The New York Jets made a run at NFL history during the 2020 regular season. After losing their first 13 games, the Jets appeared to be on a collision course with the 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns — the only teams to ever finish 0-16. A winless campaign would have solidified the Jets' place among that trio, and an argument could be made New York was one of the absolute worst NFL teams since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002.
At times, it looked like the Jets were losing on purpose. Most notably, New York's defense surrendered an inexplicable 46-yard touchdown pass with just five seconds on the clock in a 31-28 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. Tanking for Trevor Lawrence — the Clemson quarterback and consensus favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft — would have made sense for the franchise's long-term future. However, the Jets did a funny thing on Dec. 20: They beat the Los Angeles Rams 23-20. They won again the next week, beating the Browns 23-16.
Playing to win is the point of the game, and it's completely understandable the professionals on the field take their jobs seriously. However, the Jacksonville Jaguars also were in contention for the coveted first pick after winning in Week 1 but losing every game afterward. New York seemingly taunted its fans by winning too much, yet still finished the season with the worst scoring differential in the league (-214), thanks largely to the worst scoring offense (15.2 points per game).
The 2020 Jets and Jags give us two potential candidates to be included in our list of the worst NFL teams since expansion. But only one broke into our top 10.
1. 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16)
Point Differential:-249 (268 points for, 517 points against)
Offense: 27th (16.8 ppg), 30th (268.3 ypg)
Defense: 32nd (32.3 ppg), 32nd (404.4 ypg)
The 2008 Detroit Lions are no longer the unquestioned No. 1 team on this list simply because of the big, fat, ugly zero they put in the win column — but they retained the top spot nonetheless.
The first NFL team to go winless since the league expanded to a 16-game regular-season schedule, the Lions suffered primarily because of a defense that ranked dead last in points (32.3 ppg) and yards allowed (404.4 ypg), as a well as interceptions (4), and flirted with the NFL record for the most points given up in a single season (533, 1981 Baltimore Colts). The Lions avoided this embarrassing distinction by a mere 16 points. The offense wasn’t much better, ranking No. 27 in the league in scoring (16.8 ppg), No. 30 in total offense (268.3), allowing 52 sacks, which was more than all but one other club, while rotating five quarterbacks that combined for a 71.3 passer rating with 19 interceptions.
Because of the 2017 Browns, the 2008 Lions have company in the modern winless club. However, not only does Detroit’s worst team have a case as the worst since the 2002 expansion, these infamous Lions are arguably the worst team in NFL history.
2. 2017 Cleveland Browns (0-16)
Point Differential: -176 (234 PF, 410 PA)
Offense: 32nd (14.5 ppg), 24th (308.9 ypg)
Defense: 31st (25.6 ppg), 14th (328.1 ypg)
The Browns were winless, which guaranteed them one of the top two spots on our list, but when looking through the results of the season, and the stats the team produced, there’s really no question that Cleveland’s most disappointing single season was better than Detroit’s.
Prior to the Week 17 loss to the Steelers, the Browns had several opportunities to win. In fact, Cleveland actually posted a 4-0 record in exhibition games, which is notable only for the peculiar contrast the performance provided to the regular season.
The Browns played Pittsburgh tough in Week 1, but fell 21-18 after the Steelers ran out the final 3:36 following a fourth-quarter TD pass from DeShone Kizer to Corey Coleman. Two weeks later, Kizer led Cleveland on a comeback charge against the Colts, throwing a TD pass and running for a score to cut the Indianapolis lead to 31-28, but the rookie couldn’t cover 91 yards in 0:23, and his final pass was intercepted to drop the Browns to 0-3. The Browns lost 17-14 to the Jets to fall to 0-5, and fell 12-9 to the Titans in overtime to drop to 0-7.
Statistically speaking, the Browns were far from terrible. Led by a unit that ranked No. 7 in the NFL in rushing defense (97.9 ypg allowed) and second in yards allowed per carry (3.4), Cleveland ranked in the top half of the NFL in total yards allowed per game — making the Browns the only team on this top 10 list to finish better than 15th in the league in either total defense or offense. Cleveland also showed promise moving the football, ranking 24th with 208.9 yards per game. However, a league-worst 28 interceptions halted several potential scoring drives and set up the opposition with far too many short fields. As a result, the Browns scored the fewest points in the league and allowed more than all but one other team.
