Not many games in NFL history can match Sunday's for the sheer ineptitude of the combatants. Here are five that do- and then some.
The O.J. Bowl (October 27, 1968): Philadelphia Eagles (0-6) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (0-6)
There was plenty on the line when the winless Eagles traveled to Pitt Stadium to take on the winless Steelers in Week Seven of the '68 season. Not pride, not in-state bragging rights: the first pick in the 1969 Draft, and a chance to land the country's best college player, USC halfback O.J. Simpson. For disgruntled Eagles fans, a loss would not only bring their team one step closer to landing Simpson, it would be another nail in the coffin of hated coach Joe Kuharich. In this clash of the toothless, the only loser would be the team with more points at the end.
(Pittsburgh's head coach at the time was Bill Austin, who represents an instructive case for Browns fans. Like Eric Mangini, Austin was a protégé of the game's premier coach- Vince Lombardi. Like Mangini, Austin aped his mentor's mannerisms, cracking the whip on his players and conducting brutal practices. And like Mangini, Austin was a pale imitation of the real thing, alienating his men and limping to an 11-28-3 record before being fired after the 1968 season and replaced with Chuck Noll. Like Randy Lerner, Art Rooney went for old wine in a new bottle and came up with vinegar.)
Both teams flashed their futile form in front of a meager crowd of 26,908 on this sun-splashed pre-Halloween afternoon. They combined for 240 yards in penalties, three turnovers, and zero touchdowns. Philadelphia's best opportunity for six points went up in smoke when tight end Mike Ditka let a perfect strike from Norm Snead glance off his hands on the goal line. Still, to the dismay of many Eagles fans, their team nursed a 3-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh tied it 3-3 on a 34-yard Booth Lusteg field goal and for a time it appeared that was the way it would end.
Kuharich made sure it did not with one of the odder coaching decisions in NFL history. With 43 seconds to play and the Eagles facing 4th-and-inches at their own 10-yard line, he decided to go for it, in hopes that he could run out the clock and preserve the deadlock. Fullback Tom Woodeshick was stacked up at the line of scrimmage and Pittsburgh took over in point-blank scoring range. Booth Lusteg drilled his second field goal, this one at the gun, and the Steelers were "winners," 6-3. Kuharich would be fired after the 1968 season, despite being in the second year of a 15-year contract as head coach and general manager.
For all their ineptitude, neither team would get the first pick in the Draft. Philadelphia's 2-12 final record was only the third worst in football, while Pittsburgh's 2-11-1 mark was fourth from the bottom. Buffalo got the top pick and took Simpson, while Atlanta took Notre Dame tackle George Kunz with the second pick. Philadelphia used the third overall pick on Purdue halfback Leroy Keyes, who had his career sabotaged by injuries and was out of football by 1974. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, spent the fourth overall pick on a little-known defensive tackle out of North Texas State named Joe Greene- and the years were unfortunately numbered for Steelers futility.
The Stupor Bowl (December 20, 1981): New England Patriots (2-13) @ Baltimore Colts (1-14)
The opening week of the 1981 season was a good one for the Baltimore Colts. Behind 226 combined yards by running backs Randy McMillan and Curtis Dickey the Colts upset the New England Patriots in Foxboro, 29-28. When the two teams met again in the season finale, that opening victory was still the only one for Baltimore. Plagued by injuries, racial strife as well as a sheer shortage of talent, boasting the worst scoring defense in NFL history (533 points allowed) the Colts were 1-14, with eleven of those losses coming by two touchdowns or more. They may have been the sorriest non-expansion team the modern NFL has ever seen.
The Patriots were a different story. With a roster full of accomplished veteran players- Steve Grogan, John Hannah, Stanley Morgan, Raymond Clayborn, Tim Fox, Mike Haynes- New England had enjoyed five consecutive winning seasons going into 1981. But they kept finding ways to lose as this season went on. The Pats dropped eight games by a touchdown or less, including twice in overtime and once on a last-second Hail Mary pass. Their point differential of -48 was that of a 6-10 or 7-9 team, not a historically bad outfit. Be that as it may, New England was 2-13 going into the season finale in front of a little more than 17,000 hardy fans at chilly Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.
