won multiple titles and put together the first real dynasty of the Salary Cap era. The Legion of Boom in Seattle have produced some of the greatest defensive seasons the league has ever seen. Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees have put up phenomenal seasons through the air.
This article isn’t about them.
Every coin has its opposite side. Every silver lining is hiding a cloud. For each Super Bowl-winning, history-making team that will live on in the minds and hearts of NFL fans forever, there’s a team that’s finding new depths to sink to. While parity and the salary cap have prevented teams from spending too long among the worst teams in the league, that hasn’t prevented some franchises from trotting out some of the worst teams to ever take the field.
These are teams whose playoff hopes were more or less over after the first quarter of their first game. These are teams that seem to struggle understanding the very basic concepts of football. They fail to gain yards on offense, and they fail to provide any resistance on defense. Any win by these teams feels more like luck than something earned. These are the worst of the worst.
We are looking at individual seasons here, so even though a team like the Cleveland Browns, who have been poor for essentially all of the last 15 years, won’t show up on this list unless one season in particular was especially bad. Franchises can show up multiple times, as well, though consecutive years have been grouped as one entry to allow for a little more variety.
Join me in a stroll down memory lane, and hope that your favorite team isn’t mentioned.
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15 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2011)
The ’11 Buccaneers had high hopes entering the year—they had been 10-6 the year before thanks to the emergence of Josh Freeman at quarterback and had made the playoffs as recently as 2007. This was a team on the rise, right? Instead, the defense collapsed, allowing the most points, yards per play, and rushing yards in the league. After climbing to a 4-2 start, Tampa Bay lost every remaining game on their schedule, finishing 4-12 and finishing well out of any sort of contention. Head coach Raheem Morris was fired after the year.
14 Tennessee Titans (2014 and 2015)
The Titans are hoping that the maturation of quarterback Marcus Mariota will take them off of this list, but the last two seasons have been hard to watch in Tennessee. Their 2-14 season in 2014 was the worst year they’d had since they moved from Houston, and while they improved to 3-13 last year, they still earned the top pick in the draft. They saw some improvement defensively last year and if Mariota can stay healthy and improve their terrible offense, they’ll avoid adding a third-straight horrible year to their resume, but things have not gone their way so far. Perhaps Mike Mularkey, who has taken over since Ken Whisenhunt has been fired, can improve things.
13 Washington Redskins (2014)
Other terrible teams can take a look at Washington’s improvement from 2014 to 2015 and have hope. Washington made the playoffs last season, but the year before, they were absolutely terrible. The quarterback controversy between Robert Griffin, Kirk Cousins, and Colt McCoy meant the team had no consistency at the most important position in the game and the defense was so bad, giving up 27.4 points per game, that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was fired after the season. Giving Cousins the full-time starting job at quarterback saw Washington’s fortunes improve dramatically, which just shows you how important finding the right guy behind center can be.
12 St. Louis Rams (2011)
It’s no wonder the Rams eventually moved out of St. Louis—this won’t be their only appearance on this list, and fans can only take horrible play for so long before it becomes more financially sustainable to get the heck out of Dodge. The ’11 edition was a 2-14 squad that had no offensive firepower whatsoever. Their 193 points scored wasn’t only last in the league, it was the 11th-fewest all time in a 16-game season. In the modern offensive era, that simply should not happen. Head coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney were unceremoniously shown the door a day after the season ended, and rightfully so.
11 Carolina Panthers (2010)
In between the somewhat successful Jake Delhomme era and the definitely successful Cam Newton era lies 2010, a 2-14 blot on Carolina’s record and the worst team in franchise history. Yes, the 2001 edition lost more games, but 2010’s edition, with Jimmy Clausen at the helm, set franchise futility records for points scored and points differential. They didn’t even have a first-round pick to try to give their fans some hope for the future. That would have to wait for next year, when they used the first-overall pick they received on future MVP Cam Newton.
10 Detroit Lions (2002)
No team has won fewer games in the last 15 years than the Detroit Lions, so get comfortable, Lions fans—you’ll be popping up here again. The 2002 season, the last for head coach Marty Mornhinweg, saw the team move into a new stadium in Ford Field, starting in a new division in the revamped NFC North, and with a new rookie quarterback in Joey Harrington. The results were much the same as the year before—a 3-13 season, perhaps most notably remembered for Mornhinweg opting to kickoff in overtime under the old first-team-to-score-wins rule. An utter disaster from start to finish and things would only get worse later in the decade.
9 Oakland Raiders (2013)
Years of bad drafting and poor trades left the cupboards bare in Oakland; for everything Al Davis accomplished as coach, owner, and general manager of the Raiders, his last decade or so showed the game had somewhat passed him by. The Raiders had to go through some awful salary cap issues and a talent-devoid roster before they could get better, and 2013 was the absolute nadir of the rebuilding process, featuring a leaky defense and a constant shuffle at the quarterback position. They’d draft Derek Carr the next season and things are looking up, but they still haven’t had a winning season since 2002.
