In a symbolically and metaphorically suitable fashion that served as a microcosm of the past 23 years for the Browns that culminated in a winless 2017 campaign, receiver Corey Coleman dropped a pass from rookie gunslinger DeShone Kizer that truncated a potential game-winning drive for the Browns. Lined up in the backfield, Coleman ran a basic flat route towards the sideline, paused after appearing to believe Kizer was sacked, was forced to ran back towards the scrambling Kizer, who majestically maneuvered his way out of a collapsing pocket, and then watched the ball sail through his hands. Of course, there is a multitude of moments from this season that have come to define the Browns, but perhaps none as fitting as the aforementioned blunder by Coleman.
To address the obvious, the Browns finished 2017 0-16, just like the Lions did in 2008. Both teams epitomized astonishing anomalies in a league that, to its credit, has done a respectable job of preserving parity and competitive balance. So while the 2017 Cleveland Browns are absolutely one of the worst NFL teams (and professional sports teams) in history, they do not get the nod for being top dog in that category. No, that moniker still goes to the 2008 Lions. It may sound absurd to suggest that one winless team is better than another, but it’s quite true.
For one thing, the Browns were more competitive than their Motor City counterparts. Cleveland lost six games by one touchdown or less (two in overtime), whereas the Lions lost four contests in the same manner. As far as scoring differential goes (which I find to be a much better indicator of how good or bad teams are as opposed to records), the Lions had an average margin of defeat of 15.6 points in 2008, and the Browns were far better in that department, losing their games by an average of 11.4 points per game. The point differential for the latter was -176, and for the former was -249.
Offensively, the Lions ranked 27th in points per play in (0.294) 2008, and the Browns posted a ranking of dead last, as they averaged 0.232 points per play. Cleveland averaged 4.9 yards per play in 2017, and the Lions accrued 4.7 yards per play. In terms of totals offense, the Browns ranked 24th and the Lions ranked 30th. As it pertains to analytics, Football Outsiders listed the Lions 30th in offensive DVOA (30th-best offense overall, in other words) in 2008, and it placed the Browns in last place, ranking 32nd in offensive DVOA. The Browns had by far the worst turnover differential this past regular season at -28, and had 41 turnovers. As for the Lions in 2008, they had a turnover margin of -9, a vast improvement over their 2017 successors.
On the defensive end of the gridiron, the Lions fielded arguably the worst unit in history. They allowed a staggering 6.4 yards per play, 0.512 points per play, and were last in total defense and scoring defense. Football Outsiders ranked the Lions last in defensive DVOA. The Browns were vastly superior defensively in 2017, as they allowed 5.1 yards per play, ranked 14th in total defense, and 0.400 points per play. Football Outsiders has the Browns ranked 16th in defensive DVOA. They were seventh against the run. So while the Lions may have been slightly more competent offensively, there is no comparing the two defensively at all. In fact, the Lions defense surrendered 517 points in 2008, which is usurped only by the then-Baltimore Colts in 1981.
For most, especially the inhabitants and denizens of The Rock and Roll Capital of the World, this season will be forever be remembered as the culmination of an organization that is so utterly dysfunctional at every level. The Browns have won fewer than 100 games since their last playoff win in 1994, and have not appeared in the playoffs since 2002. The only victory this season is knowing that they are only the second-worst team in NFL history. The 1976 Buccaneers were in their very first year as an expansion team, the 1982 Colts had to endure a league-wide strike that truncated the season, and then the Lions… well, they’re just the Lions. Make no mistake about it, the Browns have undergone the worst two-season stretch by any team in NFL history, as they are 1-31 since the start of last year, with the lone victory being a result of a missed field goal. That being said, the 2017 Browns are not nearly as appalling as the 2008 Lions. But the only thing they’ll really be remembered for is losing every single game this year.