Part four of the dynasty rankings continue as we slip into positive Z-Scores.
This is really the transitional period of the rankings. Most of the teams we saw in the first three parts were bad at something, but it’s not too hard to see how there situations could have been improved. You had teams that failed to fix one particular personnel gap, such as the 2000s Bills and their eternal quest for a quarterback. You had teams that made one or two boneheaded personnel decisions, such as the 2010s 49ers when they fired Jim Harbaugh. You had failed high-leverage draft picks such as the 1990s Chargers and Ryan Leaf. You had crippling injuries, such as Joe Namath’s Jets. You had expansion teams that started with a hand tied behind their back such as the 1960s Cowboys. And you had teams which didn’t have the financial resources to compete with the big boys, like all of our 1920s entries.
So, while all those teams were terrible, they were a fixable level of terrible—you can see how if one or two things had bounced another way, that the pain could have been avoided. Given perfect hindsight, the 28 teams we have already met could have played some perfectly acceptable football.
From this point on, however, we’re crossing into an area of more significant rot. It’s not one guy getting hurt, it’s an entire quarterback room. It’s not one position without talent, it’s a whole platoon. It’s not one bad personnel decision, it’s a decade of mismanagement from a terrible owner. It’s not just being hamstrung by the limits of an expansion team, it’s making the absolute least out of the meager resources you have been given. We’re not among the very worst of the worst yet. These teams still tend to have some sort of redeeming value you can point to: a superstar in the dark ages or an occasional unlikely playoff run in the midst of years of losing seasons. But we are reaching the point where the “fix” for these teams isn’t having one event going better, it’s going back and managing the entire business differently from Day 1. No more fixer-uppers here.
In light of that, the fact that today’s list coincides with the debuts of the Cardinals, Falcons, Steelers, and Eagles—and what that means for the early histories of those respective franchises—is left as an exercise for the reader.
THE FULL SERIES
No. 30: 2016-2020 New York Jets
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 34
Record: 24-56 (.288)
Average DVOA: -23.8%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -23.8%
Two last-place finishes in the AFC; Four last-place finishes in the AFC East
Head Coaches: Todd Bowles, Adam Gase
Key Players: WR Robby Anderson, DT Leonard Williams, DT Steve McLendon, LB Jordan Jenkins, S Jamal Adams
We start off this week with our first actually active anti-dynasty. While it’s conceivable a collapse by the Buccaneers could extend their 2010s run of futility, it really is a race between the Jets and Jaguars to the bottom of the league, just as it was in 2020’s standings.
The Jets don’t get the benefit of their entire 10-year playoff drought here. Rex Ryan’s teams were more mediocre than bad, and Todd Bowles’ 10-6 season in 2015 briefly hinted at dreams of competence; it’s probably why Bowles got four years as head coach instead of, say, two. But things went downhill very quickly — a brawl between Brandon Marshall and Sheldon Richardson in the locker room in 2016 sort of set the stage for the chaos that’s surrounded the team ever since. That happened in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs, which was also the origin of Ryan Fitz-Six-Picks, his six-interception day giving the journeyman just one of his many, many nicknames.
Bowles was let go after the 2018 season and replaced by Adam Gase, fresh off of being run out of Miami. Gase, as always more concerned with keeping his power rather than constructing a winning team, was tabbed as a potential disaster right from the start. That may be the one bit of potential that Gase was actually able to realize. Add in general manager Mike Maccagnan being fired directly after the 2019 draft, and you had chaos right from the start. I’m not saying that this chaos led to Sam Darnold getting mononucleosis in 2019 and spawning a hilarious graphic, though I wouldn’t count it out. I am saying that Gase’s near-refusal to have anything to do with the defense led to Gregg Williams going unchecked and causing game-losing zero blitzes as time expired. Hyperdrive, well, wasn’t. Jets fans can look at the long list of players who have gotten better once they’ve escaped Gase’s orbit and hope that the same will apply now that they’ve launched Gase into the sun. Only time will tell if Robert Saleh and company can right the ship, but for now, Jets fans, you’re sitting through the worst run in franchise history.
No. 29: 2002-2006 Houston Texans
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 32
Record: 24-56 (.300)
Average DVOA: -24.4%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -24.4%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Four last-place finishes in the AFC South
Head Coaches: Dom Capers, Gary Kubiak
Key Players: QB David Carr, RB Domanick Davis, WR Andre Johnson, G Chester Pitts, C Steve McKinney
On the one hand, you want to cut expansion teams some slack. By these metrics, the Texans are just the fifth worst of the 12 modern-era expansion teams. They barely scrape together the 30 Anti-Dynasty points needed to qualify for the list in the first place. They had the misfortune to come into a division that would boast two legitimate Super Bowl contenders, Indianapolis and Tennessee. Surely, they deserve a pass for some of their poor play, yes? Well, I’d give them the opportunity for a pass, but they’d just allow a sack anyway.
