It can’t be easy to root for the Cleveland Browns.
Their latest loss to the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon makes Cleveland the ninth team since the merger to lose the first 12 games of the season. And they will miss the playoffs for the 14th straight season, a postseason drought rivaled by only the Buffalo Bills (17 seasons). But perhaps scariest of all, the Browns could become the worst team in NFL history.
Since 1944, only four teams have gone winless in the NFL for an entire season: the 1960 Dallas Cowboys (0–11–1), the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0–14), the 1982 Baltimore Colts (0–8–1) and the 2008 Detroit Lions (0–16).
Perhaps we can give the Bucs and Cowboys a pass when talking about the worst teams in the NFL — they were both an expansion franchise that year. The Colts have an excuse, too, having to deal with a players’ strike. The Lions, however, were celebrating their 75th season playing as the Lions in 2008, the year they became the only franchise to lose 16 games in a season. Cleveland is four losses away from joining them.
“Being 0-12 is probably . . . the hardest thing ever,” Browns Coach Hue Jackson told reporters after the loss. “You can either beat yourself up, and I do that enough. Or you can just put your head down and keep fighting and push through this.”
Any push for Cleveland starts with getting some consistency under center. As of Sunday, there have been 26 different quarterbacks for the franchise since 1999. You wouldn’t be alone if you thought the position was cursed. That would at least partially explain how all four of the Browns’ starting quarterback options in 2016 were injured by Week 5. It’s been so bad that when running back Duke Johnson threw an incomplete pass against the Giants in Week 12 he became the seventh player on the team to attempt at least one pass this season. Seattle is second with five.
A lack of leadership at quarterback translates to an inept offense. The Browns have scored 10, 7, 9 and 13 points the last four games and are averaging 5.5 net yards per pass in a pass-happy NFL that averages 6.5. In 2008, the Lions averaged 5.3 net yards per pass compared to a league average of 6.2. According to Football Outsiders, Cleveland has the fifth-worst passing game this season through Week 11. When the 2008 Lions finished their 11th game of the season they ranked 30th out of 32 teams in passing Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.
Cleveland’s running game appears to be a strength of the team, but looks could be deceiving.
The Browns are averaging 4.6 yards per carry, the sixth-best rate this season, with a 1-2 punch in Isaiah Crowell and Johnson that gives Jackson the ability to give opposing defenses different looks throughout the game. However, this same unit ranks No. 20 per DVOA and second to last according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus, casting a shadow on the above-average performance.
The reason for the discrepancy is simple: the Browns offensive line is poor at run blocking. They allow their rushers to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage 23 percent of the time — No. 29 in the NFL this season where the average is 19 percent — and they only figure to get worse after right guard John Greco limped off the field during the third quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Giants. Greco was one of three offensive lineman for the Browns to be rated positively by PFF for their ability to run block. Left guard Joel Bitonio was also one, but he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 5. Left tackle Joe Thomas is the other.
If the running game suffers even a little due to these injuries, it’s possible Cleveland’s offense quickly puts itself into contention for worst ever. And they can’t rely on the defense to help them get out of any major jams.
The Browns are allowing 6.07 yards per play this season and opponents have not scored less than 24 points in a game. Football Outsiders has this year’s Browns as the third-worst defense per DVOA in 2016 and only a few percentage points ahead of where Detroit was at this same point of the season in 2008.
Cleveland’s play in the trenches is a problem here, too. Their defensive line stops just 15 percent of rushers at or behind the line of scrimmage (NFL average is 19 percent) and allows 64 percent of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, to achieve a first down or touchdown this season (NFL average is 60 percent). Their sack rate is 5.1 percent after adjusting for down, distance and opponents, one percentage point lower than average.
The Browns pass coverage isn’t great, either. Top cornerback Joe Haden is allowing a 94.5 passer rating against in primary coverage and 1.4 yards per cover snap, putting him among the bottom 25 at the position. Their other corner, Jamar Taylor, is allowing a 114.3 rating against with 1.6 yards allowed per cover snap.
As a result, Cleveland has allowed 325 points against this season, just 21 fewer than Detroit did through 11 games in 2008. The Lions ended up allowing 517 points against during the regular season — joining the 1981 Baltimore Ravens as the only two teams to surrender 500 or more points in a season since the merger. The 2016 Browns are on pace for 469 points against, but still face three teams who are above-average at scoring points: the Buffalo Bills (2.18 points per drive, No. 10 in NFL), the San Diego Chargers (2.24, No. 8) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (2.08, No. 13). Two of those games, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, are on the road.
According to the win probabilities from FiveThirtyEight’s latest NFL forecast, Cleveland has a 42 percent chance to finish with a 0-16 record. That alone would place them among the five worst teams in NFL history, with a shot at being the worst team of all time.