8 Seattle Seahawks (2009)
Before The Legion of Boom, the Seahawks went through a period of time in the wilderness. At 5-11, the Seahawks’ record doesn’t pop out as one of the worst ever, but Football Outsiders’ DVOA tells the story—they received a -30.8% grade for the entire season, and crumbled to -41.7% later in the year. The Seahawks failed to break 14 points over the last month of the season, as more-or-less washed up veterans like Edgerrin James, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Patrick Kearney failed to provide notable impacts. Head coach Jim Mora was fired after only one season, making room for Pete Carroll, and the rest is history.
7 Arizona Cardinals (2010)
Remember when Derek Anderson was a thing? In his first full-time season as a starter, in Cleveland, Anderson made the Pro Bowl and nearly took the Browns to the playoffs. He was supposed to be the answer after Kurt Warner retired in Arizona and he just wasn’t. The team fell from 10-6 to 5-11, impressive for a team that had made the Super Bowl only two years earlier. The team would grope around at the quarterback position for a few more years before settling on Carson Palmer’s renaissance.
6 Kansas City Chiefs (2012)
There is an argument to be made that the ’12 Chiefs were the most talented terrible team of all time—they had six Pro Bowlers, including Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston. That corps helped lead them to the playoffs the very next year, but if they were a talented group, their supporting cast in 2012 must have been the worst the NFL has ever seen. The Chiefs sputtered to a 2-14 record, struggling with a quarterback controversy between Brady Quinn and Matt Cassell. They led the league in turnovers and didn’t even hold a lead in regulation until Week 10. They tied an NFL record by losing nine games by 14 points or more. After the season, coach Romeo Crennell was fired and the team traded for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, and things immediately improved.
5 Houston Texans (2002)
Expansion teams are usually terrible—they’re left with the rags other, established teams don’t want and a handful of undeveloped rookies, and then are asked to compete with everyone else. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when they fail to succeed under those conditions, and the ’02 Texans were no exception. Their true Achilles heel was the offensive line, as they gave up 76 sacks, with rookie quarterback David Carr regularly running for his life. Such is to be expected from an expansion franchise, however, making the four teams worse than the Texans on this list somewhat inexcusable.
4 Arizona Cardinals (2002 and 2003)
Mention Dave McGinnis to an Arizona fan, and you’re sure to see some involuntary shudders go up and down their spine. McGinnis is the worst coach in Arizona’s modern history and his three-year reign in Phoenix produced some awful football. In these two years, the Cardinals put up a 9-23 record. The ’03 team was particularly bad, with the team regularly getting blown out. The team was just utterly devoid of talent across the board. When forgotten running back Marcel Shipp is your best player, you have some serious issues to take care of. McGinnis was fired after the 2003 season, though it took another coaching change before the Cardinals clawed back to respectability.
3 St. Louis Rams (2007, 2008, and 2009)
Over three seasons, with three different head coaches, the Rams got progressively worse. You would think that starting with a 3-13 record, the team couldn’t find new lows to sink too, but each year, they won one fewer game than the year before, ending this period with a combined 6-42 mark. That’s the fewest games won over a three-season mark since the Chicago Cardinals back in World War II—it’s a historic level of futility. They had some talented players in Steven Jackson, Torry Holt, and Marc Bulger; it’s just that that never translated into anything on the field. Still, they somehow managed to not be the worst team in football over this time period, because that honor falls to…
2 Detroit Lions (2007, 2008, and 2009)
The Lions pulled off the perfect terrible season in 2008, becoming the only team to go 0-16 in NFL history. It’s not like it was a particular aberration, either; the team put up a 9-39 record over this three year stretch. They set an NFL record for pass completions allowed in ’07, had the third-worst points allowed in a season since the ‘60s in ’08, and arguably had their worst season the next year by going 2-14 against a much softer schedule. This period saw both head coach Rod Marinelli and general manage Matt Millen unceremoniously shown the door. What could be worse than an 0-16 season?
1 San Francisco 49ers (2004 and 2005)
I had the misfortune of watching every single game of the 2004 and 2005 seasons in San Francisco, and even if they occasionally managed to scrape a win together, I can assure you it was purely by chance. The 49ers had lost Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens, and Garrison Hearst after the 2003 season, replacing them with Tim Rattay, Kevan Barlow, and Cedrick Wilson. It did not go well. At all. Offensive football was set back generations by the 49ers’ attempts to move the ball in this period. The 2005 season saw them shuffling between rookie Alex Smith, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, and Cody Pickett at the quarterback position, and that’s one of the most motley depth charts of all time. Their -55.5% DVOA that season remains untouched as the worst ever recorded in Football Outsiders history, and it doesn’t seem to be challenged any time soon. Winless season or not, this was the worst team of the past 15 years.
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