The 2002 Texans boasted the worst offense in the modern history of football. Their -43.3% DVOA remains the record in the DVOA era, and no team from 1950 to 1982 tops them in estimated offensive DVOA. You can make arguments for some of the teams of the 1920s and 1930s, but then we’re comparing a professional outfit to some glorified sandlot ball. I feel very comfortable with calling the Texans the worst offense, taking context into account.
The most memorable aspect of the first-year Texans is the sacks. They allowed 76 of them, the most in the 21st century. Now, that’s not an all-time NFL record, but both the 1986 Eagles (104 sacks allowed) and 1997 Cardinals (78) racked up sack numbers in part due to lesser-quality backups taking the field. David Carr, the first pick in Texans franchise, absorbed every single one of those 76 sacks. The only passer who has come close to breaking that record since was … David Carr, who took 68 more sacks in 2005. Carr ranks 64th in sacks taken since the stat was first recorded in 1970, which is bad enough, but he did it while only starting 79 games and playing in 94. Every single passer above him on the list is in triple digits in games played and usually significantly so. Carr is one of nine passers since the merger to be sacked on at least 10% of his dropbacks over at least 1,000 attempts, and the only one to do it in the 21st century. Yes, his offensive line was a sieve and Carr was essentially shellshocked after his first year, but other passers have been behind terrible lines without getting clobbered as much as Carr was. Carr held on to the ball and got to see plenty of the Reliant Stadium turf.
Maybe things would have been different if Tony Boselli, the first pick in the expansion draft, had ever suited up for Houston. But Boselli’s pre-existing shoulder injuries kept him from ever playing a down. Or perhaps things would have been different if a strong running game had kept defenses honest. But Houston’s -31.8% rush DVOA was worst in the league and seventh-worst in DVOA history. Maybe more talent elsewhere on offense would have helped, but Andre Johnson and Domanick Williams (then known as Domanick Davis) didn’t arrive for another year. There just wasn’t the talent to overcome the last-place team in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate; the Texans are the only team to ever rank 32nd in both categories.
Now, the question is whether this Texans team was worse than the Oilers team from two entries ago. The only reason the Texans pass the Oilers is that it took them one more season to reach .500; Matt Schaub didn’t arrive until 2007. Having four years instead of five is a double penalty for the Oilers, as it not only hurts them in sheer length of their Anti-Dynasty, but also “penalizes” their bottom-five DVOA as they don’t have a fifth year to lean back on. I suspect that if the 2002 Texans faced off against the 1973 Oilers, the Oilers would have an advantage. Elvin Bethea might well get 16 sacks in one game in this matchup. But the Texans’ defense wasn’t terrible—they famously beat the Steelers with only 47 yards of offense thanks to three defensive scores. Dan Pastorini would have had real trouble solving Aaron Glenn. If these were the last Houston teams we’d see on this list, we could really hash this debate out some. Fortunately, they’re not, but you’ll have to wait for Thursday to meet the nadir of Houston football. For now, at least.
No. 28: 1957-1970 Washington Redskins
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 58
Record: 64-112-12 (.372)
Average DVOA: -12.8%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -29.2%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Two last-place finishes in the NFL Eastern
Head Coaches: Joe Kuharich, Mike Nixon, Bill McPeak, Otto Graham, Vince Lombardi, Bill Austin
Key Players: QB Sonny Jurgensen, QB Norm Snead, RB Larry Brown, WR Charley Taylor, FL Bobby Mitchell, TE Jerry Smith, TE Bill Anderson, T Jim Snowden, T Fran O’Brien, G Vince Promuto, C Len Hauss, C Jim Schrader, DE John Paluck, DT Bob Toneff, DT Joe Rutgens, LB Chris Hanburger, LB Sam Huff, S Paul Krause
When I first started thinking about this project last year, I was positive that the 1960s Washington teams were going to make the top 10. Instead, they’re our last team with a negative Z-Score—our last entry before things really take a turn into teams with no saving graces.
If you’re a connoisseur of terrible football teams, you’re familiar with the longest playoff droughts in league history . The record since the NFL instituted playoffs in 1933 is 25 straight years of packing your bags and going home, shared by the 1949-1973 Cardinals and 1946-1970 Washington. Neither of those teams make the Anti-Dynasty top 10, as both team’s droughts are exacerbated by the smaller postseason. In 2021, 43.8% of the teams in the NFL will make the playoffs. If you had the same percentage back when these Washington teams were playing, they would have made the postseason seven times in that quarter-century. Taken in today’s light, the early 1950s Washington teams are more Ravens than Jets, and not worthy of a list like this.
But oh, those late 1950s and early 1960s teams very much do belong here. Estimated DVOA has the 1959-1961 stretch as three of Washington’s four worst-ever seasons, and 1958 and 1962 make the bottom 15, all of them at -19.3% or worse. And unlike some of the other teams we have covered before and will cover from now, these weren’t a fun bunch of loveable losers either.
