In the zero-sum game that is the NFL playoff system, there are 12 winners and 20 losers–no exceptions. And, if you ask the people from New England or San Diego, they will probably both tell you that it is not always the best 12 teams that “win” or the worst 20 teams that “lose.” But, whatever it is, it is clear that 12 sets of fans have hope that this “new life” that their teams have found will leave the past 17 weeks’ worth of disappointments and frustrations (more for some teams than others) behind them and it will all come together as chapters in a book with a glorious ending.
The other 20 fan bases and forced to sit and look back at 17 weeks of “what could have been” and sulk through a postseason without their team and a long offseason thinking about what is going to be different next year. And, is it me or does it seem like there is more universal heartache for fans around the league this season than in most seasons? It has been ridiculous. So, it led me to thinking about just how difficult it is going to be for some NFL fans around the country to watch the playoffs without their teams, so I tried to rank the 20 teams that missed the playoffs on just how hard this season must have been to swallow for their fans. So, here is my order of how hard the NFL team’s kick to its fans groin was this year, from most gentle to most devastating. It’s basically a list, in order, of the fans with whom I would least like to trade places:
#20. Houston Texans
Yes, the Texans fans had high hopes that this would be the year that their team would make the playoffs. And, yes, they finished with the exact same record as last year, but I think given the slow start, the tough division, and recurring injuries, the Texans resurgence at the end of the year may ease a lot of the pain for its fans. Then again, this exact paragraph could have been written about the 2007 Houston Texans…
#19. San Francisco 49ers
Like the Texans, this team’s fans were spared some heartache by the team’s heart and success down the stretch. In fact, if you only saw the last 5 weeks of the season, you would be shocked to find out that the 49ers were not the absolute class of the NFC West. Plus, it seems they found a coach…now all they need is a quarterback.
#18. New Orleans Saints
Some people call the NFC South the best division in football, so the heartache of last place is not as severe for fans of the Saints. And, if you’re a fan and you’re team is offering you up heartache after heartache, you get really good at finding silver linings and strong, relieving rationalizations. The silver lining is named Drew Brees, who had one of the best seasons at quarterback ever (and led an entertaining offense week in and week out), and the rationalization is that the Saints were murdered by the schedule-makers–they went 5 weeks without a home game and were still a couple plays away from 9 wins.
#17. Seattle Seahawks
Though this team had pretty high expectations and fell WAY short of them, there are still some rationalizations that can be made–like injuries–to justify why this team can rise again to the top of a very bad division. Yes, it’s probably disappointing to see Holmgren go out like that, but it’s time.
[And, we are officially out of teams with relatively decent futures and relatively tolerable seasons. Yes, there were only 4 of them–and Seattle is a stretch on the “tolerability” of their season. So, there are 16 NFL teams whose seasons were extremely painful in either an acute, punch-in-the-stomach kind of way or in a woeful-sign-of-chronic-heartache-to-come-for-a-miserable-team kind of way.]
#16. Oakland Raiders
If I told you that there were 15 fan bases that were kicked in the groin harder than the Raiders fans were this year, you would call me nuts…until I listed off the next 15 teams. The Raiders actually finished relatively strongly this year, including wins in their last two games against Houston and Tampa Bay. No, I do not think this is a sign of things to come. I think the Raiders are terrible and will remain terrible, I just do not think that their fans have as much to complain about as 15 other teams’ fans.
#15. Kansas City Chiefs
Another really bad team, but not surprisingly and, therefore, not that heart-wrenching. Everyone knew the Chiefs would be bad. The problem with this team–and the reason that they are after the Raiders–if because they lost so many games in such dramatic fashion. Just look at the two games against AFC West champion San Diego, where they had a 2-point conversion fall short that would have won it in the first game and then the Chargers needed a touchdown-onside kick-touchdown flurry to win the second. This might be one of the best 2-14 teams ever…yes, I just said that.
#14. Cincinnati Bengals
And the hits just keep coming. This is another team where if I just told you where they were in this ranking, you would call me crazy…until you heard the other 13 teams and compared their seasons to the Bengals. Has one tackle every really changed a franchise as much as the hit that Kimo von Oelhoffen put on Carson Palmer in the 2006 playoff game? How excited were you, as a Cincinnati Bengal fan, back then when your team won the AFC North, with an 11-5 record and the whole core of the team was young and full of potential? Since that tackle, they have not had a winning season, let alone a return to the playoffs, culminating in this year’s 4-11-1 season.
#13. St. Louis Rams
It feels like the Rams played 2-14 seasons with an 8-8 in the middle of it. They were the NFL’s worst team, then they actually looked semi-decent (with wins over Dallas and Washington–we’ll get to that), and then they returned to awfulness. And, the worst part about it for the fans is that there is still some talent on this team. Not pretty to be a Rams fan this year.
