Thomas’s tears surprised his wife, Annie. She asked what was wrong. Had he had a bad game? Joe cried for about 45 seconds, unable to explain how this year felt different, how he felt daunted and depressed, how he knew what they all knew: This team was built to fail.
“I was emotionally drained from trying to convince myself that this team was good enough,” Thomas said. “I was just broken.”
Every year, there are players who experience the nightmare of a lost season. Their teams bottom out early, by accident or design, and stare down schedules promising nothing but pain. Those in Washington, Miami and Cincinnati — teams that enter the season’s final week with three wins, four wins and one win, respectively — have felt it this year.
Money helps and bruised egos heal, but losing in the NFL is different than in other sports. Players can’t passively participate in a rebuild process as they might in Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NHL. Football’s violence exacts its physical toll no matter the result. Players, coaches and executives who have endured such seasons — 5.7 percent of teams have finished 3-13 or worse since 1970 — describe them as the hardest experience of their professional lives.
Losing recalibrates the demanding expectations necessary in the NFL. The lessons players and coaches learn during those seasons — how to stay motivated, where to look for growth, whom to trust in the future — are crucial. The losses pile up, but, if the team withstands them, they can serve as a building block.
If the team withstands them.
“[That type of losing], it’s different,” said Paris Lenon, a linebacker on the 0-16 Detroit Lions in 2008 and the 1-15 St. Louis Rams in 2009. “It’s not just the locker room. It’s the staff. It’s the front office. It’s the coaches. It’s just so much added pressure.”
Hue Jackson went on the radio in July and claimed Cleveland was “probably some of the best coaching I did.” The Internet guffawed; his Browns record was 3-36-1 from 2016 to 2018, the lowest winning percentage for any coach with one team in 40 or more games. Jackson thought the ridicule revealed how little people understood about leading, and his former players and contemporary coaches agreed. Many didn’t find the statement ridiculous because, to stay sane, they too once learned to stop defining success by wins and losses.
Losing taught Jackson to evaluate himself in other ways. He measured his coaching by the progress of players at individual skills, and the ability to inspire full effort from downtrodden players in meaningless games. Jackson tried to prevent losing from becoming bad behavior. In the summer of 2016, Jackson read about behavioral tendencies of successful but struggling alpha males and learned “they’re going to find their wins other ways,” including alcohol, drugs or violence. He safeguarded against these tendencies by hiring two psychologists, one for him and one for the team.
“I studied all that,” Jackson said of how losing affects mentalities. “I had to keep a firm, firm hand on the whole situation.”
One of the most important lessons teams learned was to find purpose without winning. It was critical because, without it, players and coaches remembered seeing seasons quickly spiral out of control. They saw players who might have once stayed until 6 p.m. start to cut out at 5:30 or 5. They knew some spent more time partying or playing video games than training or studying the playbook.
Lenon still recalls the suffocating pressure he felt pulling up to the facilities for the Lions and Rams. Randy Mueller, the general manager of the 1-15 Miami Dolphins in 2007, remembered how even team employees on the business side treated him as if he was fragile. Jackson stopped going to his favorite restaurants in Cleveland at first, then quit going to the team cafeteria. He couldn’t bear the faces of the staff who wanted wins he wasn’t giving them, he said.
For motivation, Thomas and other Browns veterans resolved to mentor younger players and build a foundation for the future. Mike Riley, coach of the 1-15 San Diego Chargers in 2000, rewarded hard workers with plays schemed to highlight them. Mueller consoled himself by showing the team a steady demeanor that allowed few to see the frustration beneath it.
“The Titanic was a beautiful boat,” Mueller said. “They don’t have to know you’re bailing water like a son-of-a-buck inside.”
In many cases, the leaders of lost seasons are replaced the following year. The people hired to replace them often come from outside the building. But Martin Mayhew was a notable exception. He took over as the Lions’ GM in 2009 having been with the organization for seven years, knowing that the team needed substantial change.
He understood how hard it was to overcome a losing culture. Mayhew came up as a player in the late 1980s with the Redskins, and the team there — led by Doug Williams, Darrell Green and Russ Grimm — helped him understand what winning took. He knew a business-as-usual offseason wouldn’t resonate with his players after 0-16, so he embarked on a radical review.
Mayhew evaluated the entire organization. He researched everyone by interviewing those who interacted with them daily, including equipment managers, trainers and videographers. He watched players’ game tape (were you playing hard all game every game?) and studied position coaches (how many of your players got better this season?). He met with the personnel and coaching staffs, and they weighed a player’s talent along with his contributions to team culture. They spent hours sorting every player into three categories: keep, on the fence (“good enough but upgrade if possible”) and need to go.
Mayhew knew the Lions would be a tough sell for free agents, so the team targeted players in trades. They prioritized talent and resilience at the draft, selecting quarterback Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 pick. They later added safety Louis Delmas and linebacker DeAndre Levy — even-keeled, successful college players who they thought wouldn’t be fazed by losing.
They hired Jim Schwartz as coach because of his swagger, confidence and experience with successful teams. They signed players with experience to have one or two veterans in each position room who could learn the scheme and lead. This gave talented young players trusted resources.
“They don’t have to be great players,” Mayhew said of the veterans. “They need to have leadership ability and be professional.”
The Lions, three years after the 0-16 season, finished 10-6 and made the postseason. They remained competitive with that roster but never won a playoff game. They fired Mayhew in 2015, and the GM, though disappointed with the results, was proud of his work.
Mayhew joined the San Francisco 49ers’ front office in 2016 and, after the team’s 2-14 finish, helped engineer a similar turnaround that culminated in this year’s 12-3 start. But not every team has found the same success. Look no further than the Lions, mired in a three-win season that included a season-ending injury to Stafford, or the Browns, who were preseason darlings but enter Week 17 with a 6-9 record.
Thomas, the former Browns star, was talking to Michael Irvin this year when the former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver said something that struck him. Thomas had retired and was now a member of the NFL Network’s “Thursday Night Football” broadcast team. Irvin, a three-time Super Bowl champion, told Thomas that “hope equals effort.”
Irvin verbalized what Thomas always knew. Players and coaches on playoff teams need no added motivation to practice well. Thomas realized hope was the intangible ingredient necessary to pair with an organizational reconstruction such as Mayhew’s. It is perhaps the most important lesson, players and coaches from lost seasons say, that struggling teams need to learn.
“When you have a losing culture,” Mayhew said, “it’s so hard to overcome that.”