Typical for a game between wretched teams, it was a back-and-forth extravaganza of miscues and mistakes. The Colts and Patriots combined for six turnovers and twelve penalties as the lead changed hands five times. Baltimore finally broke it open in the third period when Bert Jones hit receiver Raymond Butler with a 37-yard scoring strike, and the Colts made it hold up. They won, 23-21, giving them a 2-0 record against the Patriots; 0-14 against everyone else.
New England bounced back from its disastrous 1981 season with a 5-4 record in the strike-shortened 1982 campaign, while Baltimore went 0-8-1. Amazingly, the Colts wouldn't win a game against someone other than the Patriots until Week Four of the 1983 season, their last in Charm City. By 1984 they resided in Indianapolis. Literally and figuratively, both teams have come a long way since that cold afternoon in 1981 when they symbolized NFL futility.
The Repus Bowl (November 27, 1983): Houston Oilers (1-11) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-11)
This stinker was nicknamed "the Repus Bowl" by Tampa sportswriter Tom McEwen, as a cockeyed tribute to the Super Bowl that would be played in the Big Sombrero two months later. Four seasons prior, the Oilers and Buccaneers had come within one game of meeting in the Super Bowl. But both teams had fallen on hard times by 1983. Houston's fortunes had plummeted after the ill-advised firing of Bum Phillips; the Oilers lost their first ten games in 1983 and came into Tampa with an interim head coach, Chuck Studley. Tampa Bay had fallen apart after back-to-back playoff seasons in 1981-82, losing their first nine games despite the presence of All-Pro defenders Lee Roy Selmon and Hugh Green.
A half-capacity crowd of 38,625 dotted the Tampa Stadium stands for this meeting of losers, and came away happy- assuming they actually wanted the Buccaneers to win, that is. Much-maligned quarterback Jack Thompson, who Tampa Bay had witlessly acquired from Cincinnati for a first-round draft pick, had one of his best days. The Throwin' Samoan burned Houston's awful defense for 224 yards and four touchdowns, while reserve halfback James Owens (notable for being the player the 49ers selected before Joe Montana in the 1979 Draft) rushed for 80 yards and a score. Tim Smith caught eight passes for 97 yards for the Oilers, while the great Earl Campbell chipped in with two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough to overcome three Oliver Luck interceptions and Houston's usual porous defense. Tampa Bay built a 16-point lead and hung on to win, 33-24.
Both teams would finish the season with records of 2-14. The Buccaneers went winless the rest of the way, while the Oilers got one more victory- at the expense of the Browns, who they knocked out of the playoff race with a 34-27 Astrodome upset. Thanks to premium draft picks earned by seasons like 1983, Houston rose to the status of a perennial playoff team by the end of the decade. For Tampa Bay, the misery was just beginning; the Buccaneers would suffer through fourteen consecutive losing seasons before finally finishing over .500 under Tony Dungy in 1997.
Stupor Bowl II (December 22, 1991): Indianapolis Colts (1-14) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13)
In a nod to the original Stupor Bowl played almost exactly ten years earlier, ESPN's Chris Berman dubbed the Colts-Buccaneers season finale "Stupor Bowl II." Winners of one game, and that by a single point, Indianapolis came into Tampa with one of the worst offenses in NFL history. The '91 Colts scored 13 touchdowns and tallied 143 points, still the lowest total in the 16-game era. (Just in case you're wondering, the Browns are on pace to score 140 points this season.) The honeymoon between Indianapolis and hometown hero Jeff George, the top pick in the 1990 Draft, had curdled. Indianapolis had long since fired head coach Ron Meyer- interim coach Rick Venturi would lose ten of the eleven games in his charge, on the way to a 2-17 lifetime record.