#12. Cleveland Browns
At least the Browns have a semi-decent quarterback (Brady Quinn) and some skilled players. And, at least there is a glimmer of hope with the firing of Romeo Crenel. Plus, they lost three quarterbacks to injury this year–THREE. So, it’s not all bad in Cleveland. Then again, this team was 10-6 last year, and they may never have been as far from being a playoff team as they are right now. In fact, other than the Detroit Lions, I don’t think there is a team in the NFL that would surprise me more to make next year’s playoffs than the Browns. They did not score an offensive touchdown in their last SIX games (an NFL record), including shutouts in the last 2. Coming off a 10-6 season, that is depressing.
#11 Washington Redskins
Coming off a playoff year, with an up-and-coming quarterback and a star running back in his prime, this team was still concerned in the beginning of the year because of its brand-new head coach and the turmoil that went along with that search. So, if you told Redskins fans at the beginning of the year that the team would finish 8-8, including a win over a playoff Eagles team in Week 16, they’d probably be okay with it. But, then you’d have to tell them the context of the season. A blistering start, talks of a league MVP race between two Redskins (Portis and Campbell), and the dubbing of Jim Zorn as a “genius” and a “prodigy” made ‘Skins fans believe. And, you know what happens when fans start to believe in flawed teams? Heartache…
#10. Jacksonville Jaguars
Thanks to the collapse of the Denver Broncos, the Jaguars have officially stolen the title of “most disappointing season” from the Chargers (even though, in reality, the Chargers lackluster 8-8 is VERY disappointing, they have been repreived because they are in the playoffs). The only reason the Jaguars are all the way down at #10 is because the season itself lacked any semblence of promise from about Week 3 on. The season, as a whole, is heart-wrenching for fans of a team that watched last year, as David Garrard came to life (just in time for an ill-advised contract extension) and the defense physically dominated opponents. But, in the grand scheme of things, these fans have had plenty of time to deal with the disappointment, which I believe is a bit easier to handle–the slow burn is not nearly as bad as the suddenness of some of the stomach punches that NFL fans around the country have experienced this year.
#9 Buffalo Bills
The Dolphins are coming off a 1-15 season. The Patriots lost Tom Brady and missed the playoffs. The Jets never got it together with Favre and missed the playoffs. The Bills started 5-1, with three of the wins coming against teams that made the playoffs last year (Seattle at home, at Jacksonville, at San Diego). All four of those statements are completely true, yet somehow the Bills are not in the playoffs. To make matters worse for these long-suffering fans, the games they lost in their 2-8 finish were heart-wrenching losses in themselves. They blew a double-digit second half lead against Miami in Week 8; they lost on a 47-yard field goal that went wide right (sound familiar?) in Week 11; and, they fumbled away a sure win against the Jets in Week 15. And, just as if this collapse isn’t enough to devastate a fan base–they play in a division with intense rivalries and hatred, and they went 0-6 against division foes.
#8. Green Bay Packers
It’s interesting that if the Jets had won one more game and made the playoffs, but the Packers did nothing different, Green Bay may have been #1 on this list, simpy because their 6-10 team would have to watch good ole Brett sling it around in the playoffs. But, the saving grace for the fans of a team that lost 7 more games this year than last is that they made the absolute right choice at quarterback. It’s a small consolation for a playoff favorite that lost 10 games this year, but it is a consolation.
#7. Chicago Bears
Not only did the Bears miss the playoffs by a half-game, but their fans can look back on a season of near misses that could depress them more than the Chicago winter. Everyone will remember the loss in Week 17 against the Texans that would have put the Bears in the playoffs. But, if they had won one more game earlier in the season, they would not have needed that win. And, it is heartbreaking to look back at some of the earlier games this season. Week 2: Carolina scores the game-winning TD with less than 4 minutes left in the game, Bears lose 20-17. Week 3: In Chicago, Tampa Bay makes up a 10-point deficit with less than 6 to go, including a game-tying touchdown on the last play of regulation, and then wins in OT, 27-24. Week 6: Jason Elam kicks a 48-yard field goal as time expires to lift the Falcons over the Bears, 22-20
#6. New England Patriots
All things considered, it’s hard to complain if you’re a Patriots fan, especially after your team loses its franchise quarterback, puts in a guy who hadn’t started a game since high school, and they finish 11-5. But, just the sheer fact that they went 11-5 and have to watch the 8-8 Chargers host a playoff game has got to be incredibly frustrating for New Englanders. But, like I said, I have no sympathy.