3. 2009 St. Louis Rams (1-15)
Point Differential: -261 (175 PF, 436 PA)
Offense: 32nd (10.9 ppg), 29th (279.4 ypg)
Defense: 31st (27.3 ppg), 29th (372.8 ypg)
The Rams reached some of their highest highs following the move from Los Angeles, winning Super Bowl XXXIV and losing on professional football’s biggest stage two years later, but the franchise also suffered through their fair share of embarrassing seasons in St. Louis as well. The Rams looked nothing like the “Greatest Show on Turf” in 2009, having ranked dead last in scoring offense (10.9 ppg). St. Louis managed just 175 points all season, which was 35 points more than the 1992 Seattle Seahawks — the worst scoring offense in league history.
One of just four teams since 2002 to win one or fewer games, the Rams threw 21 interceptions and just 12 touchdowns, were shut out twice, scored 10 or fewer points on nine occasions and were outscored by 261 points over the course of the season — a franchise record.
4. 2007 Miami Dolphins (1-15)
Point Differential: -170 (267 PF, 437 PA)
Offense: 26th (16.7 ppg), 28th (287.5 ypg)
Defense: 30th (27.3 ppg), 23rd (342.2 ypg)
The only franchise in NFL history to complete an undefeated season, the Dolphins nearly became the first team since the 1976 Tampa Bay Bucs to go winless for an entire year in 2008 — escaping that fate thanks to an overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15.
Miami surrendered a franchise-record 437 points and ranked No. 30 in the league in scoring defense. The offense struggled mightily as well under a trio of quarterbacks — Cleo Lemon, John Beck and Trent Green — that combined to throw just 12 touchdown passes all year.
5. 2016 Cleveland Browns (1-15)
Point Differential: -188 (264 PF, 452 PA)
Offense: 31st (16.5 ppg), 30th (311.0 ypg)
Defense: 30th (28.25), 31st (392.4 ypg)
In 2016, the Browns came dangerously close to becoming just the second NFL team to finish a season 0-16. Following 14 consecutive losses to begin the season, which sealed a ninth straight losing campaign for the franchise, Cleveland finally broke through with a 20-17 victory at home over San Diego in Week 16. But a loss to the hated Steelers in the season finale sealed a franchise-worst 1-15 campaign.
However, despite such historically bad results in the win column, it’s worth noting that the Browns played better then their record would indicate. Cleveland played one of the toughest schedules in the league, and fought hard in several close losses, including three by less than a field goal. Still, with only a single victory, the Browns were a lock for this list.
6. 2008 St. Louis Rams (2-14)
Point Differential: -233 (232 PF, 465 PA)
Offense: 31st (14.5 ppg), 27th (287.3 ypg)
Defense: 31st (29.1 ppg), 28th (371.9 ypg)
In 2008, the Rams were blown out in each of their first four games by an average score of 37-11. Things improved with back-to-back wins in Weeks 6 and 7, but St. Louis lost 10 straight to finish the season. This team was equally bad on both sides of the ball, ranking second to last in both scoring offense (14.5 ppg) — having scored just 19 offensive touchdowns all season - and scoring defense (29.1). Making matters worse, the St. Louis offense allowed seven defensive touchdowns, which tied for the most in the NFL.
The second franchise to appear on this list twice (Cleveland), the 2008 St. Louis Rams produced the worst season in franchise history, but were only setting the stage for an even more disastrous '09 campaign.
7. 2009 Detroit Lions (2-14)
Point Differential: -232 (262 PF, 494 PA)
Offense: 27th (16.4 ppg), 26th (299.0 ypg)
Defense: 32nd (30.9 ppg), 32nd (392.1 ypg)
The 2009 Detroit Lions actually showed modest improvement — most noticeably on the scoreboard. The Lions snapped their 19-game losing streak with a 19-14 victory over Washington in Week 3, and then picked up a thrilling 38-37 victory over the Browns in Week 11. Detroit showed modest improvement on defense, though the unit still finished last in the NFL in both scoring (30.9 ppg) and total defense (392.1 ypg) and also posted a league-worst minus-18 turnover margin.
Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford showed flashes of the talent that would help Detroit make the playoffs two years later, but the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft suffered a season-ending injury in Week 11 and the Lions finished the year on a six-game losing streak with Stafford on the sidelines.
8. 2011 St. Louis Rams (2-14)
Point Differential: -214 (193 PF, 407 PA)
Offense: 32nd (12.1 ppg), 31st, (283.6 ypg)
Defense: 26th (25.4 ppg), 22nd (358.4 ypg)
After arguably the two worst seasons in franchise history in 2008 and ‘09, the Rams managed to win seven games in 2010, but quickly collapsed again the following year. The 2011 Rams were again plagued by one of the worst offenses in the NFL, finishing dead last in scoring offense (12.1 ppg) and No. 31 in total offense (283.6 ypg). The St. Louis offensive line allowed a league-high 55 sacks, and the Rams managed just nine touchdown passes and seven rushing scores all season, both of which ranked dead last in the league. Also, second-year quarterback Sam Bradford was lost for the final six games of the season due to injury.
9. 2010 Carolina Panthers (2-14)
Point Differential: -212 (196 PF, 408 PA)
Offense: 32nd (258.4 ppg), 32nd (12.3 ypg)
Defense: 26th (25.5 ppg), 18th (335.9 ypg)
Carolina skipped the growing pains that come with expansion by winning seven games in their first season in 1995 and making it to the NFC Championship Game in Year 2. However, the Panthers hit a few rough patches, such as a 1-15 2001 campaign and the 2-14 record in 2010 that included a franchise-worst 212-point differential and an 18-year low 196 points scored under the direction of quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore and Brian St. Pierre. That triumvirate managed to combine for 21 interceptions and just nine touchdowns.
Of course, looking on the bright side, the Panthers were able to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft to use on quarterback Cam Newton, who won league MVP honors in 2015 and took the franchise to Super Bowl 50.
10. 2020 Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)
Point Differential: -186 (306 PF, 492 PA)
Offense: 30th (19.1 ppg), 28th (326.1 ypg)
Defense: 31st (30.8 ppg), 31st (417.7 ypg)
We could do an analytical deep dive to determine which team was actually the "worst" in the NFL during the 2020-21 season, and there's a fair argument to be made the New York Jets were a weaker team in several areas. But the simple fact of the matter is the Jacksonville Jaguars finished with just one victory and lost 15 straight games. Every other one-win club finished among the five worst teams on our list, and the Jags are comparable statistically. Jacksonville was outscored by more than the 2007 Dolphins on average, and the team allowed more points than all three previous one-time winners. In fact, the Jaguars' defense was scored upon more than all but the '08 and '09 Lions squads on our list.
It was the offense that saved the Jags from a spot in the top five, as Doug Marrone's team was the only on our list to break 300 points. And while that might also be a sign of shifts in the game across the league more than an overall strength (four other teams in our top 10 ranked higher in the league in points scored during their respective seasons), with the assumption Trevor Lawrence will take over for the quarterback trio of Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon and Jake Luton, there's also some reason to think new head coach Urban Meyer will inherit some building blocks that help the Jaguars avoid a repeat performance in 2021 and beyond.
(In chronological order)
2004 San Francisco 49ers (2-14)
In 2004, the 49ers tied the franchise record for fewest wins in a season, set in 1978 and matched in ‘79. The Niners posted the worst scoring defense in the league (28.3 ppg), allowed 452 points (just one point shy of a franchise record), and were outscored by a pitiful 193 points, which set a team record. San Francisco also came incredibly close to going winless, with only a pair of overtime victories over the Arizona Cardinals standing between the team and a big, fat zero in the win column.
2005 Houston Texans (2-14)
The most recent expansion franchise in the NFL, the Texans barely missed the top 10 with a 2-14 record in their fourth season. The Texans were outscored by 171 points, ranked last in the league in scoring defense (26.9 ppg), and averaged just 253.3 yards of offense per game while allowing 364, which ranked No. 30 and No. 31 in the league, respectively.
2008 Kansas City Chiefs (2-14)
The worst team in Chiefs history, the 2008 team ranked No. 31 in the league in total defense, surrendered a franchise-record 440 points, and managed to sack opposing quarterbacks just 10 times all season.