Tampa's situation was just as bleak. A decent Buccaneer defense (11th in yardage allowed) was sabotaged by an offense that committed 47 turnovers, including 29 interceptions thrown by revolving quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde, Chris Chandler and Jeff Carlson. Head coach Richard Williamson had been given the full-time job following a 1-2 record as interim boss the year before, but he was on the ropes and would in fact be fired following the season. 1991 was the ninth consecutive season of double-digit losses for the men in the Creamsickle uniforms.
Just 28,043 spectators came out for a game was just as ugly as the teams playing it. Tampa Bay and Indianapolis combined for seven turnovers, including four fumbles by the Colts and three interceptions uncorked by the error-prone Testaverde. Indianapolis took an early 3-0 lead on a field goal by its most reliable offensive weapon, kicker Dean Biasucci. The Buccaneers came back, taking the lead on a 29-yard scoring pass from future Brown Testaverde to future Brown Mark Carrier. When Lawrence Dawsey barged in from nine yards out to give Tampa a 14-3 third-quarter lead, the game was effectively over. The Buccaneers tacked on a late field goal to send Richard Williamson off into the sunset with a 17-3 victory.
The one seeming consolation for Indianapolis lay in its advantageous draft position. The Colts owned the top two picks in the 1992 Draft, with the first overall selection a hard-earned reward for their 1-15 purgatory of '91. Fresh off rolling out the worst scoring offense in modern history, Indianapolis used both picks on defensive players- Steve Emtmann and Quentin Coryatt- neither of whom even made a Pro Bowl. Sometimes it doesn't pay to lose.
(December 12, 1993): Cincinnati Bengals (1-11) @ New England Patriots (1-11)
The Patriots and Bengals had identical 1-11 records going into their match-up at Foxboro Stadium, but the mindsets of both teams were markedly different. For New England there was light at the end of the tunnel; Bill Parcells was on board in his first year as head coach, prized rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe was improving by the week, and the Pats had played competitive football nearly the entire season, losing eight games by six points or fewer. Despite an eye-watering 10-50 record since the beginning of the 1990 season, the crisp New England air was tinged with mild optimism.
There was light at the end of the tunnel for the Bengals, too; only in their case that light was an oncoming train. The team wasn't improving under second-year head coach David Shula, and neither was second-year quarterback David Klingler, a former first-round pick who compiled a devilish rating of 66.6 for the 1993 season. The high-powered offensive units of the Sam Wyche era were a fading memory; the Bengals scored fewer points than any other team in the league in '93, including just three rushing touchdowns all season. The Patriots were bad but getting better; the Bengals were bad and getting worse.
Cincinnati's offense fared no better against Parcells and his Patriot defense in front of 29,794 hardy souls at Foxboro. The Bengals gained only 165 yards on the day, committed nine turnovers and failed to score a point. Klingler completed 9-of-25 for 89 yards and was sacked four times. New England didn't fare much better, with 224 total yards. Rookie kicker Scott Sisson aborted one promising drive by shanking a 27-yard field-goal attempt; a Patriots fan unfurled a banner labeled HOME OF MISSIN' SISSON and was ejected by stadium security. Coach Parcells was no more forgiving; when asked after the game whether he thought Sisson could kick in the NFL, his answer was typically blunt: "I don't necessarily think so."
Nevertheless the Patriots got their act together long enough to drive for touchdown just before halftime on a short pass from Bledsoe to tight end Ben Coates, and that was all the scoring they needed. New England won 7-2, the kind of quirky score you sometimes get when teams like these meet on the football field.
For the Patriots, the improvement was at hand. They finished the 1993 season with a flourish, winning their final four (including a win over the Browns and Parcells protégé Bill Belichick) to bring their final record to a not-half-bad 5-11. The following year they surged to a 10-6 record and their first playoff berth since 1986; two years after that, they were in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati kept regressing. They finished 3-13 in '93, fired David Shula midway through another 3-13 campaign in '94, and wouldn't break the surface of .500 until the 2005 season.