In those years, Washington was still being run by owner George Preston Marshall, an angry, bigoted old racist. As the owner of the NFL’s southernmost team, Marshall once told a reporter “I have nothing against Negroes, but I want an all-white team.” As Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich put it, the team’s colors may as well have been “burgundy, gold, and Caucasian.” Marshall had been the one to propose the agreement that kept African-American players out of the NFL until after World War II. It wasn’t until Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy threatened to kick Washington out of D.C. Stadium in 1962 that Marshall finally caved and started signing black players. I could temper this picture by talking about the work he did to ensure the NFL got on television and so forth and so on, but no, this was a guy whose charitable foundation included a caveat that its money could not be used to support “racial integration in any form,” so screw him. It takes a special brand of asshole to take “worst owner in franchise history” away from Dan Snyder, but Marshall was precisely that sort of asshole.
He was also a miserly and unprepared asshole, and that as much as anything tanked Washington on the field. Marshall would not sign players to big contracts, and certainly wouldn’t outbid anyone else for talent. But it was in the draft when Marshall was the worst. The line at the time was that Washington’s scouting budget was 50 cents, the cost of Street & Smith. Marshall was noted for making the rounds of the various other team’s tables on draft day, shaking hands with the other owners—and peeking at their draft boards. A couple of teams started exposing lists of players they did not want, hoping that Marshall would take the bait. At times, it seemed to work—Marshall famously used first-round picks in consecutive years on an ineligible player (Cal Rossi), used seven of his first picks in a 13-year span on quarterbacks while ignoring a crumbling defense, traded away solid players for prospects who never panned out, and, of course, avoided drafting players such as Jim Brown or Jim Parker because of the color of their skin. It’s no surprise Washington was so bad by the end of the decade; when the guy in charge of personnel is whiffing on high draft pick after high draft pick, is there any wonder the cupboard was bare?
In 1963, a stroke left Marshall legally incompetent to manage his affairs. I do not believe it is a coincidence that from 1957 to 1962, Washington averaged a -22.1% estimated DVOA, and were at -5.8% from 1963 to 1970. With Marshall out of the picture, head coach Bill McPeak also took over as general manager, and while McPeak’s teams never had success on the field, he was central in drafting stars Charley Taylor, Jerry Smith, Paul Krause, Len Hauss, and Chris Hanburger, and trading for Sonny Jurgensen and Sam Huff, all of whom came to the team between 1964 and 1965. The team further approached … well, mediocrity, but still an improvement, when McPeak left and Otto Graham took over, and then had their first winning season in 15 years when Vince Lombardi was finally lured back to Washington 1969—they had tried to grab him in the middle of the decade while Green Bay’s dynasty was in full swing, and he had said no.
Imaging what Lombardi could have done with the team in the 1970s is one of football’s great What-Ifs, but Lombardi passed away due to cancer before the 1970 season began. Instead, the groundwork he laid in 1969 led the way for George Allen and his Over-the-Hill Gang. Marshall, who died in August 1969, never got to see what Lombardi or Allen could do with his team. Cue the world’s smallest violin.
No. 27: 1976-1980 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 33
Record: 22-53-1 (.296)
Average DVOA: -25.0%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -25.0%
Two last-place finishes in the NFL; Four last-place finishes in the AFC West/NFC Central
Head Coach: John McKay
Key Players: DE Lee Roy Selmon, LB Richard Wood, LB Dewey Selmon, CB Mike Washington, SS Mike Cotney
I feel like I could just fill this entry by running any of a half-dozen famous John McKay quotes. The most famous one, of course, came when he was asked about the execution of his team’s offensive line:
I’m in favor of it.
As always, our poor expansion teams don’t get cut any slack, and Tampa Bay ends up as the fourth-worst expansion team on our list. That’s solely because of the relatively quick ascension to temporary competence, however. If you look solely at a team’s first few seasons, the Buccaneers outdo everyone.
Well, we didn’t block, but we made up for it by not tackling.
Tampa Bay’s franchise started with a 26-game losing streak, which is nearly impossible to imagine these days. While not the longest in NFL history, it’s by far the longest since the merger, as well as the longest for a franchise that wasn’t depleted due to military service. The 2007-2009 Lions of 0-16 fame would have had to lose seven more games in a row, nearly half a season’s worth, to match the Buccaneers’ futility. They weren’t close losses, either; the 1976 0-14 Buccaneers had a Pythagorean win total of 0.8, with only three games being decided by one score. Nor can you blame an unfair schedule; the Buccaneers played every other team in the league at least once in their first two seasons, with only the Saints and Cardinals managing to lose to the Creamsicle menace. Both of those teams fired their head coaches after the season, such was the shame of losing to the Bucs. And while it’s true that the resources given to expansion teams in the 1970s were paltry by today’s standards, that didn’t stop the fellow expansion Seahawks from going 7-21 in their first two seasons.
We can’t stop a pass or a run. Otherwise, we’re in great shape.
