This has been a pretty great year for Cleveland sports, particularly if you consider how miserable things had been over the previous five decades or so. In June, the Cavs staged an incredible comeback to win the NBA championship, and the Indians came within a game of winning the World Series in November. The only team that hasn’t joined the party by the Cuyahoga River is the Browns — because of course they haven’t. In fact, Cleveland’s football team might be headed for a very different kind of history if it can’t get its act together over the next month and a half.
At 0-11, the Browns are the worst team in the NFL according to FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, which estimate a team’s quality at any given moment. According to ESPN’s expected points metric, they have the league’s seventh-worst offense, the eighth-worst special teams, and the NFL’s worst defense by a mile. Even by the standards of a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since George W. Bush’s first term as president, this particular edition of the Browns has been notably terrible. The best they can hope for now is to avoid joining the small, ignominious club of teams who went an entire season without a win.
Going back to the beginning of the NFL-AFL era in 1960, only three teams have played a full schedule1 without winning a single game: The 1960 Dallas Cowboys (who went 0-11-1, tying the Giants in the season’s penultimate game), the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who went 0-14 in their debut season) and the 2008 Detroit Lions (who are currently the only team to ever go 0-16). Right now, our Elo model gives the 2016 Browns roughly a 32 percent probability of joining that group (31 percent for 0-16, plus a tiny chance of going winless with one or more ties).2
To suffer a winless season, it takes a special combination of poor talent and horrible luck. In their 0-16 season, the Lions had the point differential of a roughly 3-win team, but they also had the misfortune of going 0-5 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, situations in which history tells us even bad teams can usually squeak out a few victories by chance alone. For their part, the Browns have the point differential of a 2-9 team and a better scoring margin through 11 games (-141) than the 2008 Lions (-153), 1960 Cowboys (-183) or 1976 Bucs (-195) did.
And even if Cleveland does end up going 0-16, it should probably be spared the last-place ranking in the pecking order of winless squads. Among the set of simulations where they didn’t win a game, the Browns finished with a better end-of-season Elo rating than the 1976 Buccaneers every single time (those Bucs had the worst full-season Elo of any team in NFL history) and were rated better than the 1960 Cowboys 94 percent of the time. Then again, there’s less than a 1-in-15,000 chance that a winless Browns team finishes with a better Elo than the winless 2008 Lions, and that team is often considered the reigning worst team ever. There will be little to mitigate Cleveland’s disgrace if the team loses its next five games.
But that’s still relatively unlikely. Since 1960, 13 other teams have lost all of their first 11 games, and all but three of them have found a way to avoid the humiliation of a winless campaign. Now comes Cleveland’s chance to do the same.
Jay Boice contributed research.
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