2011 Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
The Colts made the playoffs 11 times and won Super Bowl XLI with four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning under center, but a neck injury sidelined the veteran quarterback for the entire 2011 season. Following a 0-13 start, Dan Orlovsky (one of three starters who attempted to replace Manning) did something he couldn't do for the Lions in 2009 — he helped Indianapolis avoid the embarrassment of a winless season by leading the team to victories in two of its final three games. The Colts selected Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, which led to Manning's eventual release and signing with Denver.
2012 Jacksonville Jaguars (2-14)
Like the Panthers, the Jaguars were competitive early in their franchise history, making the playoffs in four of their first five seasons. However, the Jags didn’t make the playoffs from 2007-16 and stumbled to a franchise-worst 2-14 in '12 — which set a franchise record for point differential (189). As luck would have it, the 2013 squad set a new record (-202) but managed to win four games.
2014 Oakland Raiders (3-13)
Only two teams on this list fielded a worse defense — the 2008 and ‘09 Lions — than the Raiders, who surrendered a staggering 452 points despite finishing 21st in the league in total defense (357.6 ypg). With rookie quarterback Derek Carr under center and a running game that ranked last in the league in yards (1,240) and touchdowns (4), the Raiders suffered through 10 losses to open the season before splitting the final six games of the year.
2014 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14)
The Bucs were actually more competitive in 2014 that most of the teams listed here, having been outscored by 133 points for the season after losing 10 one-possession games (including two overtime losses). However, a struggling offense that ranked No. 29 in scoring, No. 30 in total yardage and No. 31 in interceptions was the primary reason Tampa Bay fell to 2-14 despite playing in a division that didn’t have a single team with a winning record.
2014 Tennessee Titans (2-14)
The Titans opened the 2014 season with a 26-10 victory over Kansas City but lost 14 of their final 15 games — including 10 in a row to close the schedule. The team ranked No. 30 in the league in scoring offense and scored just 254 points all year — the worst since the franchise moved to Nashville prior to the 1997 season. The defense was nearly as bad, allowing 438 points, which produced a franchise-worst minus-184 point differential.
2016 San Francisco 49ers (2-14)
The 49ers played in Super Bowl XLVII to conclude the 2012-13 season and made it to the NFC Championship Game again the following year. Unfortunately, the franchise suffered a quick drop thereafter and crashed in 2016, head coach Chip Kelly’s only season at the helm. Following a 28-0 victory in Week 1, San Francisco lost 13 in a row and 14 of its final 15 games. Despite Kelly’s reputation as an offensive genius, the 49ers ranked 27th in the NFL with just 309 points. Worse, the defense was last in the league at 30.0 points per game allowed.
2018 Arizona Cardinals (3-13)
The worst Cardinals team since expansion is the most recent addition to our list. Steve Wilks’ first and only season on the sidelines ended how it began - with four straight losses - and included just three victories along the way. Arizona finished dead last in the NFL in total offense (241.6 ypg), passing offense (157.7), rushing offense (83.9) and yards per play (4.3), while the Cardinals' defense also allowed more rushing yards (2,479) and rushing touchdowns (25) than any other team in the league.
2019 Cincinnati Bengals (2-14)
As it turned out, instead of Tanking for Tua, the Cincinnati Bengals might have Bungled for [Joe] Burrow. Without the injured A.J. Green available to stretch opposing defenses, quarterback Andy Dalton and the Bengals struggled to move the ball consistently and finished 30th in the league in scoring (17.4 ppg). The defense wasn’t much better and allowed 26.3 points per game, which ranked 25th. Cincinnati lost 11 in a row to open the season, and only a 33-23 victory over the Browns in Week 17 saved the team from a spot in our top (bottom) 10.
2020 New York Jets (2-14)
Two wins in the final three weeks of the season saved the Jets from league-wide infamy, though it's also worth noting both wins came against playoff teams. Nevertheless, only the 1996 Jets, which slumped to 1-15, posted a worse record in franchise history. Also, following a 28-14 loss to the Patriots in the season finale, the 2020 squad set a new franchise record with 457 points allowed. Still, head coach Adam Gase's offense was the biggest issue. The 243 points New York scored were the fewest in the league, and also the fewest for the club since 2005.