The 1976 Buccaneers clock in with an estimated DVOA of -50.5%, making them the third-worst team since 1950. Their main problem in 1976 was simply finding players to put on the field. The expansion draft was filled with aging, injury-prone veterans, and teams didn’t have to give Tampa Bay a full medical history—or, in fact, any news whatsoever. The Bucs drafted Doug Swift from the Dolphins despite the fact that Swift had announced his retirement the day before to attend medical school. They drafted Anthony Davis, who was still under contract for the Toronto Argonauts and didn’t report. They drafted half a dozen players with pre-existing injuries; by the end of the year, they had 17 guys on injured reserve. After spending all offseason trying to figure out which veterans would be solid starters, McKay and his coaching staff gave up, filled out the starting lineup with rookies, street pickups, cut players from other teams, and CFL castaways, and started from scratch.
We’ve determined we can’t win at home and we can’t win on the road. What we need is a neutral site .
The early Bucs’ defenses actually weren’t that bad, with Lee Roy Selmon and his brother Dewey leading the way. They were just often injured and exhausted, as the offense couldn’t stay on the field to save their lives. They didn’t throw a touchdown pass until their sixth game, and that was on a trick pass from running back Louis Carter. Against the Chargers, the Buccaneers had -4 net passing yards, making them one of 45 teams to put up negative numbers since 1940—and then they repeated that feat twice more in 1978. McKay insisted on starting his son John at receiver; John had only 20 catches despite starting 13 of Tampa Bay’s 14 games. Quarterback Steve Spurrier was so frustrated with this, he allegedly intentionally tried to lead McKay over the middle to get him injured, to which McKay responded by not attempting to catch the ball. Coach McKay’s simple college offense also did Tampa Bay no favors; without talent to overwhelm defenses or scheme to fool them, they mostly just flatlined. The defense had to play over 100 snaps some games thanks to their ineffective offense, and they were decimated by injuries. By the end of the year, they were signing linebackers off the street, starting them with no practice time, and just telling them to blitz every snap as there was no time to learn the playbook.
We’ll be back. Maybe not this century, but we’ll be back .
After one year with Spurrier and another with a rotation of has-beens and never-wases, the Bucs took Doug Williams in the 1978 draft. A year later, they won their division and reached the NFC Championship Game with the first competent offense in franchise history. Add some top-10 offensive finishes to a still-solid defensive corps and the Bucs became a regular playoff face in the early 1980s, leaving 0-26 far in their rearview mirror. Surely, the 1980s would become the decade of the Creamsicles. Surely.
No. 26: 1983-1997 Atlanta Falcons
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 53
Record: 86-152-1 (.362)
Average DVOA: -10.4%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -25.3%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Three last-place finishes in the NFC; Nine last-place finishes in the NFC West
Head Coaches: Dan Henning, Marion Campbell, Jim Hanifan, Jerry Glanville, June Jones, Dan Reeves
Key Players: QB Chris Miller, RB Gerald Riggs, WR Andre Rison, T Mike Kenn, T Bob Whitfield, G Bill Fralic, G John Scully, C Jamie Dukes, DE Mike Gann, DE Rick Bryan, LB Jessie Tuggle, LB John Rade, CB Deion Sanders, DB Scott Case, CB Bobby Butler
Fitting for a team from the 1990s, we can split these Atlanta teams into Falcons Red and Falcons Black.
The 1983-1989 Falcons, decked out in their classic red jerseys and helmets, were consistently bad football teams, recording negative DVOAs in five of their seven seasons. This past offseason, we added 1983 and 1984 data to our database, and it paints a bleak picture—ugly seasons behind Mike Moroski, Steve Bartkowski, and David Archer; injuries to star running back William Andrews; a defense that never finished in the top half of the league. Things bottomed out in 1987 as the Falcons stumbled to 3-12. Yes, three of those games were from replacement players, but the strike Falcons and regular Falcons had near-identical VOAs, and you could make a decent argument that the replacement Falcons defense was sturdier in the front seven than the so-called professionals; they just had 11 sacks in 12 non-strike games. Their offense was the worst in the league, the only time Atlanta has ever had that distinction. First-round pick Chris Miller wouldn’t take over until the following year, and starter Scott Campbell had just 11 touchdown passes to go with Miller’s one.
This was also the year the Falcons brought back 1970s coach Marion Campbell to right the ship. Campbell was brought in for his defensive prowess, so of course his two 1980s Atlanta teams had two of the worst five defensive DVOAs in Falcons history. Now, Campbell had gone 6-19 in his first stint with Atlanta, so the theory must have been, in part, that he couldn’t do much worse; he went 11-32 in attempt No. 2. Add in Campbell’s stint with Philadelphia, and he ended up 46 games under .500 for his career, the worst record for any head coach in NFL history.
The 1990-1997 Falcons, decked out in their trendy black jerseys and helmets, were inconsistently bad football teams. To end an Anti-Dynasty, a team needs either consecutive non-losing seasons, or one season with a massive win total to zero everything out. Well, the Falcons had no back-to-back winning seasons between their founding in 1966 and Matt Ryan’s first two years in 2008 and 2009. Every bit of success they had in the 20th century was just a brief flash, nothing sustainable.
