What is it like playing an entire NFL season without winning a game?
With each loss, the pain builds. The pressure increases on the coaches, increases on the families. Players start to question themselves. They start to question their teammates. Some players work harder than they ever have before. Others give up or come up with phantom injuries. Some turn to prayer. Others see the team psychologist.
All of them will want to move on and forget. But in the end, they won’t be able to.
"It’s awful. What players don’t understand is that it lives with you. It is a scar," said Ryan Nece, a linebacker on the winless 2008 Detroit Lions. "You go 0-16 and it’s on your resume and you are forever a part of it. I feel bad for the Jets. I don’t want those players and coaches to have to go through it."
While 10 teams have gone winless in the history of the NFL, only two — the 2008 Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns — have gone 0-16. The Jets, who will head into Sunday’s game against the Chargers in Los Angeles with a 0-9 record, hope to avoid becoming the third 0-16 team.
Interviews with members of those Lions and Browns teams paint a dismal and chaotic picture of what it is like to be mired in the middle of a winless season, looking desperately for a way to get into the win column.
"Oh my God, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever been involved with in my life," said Hue Jackson, who coached the Browns to back-to-back 1-15 and 0-16 records in 2016 and 2017. "Every day having to stand up in front of the team and give a message and to keep them motivated and your staff motivated while you take that all in. Especially when you are not used to losing . . . It’s hard and difficult for players and coaches on your staff. I don’t think anyone takes a job to lose.
"I’ve made the statement that it was the best two years of coaching in my career. People don’t understand it, but coaches in those situations do everything they can to fix it. The staff works harder. The players work harder, because you don’t want to be that team that loses all the time."
The Browns were in the middle of a Moneyball-inspired rebuild. Cleveland had 19 rookies, including one from Harvard and one from Princeton. The Browns’ starting roster on opening day included 14 players with one year of experience or less. No one expected much from the team, but no one on the team expected to go winless.
As the Jets did in their recent loss to the Patriots, the Browns came painfully close to getting that W. They nearly beat the Jets at the start of the 2017 season. They also lost overtime games to the Titans and the Packers, blowing a 14-point lead over Green Bay.
Pro Bowler’s angst
"I would say it’s really mentally fatiguing because each week you would go through a process of building yourself up and building the team up, and then you would lose," said Joe Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle who now is an analyst for NFL Network. "You would try to convince yourself that you could win the game but then it became so hard because you could just see the talent wasn’t there every week.
"We had a young team by design, and we were playing against guys who have Pro Bowls, and Hall of Fame quarterbacks. You try to stay positive and optimistic, but it’s demoralizing. I had to keep my opinions to myself. We just didn’t have the talent. It sucks knowing you are going to lose every week."
Thomas, who was injured in the middle of the season, said he struggled so much with the losing that he became a regular with the team psychologist.
"The losing just has a really bad effect on your psyche," he said. "I was really struggling with it. It gave me a complex. The time with the psychologist helped. It is a horrible thing as a competitor to go through."
Lions 4-0 in preseason
Horrible, yes, but maybe not quite as horrible as what the Lions went through in 2008. The 2017 Browns entered the season as a teardown, but there actually were some high hopes for mediocrity in Detroit heading into 2008. The Lions had finished with a 7-9 record in 2007, their best win total in eight seasons. And, for what little it’s worth, they went 4-0 in the 2008 preseason.
"I thought we had a good team at the start," defensive end Dewayne White said. "We lost some games and then with each loss, the pressure just mounts."
It also didn’t help stability that general manager Matt Millen was fired after the team opened the season with three big losses, White said. White, who led the team in sacks and tackles that season, said the pressure not to go winless hit the team at about the same point in the season that the Jets are in now.
"At Week 10, the pressure just mounts not to be known as that team," he said. "People started worrying about themselves as the losses piled up. It was ‘I have to make sure I’m healthy. I have to make sure I have a place to land after this.’ It became more strategic for more people."
Even when the team was playing well, doubts managed to creep in. In their 11th game of the season, the Lions led 17-0 against Tampa Bay at the end of the first quarter. From the outside, it looked as if their luck was going to change.
The other shoe
"You could almost feel it on the sideline that no one thought we were going to win," Nece recalled. "We just didn’t believe it because we had lost so many games in a row. We were almost waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Nece, the son of Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, said it just got worse from there.
"What was frustrating was to watch how losing permeated itself throughout the entire organization and fragmented it," he said. "It was offense against defense, players against coaches, players against players. All of a sudden, you don’t have unity. When you start to lose trust and lose that sense that you are going to fight together, it makes it really hard to play at a higher level."
At the end, it was clear that players gave up. Before their final game of the season — a contest against Green Bay, which had only five wins — Nece gathered his teammates for a short pep talk. He remembers being only a few lines into his speech when he was interrupted by a teammate he chose not to name.
"I felt really compelled and I started to give a speech about how we had a chance not to go into the history books as one of the worst teams in NFL history," Nece remembered. "Another player said, ‘Ryan, shut the hell up. Let’s just go play this game and get the damn season over with.’ It was at that point that I knew all hope was lost."
That’s because when you go 0-16, there is no getting it over with. Your team may end up with a great draft pick, but you will always be associated with being a historic loser.
Said Thomas: "It’s total misery. There’s nothing good that can come out of a season like that. It’s not like you are playing bad and getting better. I wish I had a ray of hope for the Jets. The only thing I can say is try to do your job to the best of your ability. It’s not easy."
NFL winless teams
Season Team W-L-T Head coach(s)
2017 Cleveland 0-16-0 Hue Jackson
2008 Detroit 0-16-0 Rod Marinelli
1982 Baltimore-a 0-8-1 Frank Kush
1976 Tampa Bay-b 0-14-0 John McKay
1960 Dallas-b 0-11-1 Tom Landry
1944 Brooklyn 0-10-0 Pete Cawthon, Ed Kubale, Frank Bridges
1944 Card-Pitt 0-10-0 Phil Handler, Walt Kiesling
1943 Chicago 0-10-0 Phil Handler
1942 Detroit 0-11-0 Bill Edwards, Bull Karcis
1934 Cincinnati 0-8-0 Algy Clark
(a)-Strike-shortened season; (b)-Expansion team