If good things are supposed to come in threes, nobody told the Cleveland Browns. This year, the Cavaliers won the NBA championship in remarkable fashion, and the Indians are currently playing in the World Series. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s other major professional sports team is 0-7, the last remaining winless team in the 2016 NFL season.
The Browns hired Hue Jackson to lead the team’s latest rebuilding effort in a move that was regarded as one of the best coaching hires of the offseason. In an offseason in which the Browns also brought in Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer to turn the franchise around, it seemed like Cleveland had its coach of the future. But Jackson is now just the 17th coach since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to fail to win a game in his team’s first seven contests.
The most recent examples are not going to inspire confidence and hope for Cleveland fans:
- Gus Bradley, like Jackson, inherited a terrible roster. The Jaguars went 2-14 in 2012 1 before hiring Bradley, who won his first game in Jacksonville’s ninth game of the season. After another ugly loss Thursday night, Bradley’s record with the Jaguars stands at just 14-41 (0.255).
- Chan Gailey, like Jackson, was hired to cure an anemic offense. The 2009 Bills ranked 29th in offensive DVOA, prompting the hiring of Gailey, a coach with a long history on that side of the ball. Buffalo started the 2010 season 0-8 before Gailey got his first win; he lasted three years in Buffalo and went 16-32.
- Raheem Morris’s tenure in Tampa Bay is mostly remembered for how badly it ended, but it didn’t start off well, either. In 2009, his first season with the Bucs, the team started 0-7. Tampa Bay finished 3-13 and went 4-12 in 2011, the campaign that cost Morris his job. Those two terrible years were sandwiched around a surprising 10-6 season.
- Steve Spagnuolo was hired by a St. Louis Rams team that went 2-14 in 2008; the former Giants defensive coordinator somehow oversaw a decline as St. Louis went 1-15 in 2009, with the lone win coming against the 2-14 Lions. Spagnuolo went 10-38 (.208) in three years with the Rams and had one of the worst coaching tenures in league history.
- Cam Cameron was hired to fix the Miami offense. In 2006, the Dolphins ranked 29th in scoring, so Miami hired Cameron, the offensive coordinator of the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL (San Diego), to change things. But Cameron went 1-15 in his lone season as the Dolphins head coach, winning his only game in overtime in Week 15.
The table below shows the 16 head coaches from 1970 to 2015 that began their tenure without a win through seven games. For Bradley, the only active head coach on the list, the data is current through Thursday night’s game.
|YEAR||COACH||TEAM||FIRST WIN IN GAME…||SEASONS AS HEAD COACH||RECORD||WIN %|
|1982||Frank Kush||Colts||Year 2||3||11-28-1||28.8|
|1976||John McKay||Buccaneers||Year 2||9||44-88-1||33.5|
Although the recent examples are pretty ugly — and caution against giving any unsuccessful head coach too long of a leash — there are two inspiring names on the list for Browns fans.
The late ‘80s Cowboys were a mess, just like the current Browns. In 1988, Dallas went 3-13, and replaced legendary head coach Tom Landry with Jimmy Johnson. The Cowboys went 1-15 in Johnson’s rookie season, with the sole victory coming in Washington in Week nine. Johnson quickly turned around the Cowboys in part because of his ability to accumulate high draft picks, a strategy that Jackson’s Browns are currently employing.
Those Cowboys have been the blueprint for preaching patience in coaching, particularly when a coach takes over a bad team. Dallas went 36 straight games from 1988 to 1990 as underdogs; Johnson’s Cowboys weren’t favored to win a game until the 30th game of his coaching tenure. And this year’s Browns have been underdogs in every game this season, a sign of the poor roster Jackson is coaching.2 Inheriting a terrible roster sometimes means a team has to get worse before it can get better, and that’s exactly what happened in Dallas: The Cowboys went 1-15, 7-9, 11-5, 13-3 and 12-4 in Johnson’s five seasons with the team, with those last two campaigns ending in Super Bowl championships. 3
And then there is Bill Walsh, the legendary 49ers coach who won three Super Bowls during his decade with the team. He inherited a San Francisco roster that was low on talent: The team sunk to 2-14 in 1978, and was without a first round pick in 1979 (which turned out to be the first overall pick) after trading those rights to Buffalo for O.J. Simpson the previous year.
San Francisco went 0-7 out of the gate in 1979 under Walsh, eventually finishing 2-14. And the 49ers improved to only 6-10 in 1980, before Walsh’s influence on the team began to take hold. From 1981 to 1988, San Francisco won over 70 percent of its games, the best mark in the NFL, and won three Super Bowls. And as with Johnson, the fruits of his work yielded additional success after he left, with the 49ers winning a fourth Super Bowl in 1989 and a fifth in 1994.
For Jackson and the new Browns regime, expectations were very low entering the season. That makes it impossible to know whether this 0-7 start is more like a Bradley or Gailey 0-7, or a Johnson or Walsh 0-7. The likely reality is that many of the players responsible for the next great (or even good) Browns team aren’t currently on the roster. Johnson and Walsh selected Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Joe Montana in their first drafts, which laid the groundwork for the success years later. But that franchise quarterback is probably not on the current roster for Cleveland, with the team expected to take one early in the 2017 draft. That means, at this point, Cleveland sports fans anxious to figure out whether Jackson will be the league’s next great coach will have to wait. Fortunately for Cleveland fans, they still have the Indians and the Cavs.
CORRECTION (Oct 28 6:55 p.m. EDT): A table in an earlier version of this article contained several errors. Six coaches were incorrectly included in the chart and have been removed: Rick Venturi, Ron Meyer, Chuck Studley, Dick Stanfel, Homer Rice, and John McVay. Two coaches who should have been included have been added: John McKay and Frank Kush. Bud Wilkinson coached two seasons with the Cardinals, not one, and compiled a 9-20 record, not a 6-10 record. Forrest Gregg coached three seasons with the Browns, not two, and compiled an 18-23 record, not a 12-16 record. Harvey Johnson coached only one season with the Bills after 1970, not two (though he did coach in 1968).