Because they couldn’t put together multiple seasons of success, this Falcons run includes the 2 Legit 2 Quit Falcons of 1991, with Deion Sanders, Andre Rison, Jerry Glanville, and company romping their way to the playoffs and picking up Atlanta’s first postseason win since 1978. It includes Jeff George running June Jones’ run ‘n’ shoot offense to the playoffs in 1995, where they lost to Green Bay and Brett Favre. The Falcons, of course, had drafted Favre, but Glanville got him traded out of town thanks to Favre’s immaturity and apparent quest to “drink up Atlanta.”
But it also includes years of uninspired, six- and seven-win football, and a playoff splash or two every four years isn’t enough to overcome the general malaise and historic lack of success the franchise had. It took the 14-2 Dirty Bird Falcons making it all the way to Super Bowl XXXIII to finally put this one to bed.
No. 25: 1967-1977 Philadelphia Eagles
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 59
Record: 48-100-6 (.331)
Average DVOA: -16.8%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -25.0%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Two last-place finishes in the NFC; Six last-place finishes in the NFL Capital/NFC East
Head Coaches: Joe Kuharich, Jerry Williams, Ed Khayat, Mike McCormack, Dick Vermiel
Key Players: QB Norm Snead, RB Tom Sullivan, WR Harold Jackson, WR Ben Hawkins, WR Harold Carmichael, TE Charle Young, T Jerry Sisemore, G Wade Key, LB Bill Bergey, CB John Outlaw, S Bill Bradley, S Randy Logan, S Nate Ramsey
Veterans Stadium! A triumph of modern engineering, the jewel of the NFL, and the home of the greatest team in the world, the 1970s Philadelphia Eagles!
Yeah, both of those statements collapsed before getting very far. The Eagles moved into the Vet in 1971, nicely coinciding with this entry. Built at the height of multi-purpose cookie-cutter stadium mania, Veteran’s Stadium proved inadequate for any purpose. Lineman Doug Brzezinski described the Vet as smelling of “diesel fuel, spilled beer, and urine.” This is fitting because the Eagles, too, stunk.
But even before we get to the Vet, Eagles fans will be Eagles fans—1968 is the year they famously shelled Santa Claus with snowballs, spawning a stereotype that lives to this day. It’s understandable why Philly fans were upset. The Joe Kuharich era had been a big step down from the team that started the decade by winning the NFL championship. He organized the trade of Sonny Jurgensen for Norm Snead, and the players left behind never seemed to live up to their potential. Kuharch’s Eagles were never the worst in the league, which was almost worse—that means Philly never had a top draft pick. By 1968, fans were chanting “Joe Must Go” and had no time to celebrate with freaking Santa Claus. They got their wish in 1969—the team was sold, and new owner Leonard Tose’s first order of business was to fire Kuharch and bring in Jerry Williams to coach the team. Santa Claus out. Unfortunately, Krampus replaced him.
Tose was a fan, arguably even a fanboy. The trucking multimillionaire had been part of the Happy Hundred fan-owners of the team in the 1950s, but now he was in full control, with a swagger and a style that was very cool and happening and with it … and entirely ineffective at actually running a football team. Norm Snead may have been no Jurgensen, but he was an occasional Pro Bowl quarterback—Tose traded him away for peanuts, leading Philly to flip back and forth between CFL veteran Pete Liske and undrafted Rick Arrington. For a while, the defense was able to keep the team competitive, but the bottom fell out in 1972.
The Eagles had had double-digit-negative DVOAs since 1966, but 1972 saw them hit an estimated total of -40.3%, the worst mark in franchise history by a significant margin. It was their third season with three or fewer wins since 1968, but 1972 hit differently—the worst offense in the league and second-worst defense. Even by 1972 standards, 10 touchdown passes is pathetic, and coupling that to 20 interceptions is that much worse. Neither Liske, Arrington, nor John Reaves was an NFL-caliber player—consider they put up those numbers with Harold Jackson and Harold Carmichael at receiver! Maybe they could have survived that with a ground game, but Po James and company put up just 3.5 yards per carry. Maybe even that could have been survivable, but Philly was outscored by 207 points, which has stood as the franchise record even through the 16-game era.
Everyone was fired after the year, and justifiability so. The arrival of quarterback Roman Gabriel in 1973 and all-pro linebacker Bill Bergery in 1974 brought the Eagles back into the welcoming arms of mediocrity, but it wasn’t until Dick Vermeil arrived towards the end of the decade that the Eagles fully recovered, ending a decade without a winning record. A just and fair reward for booing Santa, if you ask me.
No. 24: 1971-1983 New York Giants
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 66
Record: 61-124-2 (.332)
Average DVOA: -14.1%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -25.7%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Three last-place finishes in the NFC; Six last-place finishes in the NFC East
Head Coaches: Alex Webster, Bill Arnsparger, John McVay, Ray Perkins, Bill Parcells
Key Players: TE Bob Tucker, G Doug Van Horn, G J.T. Turner DE George Martin, DE Jack Gregory, DT John Mendenhall, LB Brad Van Pelt, LB Harry Carson, LB Lawrence Taylor, LB Brian Kelley, CB Mark Haynes, CB Terry Jackson, S Beasley Reece
Sometimes, you don’t need a lengthy description to figure out why a team struggled; you just need a big ol’ data dump. Look at that list of key players for these Giants teams. Look at all that talent on defense—Hall of Famers, All-Pros, multiple-time Pro Bowlers, useful regular starters. And then look at that void where the offensive names should be and despair.
