Friday, May 01, 2009

Way worse than the worst

This will be my fourth consecutive Lions post. I can assure you there will not be a fifth. There is speculation that five consecutive Lions posts could result in the formation of a Black Hole and I don’t like the Lions enough to find out if that’s true. Also, there will be no draft discussion in this post although—like the draft—it will feature all sorts of Lions ineptitude. The Lions have not made the playoffs since 1997. Believe it or not, that was 12 years ago or enough time for even the worst NFL to teams to make the playoffs with multiple regimes after multiple rebuilding efforts. The Lions, on the other hand, are still on their first rebuilding job. The Lions have not only been the worst team in the NFL, they’ve been lapped two and three times by the other “worst” teams.

It is not easy to miss the playoffs for 12 consecutive years. It isn’t just ineptitude that’s required to reach that level of futility. You either need incredibly bad luck or the opposite of divine intervention. I’m going to attempt to put into perspective the degree of difficulty that goes with maintaining such a severe level of incompetence for such a long period of time without even the slightest hint of a turnaround. I realize this has been done many times by many people—including myself on multiple occasions—but creating new ways to measure the Lions’ failures never gets old.

The Atlanta Falcons have historically been a putrid franchise. They own the second worst winning percentage in NFL history (min. 10 years) at .411. Only Tampa Bay has been worse. Since its expansion season of 1966, Atlanta has been atrocious over every 10-year period including the last 10 years. Since 1999, the Falcons are only 71-88-1 (.444 %). If there’s a team to measure Detroit’s recent futility against, it is Atlanta. Before I go any further, I want to quickly explain the comparison that I’m going to make. Obviously, the Lions have been far and away the worst team in the NFL for a long time. Comparing records of the Lions and other NFL teams won’t tell us anything that we don’t already know. The inspiration for this post is a thought that I had regarding how many times “bad” franchises have succeeded and rebuilt over the last 12 years. I theorized that there were probably teams that have been bad, good, bad, good, bad, and then good again with entirely different rosters. Twelve years is a long time especially in the NFL. The first team that came to mind was Atlanta. The Falcons have been horrible but they’ve sprinkled in playoff appearances over that horribleness. In fact, they’ve been to the playoffs four times since 1998. It’s not just the fact that Atlanta has been to the playoffs four times since the Lions last went, rather it’s who Atlanta has gone to the playoffs with since the Lions last went.

In 1998, Atlanta went 14-2 and lost to Denver in the Super Bowl. That team was the culmination of a rebuilding project that began with the hiring of Dan Reeves the year before. Atlanta regressed considerably under Reeves until he resigned in 2003. That started another rebuilding process that saw the team go 11-5 in Jim Mora’s first year. Atlanta again regressed under Mora before he was fired following the ’06 season. Atlanta started another rebuilding process that saw the team reach the playoffs in year one under head coach Mike Smith. In the 12 years that the Lions have been attempting to set the world record for “gaffes”, Atlanta has gone through three rebuilding processes under three different coaches (four if we count Petrino’s half-season) resulting in four playoff appearances. In fact, it wasn’t just the coaches who changed. Nearly the entire rosters turned over.

Atlanta's Offensive Leaders

199814-2Chris ChandlerJamal AndersonTony Martin
200411-5Michael VickWarrick DunnAlge Crumpler
200811-5Matt RyanMichael TurnerRoddy White

Not only did the statistical leaders change, nearly every meaningful contributor changed. In 1998, Atlanta was led by Chris Chandler, Jamal Anderson, Tony Martin, Terrance Mathis, and O.J. Santiago on offense and Cornelius Bennett, Jessie Tuggle, Ray Buchanan, Eugene Robinson, Chuck Smith, and William White on defense. Tim Dwight was the top kick returner and Morten Andersen was the kicker. Not a single player from the aforementioned group was still around for Atlanta’s ’04 playoff run. That team was led by Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn, Alge Crumpler, Peerless Price, T.J. Duckett, and Dez White on offense and Keith Brooking, Patrick Kerney, and Roderick Coleman on defense. Allen Rossum was the top kick returner and Jay Feely was the kicker. Just four years later, Keith Brooking was the only guy left from that group. The latest Atlanta playoff team was led offensively by Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Jerious Norwood, and Michael Jenkins and defensively by Brooking, Erik Coleman, and John Abraham. Kick returning duties were shared by Norwood and Harry Douglass while Jason Elam did the kicking. Atlanta went through the equivalent of three brain transplants and—despite being one of the worst franchises in the NFL—still managed to make the playoffs after each “transplant.”

Even the worst teams in the NFL have successfully rebuilt their rosters two and three times since the last time the Lions made the playoffs. Atlanta has solved three puzzles while the Lions are still opening the package of the first one. Everyone knows the Lions have been bad. Simply counting wins and losses since 1998 tells us that. What has gone underreported on the national scene—even in the aftermath of an 0-16 season—is just how bad the Lions have been. It would be one thing if Atlanta just happened to be the only team to have built and rebuilt multiple times during the last 12 years but that’s not the case. Just about every team in the league has done it. I could’ve written nearly the same post on Tampa Bay, Chicago, and New Orleans. Arizona even went to the Super Bowl! It is one thing to be a bad franchise most of the time. It’s totally different and vastly more difficult to be a bad franchise all of the time. The Lions have failed so miserably over the last 12 years that they may be the most truly awful organization in the history of history regardless of the industry. There is major irony in the fact that “Restore the Roar” has been the unofficial team slogan since I've been alive. Who knows how long it was there before that!? I still don’t think the depth of futility has been properly put into context but I think we’re getting closer to fully educating the masses with each effort. Go Lions!

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