This is not to suggest the 1970s Giants were great on defense; that list is very much weighted towards the back half of this run. But these Giants teams averaged a 2.7% defensive DVOA: below average, but only just. On offense, they averaged -10.0%, including seven straight seasons ranking 20th or worse in the league—and a league which only had 26 teams in some of those seasons.
The Giants had a good offense in the late 1960s, led by Fran Tarkenton under center. But Tarkenton didn’t get along with management, left training camp in 1971 on a salary dispute, and was eventually traded before the 1972 season, with Norm Snead (Hey! Remember him?) coming back in return. And then a few years later, the Giants traded away the first-round pick that became Hall of Famer Randy White to get Craig Morton. And then a few years later, they traded Morton away to Denver (where he led the team to a Super Bowl), going with rookie Joe Pisarcik instead. I believe the technical term for this is shuffling deck chairs. What was the front office doing?
Well, fighting, mostly. Wellington Mara and his nephew Tim Mara co-owned the team at this point, and they were arguably spending more time fighting with one another than they were running the squad. The two Maras could not have been more different, publicly criticizing each other’s decisions, arguing over everything from draft picks to parking spot assignments. Things got bad enough that Wellington eventually put up venetian blinds between his owner’s box and Tim’s, and Tim replied with wood paneling. They also had to figure out where the heck those barriers were going to be, as this is also the time the Giants were bouncing around the New York area, going from Yankee Stadium to the Yale Bowl to Shea Stadium before moving to New Jersey in 1976. The team of nomads simply did not have enough time to pay attention to, y’know, the team on the field.
By the end of the 1970s, Wellington and Tim were not speaking to one another, which was a problem. The solution was to hire the first general manger in team history, but that proved a problem as well—they would not, could not agree on a name. Commissioner Pete Rozelle had to come in and broker a peace which ended with compromise candidate George Young coming in. Young focused the team on the draft, and within a few years, had brought in Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Morris, Carl Banks, and Bill Parcells. The Giants won two Super Bowls in the 1980s. The Maras threw separate Super Bowl parties each time.
No. 23: 1950-1959 Chicago Cardinals
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 62
Record: 33-84-3 (.288)
Average DVOA: -14.8%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -21.8%
Four last-place finishes in the NFL; Seven last-place finishes in the NFL American/Eastern
Head Coaches: Curly Lambeau, Cecil Isbell, Phil Handler, Joe Kuharich, Joe Stydahar, Ray Richards, Pop Ivy
Key Players: B Charley Trippi, RB Ollie Matson, FB Johnny Olszewski, T Bill Fischer, T Jack Jennings, C Jack Simmons, DE Leo Sugar, LB Leo Sanford, DB Night Train Lane, DB Lindon Crow
So. It has come to this.
The Cardinals are one of the two teams remaining from the NFL’s inaugural season—101 years of professional football, and several decades of semi-pro ball before it. They were also one of the few teams to have no entries in the dynasty rankings, a nearly inconceivable feat for a team with this much history. There have been brief bursts of success—the stolen 1925 championship, back-to-back NFL title game appearances in 1947 and 1948, a brief Don Coryell run in St. Louis in the 1970s, the Kurt Warner years, the Carson Palmer years—but they have been brief moments of optimism in an ocean of despair. The Cardinals franchise has 52 seasons on the Anti-Dynasty list, over half their time in the league. Second place is a three-way tie at 28 seasons between the Buccaneers, Rams, and Saints. The Cardinals are the saddest franchise in league history, and it’s not even particularly close.
The post-war 1940s Cardinals were the closest the franchise has ever gotten to a dynasty. Charles Bidwill, upset that the AAFC’s Chicago Rockets were threatening to make the Cardinals the third-most popular team in the city, went on a massive spending spree and created the Million Dollar Backfield—quintuple threat Charley Trippi, 1948 MVP Pat Harder, college Hall of Famers Paul Christman and Marshall Goldberg, and bulldozing back Elmer Angsman. That set won the Cardinals their only undisputed world championship, but only Trippi remained by 1952.
That left Trippi and Ollie Matson as the only significant threats the Cardinals had on offense, and the offensive play calling quickly devolved into “get the ball to Matson and hope,” especially after injury ended Trippi’s career in 1955. While the team’s rushing numbers were OK, if below average, their passing numbers were historically terrible. From 1952 to 1955, they averaged a passing DVOA of -33.9%. Only 18 teams in the actual DVOA era have ever put up a single season that bad, much less a run for half a decade. These Cardinals have three of the worst 100 passing seasons since 1950 and five of the worst 200. There is a (sadly apocryphal) story that they used a first-round pick on a quarterback based on his photo in a draft guide; when he arrived at camp, it turned out he could not throw the ball 15 yards. In 1950, quarterback Jim Hardy threw eight interceptions in a single game, still the NFL record. Their first-round pick in 1954 was quarterback Lamar McHan; he was suspended and fined for insubordination and wasn’t much more use when he actually saw the field. Defenses could key in on Matson, making it all the more amazing that he retired with the second-most all-purpose yards in history at that point in time—without him, the Cardinals might never have scored at all.
The defenses weren’t much better, despite boasting Night Train Lane. They’re most notable for being the first team to ever give up 30 or more points in five consecutive games, a feat which has still happened only 37 times in NFL history despite modern offensive numbers. The respective nadirs of the offense and defense never lined up for the 1950s Cardinals, so they never had an estimated DVOA below -25.0% and aren’t quite the worst team of the 1950s, but only just.
They gained some small solace by having a winning record against the cross-town Bears this decade, but they only beat the Bears on the field. Off the field, while the Bears were drawing full houses, Comiskey Park attendance dwindled terribly close to 10,000. In addition, the rise of television meant that the Bears and Cardinals were splitting the Chicago market, a status quo that helped no one. Both the Bears and Cardinals were offered $50,000 from the league to move, but both declined—the Cardinals argued that they had been there longer and should get to stay; the Bears argued they were better and had better attendance.
The Bidwills held fast through the decade until the fledgling AFL showed an interest in the St. Louis market. Suddenly, there was money to spare—George Halas offered $500,000 over 10 years and a St. Louis business owner offered $300,000 more. That money talked, and in 1960, the St. Louis Cardinals were born, ending the team’s 40 years of NFL football and 62 years of existence in the Windy City.
No. 22: 1967-1972 Buffalo Bills
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 55
Record: 17-64-3 (.220)
Average DVOA: -22.6%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -25.1%
Two last-place finishes in the AFL/NFL
Head Coaches: Joe Collier, Harvey Johnson, John Rauch, Lou Saban
Key Players: RB O.J. Simpson, G Billy Shaw, DE Ron McDole, DT Jim Dunaway, LB Mike Stratton, LB Paul Guidry, CB Butch Byrd, S George Saimes
In 2020, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Denver Broncos were forced to turn to wide receiver Kendall Hinton as an emergency quarterback. That went just about as well as you’d expect it to. That’s not the first time, however, that a team in desperation has turned to a skill position player as a starter, even if you only look at the modern era where the difference between quarterback and halfback has solidified. That honor goes to the 1968 Buffalo Bills.
The Bills opened that year with Jack Kemp—a multi-time AFL All-Star approaching the twilight of his career, but still more than serviceable—under center. During a preseason drill, however, Kemp was tackled and blew out his knee—no non-contact jerseys in 1968! That forced Dan Darragh into action, but he busted his ribs at the end of October. An aging Tom Flores stepped in for a week, but a dislocated shoulder knocked him out before he could finish a game. Kay Stephenson replaced him, but broke his collarbone two weeks later. Darragh tried to get back into the lineup, but simply couldn’t perform.
For the last three games of the season, the Bills turned to Ed Rutkowski, their “disaster quarterback.” Rutkowski was a jack-of-all-trades—wideout, tight end, running back, returner, defensive back. He had also played some quarterback in college, as a sophomore at Notre Dame. That was ever-so-long ago, however—Rutkowski would occasionally line up behind his guard by accident when trying to frantically relearn the position.
It went about as well as you might think. In his three games as starter, Rutkowski went 41-for-100 for 380 yards, with six interceptions and zero touchdowns. That’s 1.1 adjusted yards per attempt, the worst total for any passer with at least 100 attempts since 1960. In fact, Rutkowski, Darragh, and Stephenson’s career totals are all in the bottom 15 in adjusted yards per attempt since the AFL was founded. Whether or not you consider this the worst quarterback room of all time depends on how much credit you give the Bills for wanting to start Kemp in the first place, but they certainly have to be in the running. As it is, a -57.6% estimated passing DVOA has the 1968 Bills as the fourth-worst passing team since 1950.
The way the story is supposed to end is that the Bills were so bad, they got the No. 1 draft pick in 1969, and they took O.J. Simpson; his Electric Company 1970s Bills were exciting and dominating on the ground and so on and so forth. But that’s a bit of revisionist history. Head coach John Rauch didn’t use Simpson as the focal point of his offense, asking him to things like “block” and “catch the ball” rather than just feeding him the rock; Simpson only averaged 622 yards per season his first three years in the league. The Bills were actually dead last in the league in rushing attempts in 1971, and near the bottom the previous two years as well. Quarterback Dennis Shaw had won offensive rookie of the year in 1970 in what quickly became obvious was a significant fluke, and the Bills kept trying to run their offense through him. As a result, the team’s average estimated offensive DVOA was -21.2%, with their passing DVOA never topping -21.6%. And so the Bills sputtered along, bottoming out by scoring only 21 touchdowns in 1971, the lowest total in team history.
It wasn’t until Lou Saban arrived in 1972 that he looked at Simpson, realized that he was just way, way better than everyone, and decided that the offense was going to be “give the Juice the ball.” Simpson immediately led the league in rushing with 1,251 yards, though Buffalo still went just 4-9-1. The next year, the Bills drafted Joe Ferguson, a solid if unspectacular quarterback who would go on to a 16-year NFL career. Faced with the possibility of the Bills actually completing a forward pass, opposing defenses couldn’t solely key in on Simpson, and that’s when everything kicked off—Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards in 1973, the blocking of Joe DeLamielleure and Reggie McKenzie opening up huge lanes and Simpson doing the rest, and Ferguson took advantage of the soft secondaries that produced. Put the ball in the hands of your best player—amazing, innovative strategy from Lou Saban there.
No. 21: 1964-1971 Pittsburgh Steelers
Peak Anti-Dynasty Points: 56
Record: 30-79-3 (.281)
Average DVOA: -22.5%
Bottom-Five DVOA: -28.6%
One last-place finish in the NFL; Three last-place finishes in the NFL Eastern/Century
Head Coaches: Buddy Parker, Mike Nixon, Bill Austin, Chuck Noll
Key Players: WR Roy Jefferson, E Gary Ballman, T John Brown, C Ray Mansfield, DE Ben McGee, DE Lloyd Voss, DT Joe Greene, DT Chuck Hinton, LB Andy Russell, CB Marv Woodson
The modern Steelers are a monument to quality and consistency, with just three head coaches shepherding the franchise since 1969. That wasn’t always the case! Before you can get to the Steel Curtain of the 1970s, you have to cut through the Iron Loose Collection of Cloth of the 1960s.
The entire history of Pittsburgh football before Chuck Noll’s era is, at best, uninspiring. There are enough .500-caliber seasons to prevent the entire 35-year history from melting into one big vat of disappointment, but they’re not exactly dripping in highlights. They made the playoffs just once, a one-and-done appearance in 1947.
Of course, it’s not entirely fair to say Pittsburgh football was terrible. Johnny Unitas had been a Pittsburgh native, and the Steelers had drafted him in 1955 … and then cut him. Just like they cut Len Dawson, Jack Kemp, and a plethora of other players who went on to solid starting careers elsewhere, not to mention ignoring players such as Babe Parilli and Joe Namath growing up in their own backyard. They did manage to trade for Bobby Layne and had some success in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Steelers website still lists Layne leading the team to a playoff appearance in 1962! What they don’t mention was that this was the old Playoff Bowl, the matchup between conference runners-up, an epic battle for third place. Or, as Vince Lombardi once called it, a “a hinky-dink football game, held in a hinky-dink town, played by hinky-dink players” and “the Shit Bowl … a losers bowl for losers.” The Steelers lost that game, by the by.
But before long, they’d be longing to even reach the heights of hinky-dink. Layne retired after 1962, Hall of Fame lineman Ernie Stautner retired after 1963, and head coach Buddy Parker retired after 1964. Losing the three leaders of your team in back-to-back-to-back years is never ideal, but losing Parker may have been the biggest blow. Layne and Stautner were at the end of their careers, but Parker? He had been a great coach in Detroit and had brought Pittsburgh to the brink of success, just a game outside of championship contention. He returned in 1965, saying the Steelers were on the brink of contention. They then lost their first four preseason games and he resigned, telling Art Rooney “I can’t win with this bunch of stiffs.” Ouch.
Turns out, Mike Nixon couldn’t win with that bunch of stiffs either. With the core of the decent Parker teams aging beyond usefulness and no young talent to replace them, the 1965 Steelers went 2-12 with an estimated DVOA of -50.0%. They had a -30 turnover margin, which remains the worst in NFL history despite playing in a 14-game season. Bill Nelsen threw 17 interceptions, second-most in the league, but he really couldn’t be replaced. Backup Tommy Wade had 13 interceptions on just 66 pass attempts, and third-stringer Ed Brown had five more on just 18 attempts; both players hold the post-1950 record for interception percentage with at least their number of attempts.
The defense improved after 1965, keeping the Steelers’ total DVOA down around -15.0% for the rest of the pre-Noll era, but the offense continued to flounder on the shoals. Nelsen actually was a pretty solid passer when he was playing, but he suffered knee injuries in 1965, 1966, and 1967 before being traded in 1968. The story of the Steelers of this time period is a solid defensive line just being let down by everyone around them. There are a couple of Steel Curtain players here—Andy Russell rejoined the team in 1966 after military service, and Mean Joe Greene came in the 1969 draft and immediately became defensive rookie of the year and a force to be reckoned with—but most of the team was just dismal.
That 1969 draft was the first overseen by Chuck Noll; Greene was the first player he added to the Steelers. Noll went 1-13 in his first year as head coach, but won the most important contest of the season—the coin toss with Chicago which meant Pittsburgh got the first pick, allowing him to draft Terry Bradshaw first overall, and Mel Blount later. Jack Ham came in 1971. Franco Harris in 1972. It took a few years for Noll to replenish the depleted roster, but the dude could draft, and the rest is history.