#5. Detroit Lions
If they had gone 1-15, they probably would have been around #15 or #16 on this list, but they didn’t. They went 0-16. There is no future and certainly no present. This team is really bad and, unless massive changes are made, will remain so for a long time. What does it say, though, that I believe that there are four sets of fans around the league that would rather have invested their time and emotion in the 0-16 Detroit Lions this year than their own teams? FOUR!!!
#4. Dallas Cowboys
The poster children this year for the fact that underachieving hurts a team’s fans more than straight-up losing. So, putting them ahead of Detroit was easy. In fact, when I first considered doing this, they were the first team that came to mind. They have some excuses for the 9-7 season (injuries, distractions, etc.), but it doesn’t make it any easier. Plus, you throw in the way the lost down the stretch–the fourth-quarter meltdown in Pittsburgh, losing the last game in Texas Stadium, and the shellacking that the Eagles put on them, with the playoffs on the line–and you’ve got disappointment galore. And, we haven’t even mentioned the question marks surrounding this core going into the offseason–can Romo win a big game (one that I think is overdone, but does have legs)? Will TO sabotage yet another team/QB? Is Wade Phillips really the answer at head coach? What happened to the “genius” of Jason Garrett? Was Roy Williams worth the draft picks? Can this team possibly function with all the malcontents and disruptive forces? Sounds frustrating…
#3 New York Jets
Hahaha. I don’t hate the Jets. I actually respect Jet fans (mostly just because they live in New York and choose not to root for the Giants). But, I do hate Brett Favre. And, I do find this season absolutely hysterical. And, hysterical in a way that cannot be good for the fans. They start out so hot. There is all this talk about a “Subway Super Bowl,” (which is ridiculous because both teams play in Jersey). And, then 20 interceptions later and this team has absolutely punished its already defeated fans yet again. And, to make matters worse, now they have to sit through an entire offseason of Favre Indecision 2009.
#2. Denver Broncos
The biggest 3-game collapse in the history of the NFL. No team has had a 3-game lead with three and not won the division. After Week 13, the Chargers were in second place at 4-8. How could the Broncos not win this division? I’ll tell you how–they lost three straight potential clinchers, including a home game against the Buffalo Bills. And, the Chargers won four straight–including a Week 15 miracle against the Chiefs, where they trailed by 13 late in the fourth, before scoring a TD, recovering the onside kick, and scoring another touchdown to win. Then, the next week, the Chargers flew 3,000 miles into Tampa Bay, against a Bucs team that needed the win and took that game too. Finally, San Diego put the final nail in the coffin of the Broncos (and their seemingly invincible coach–and Delta Sigma Phi brother–Mike Shanahan) themselves, with a 52-21 win in a winner-take-all game in Week 17. The only reason that this is not the most frustrating team to its fans this season is because, well, they are not really very good, so how upset can the fans be? Right?
And, the grand punch in the gut prize goes to the fans of…
#1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When the Bucs beat the New Orleans Saints one month ago yesterday, they were 9-3, in first place in the NFC South, and the talk was all about how unfair it is going to be if the Bucs make the Super Bowl and get to play in their home stadium. Their three losses were all on the road and all against teams that were expected to be among the leagues best (New Orleans, Dallas, and Denver). Their defense was being compared to the defense that won them the Super Bowl in 2002, and their offense had scored 110 points (27.5 average) in the last four games. The only question was whether or not they could hang on to a first-round bye. The fans were happy. Then the Bucs lost back-to-back road games against Carolina and Atlanta (in overtime), but still found themselves in good position, especially with the tiebreaker scenarios, and in GREAT position with the schedule. Going into Week 16, there had been eighteen games where a west coast team traveled to the eastern time zone. Only one of these teams had won. And, the Bucs finished with home games (in the eastern time zone) against the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders. Two wins would clinch at least a wild card spot, if not the division title. Well, it looked good against San Diego, as they had a 24-20 lead going into the 4th quarter. But, they gave up three unanswered touchdowns and lost 41-24. Still, though, it looked like they were catching all the breaks, as the Eagles lost to the Redskins (and eventually beat the Cowboys), meaning that, again, all Tampa had to do was beat a West Coast team, at home, and they would have been in the playoffs. And, this was a very bad West Coast team–the Oakland Raiders. The Bucs were two touchdown underdogs and were, again, leading late. They had a 24-14 lead late in the third quarter. Then, in the fourth, they were up 24-21, with ball on the Oakland 33 yard line. Their drive stalled and they turned it over on downs. The very next play, Michael Bush ran for a 67-yard touchdown to put the Raiders ahead. The very next play after that, Garcia threw an interception and the rest is history. The Bucs lost four in a row to close the season, including two at home, in games that they had no business losing (one to Coach Gruden’s old team, the Raiders). And, if that isn’t bad enough, their best running back, Cadillac Williams tore up his knee in the fourth quarter of the Raiders game, and their legendary defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, is leaving the team to join his son’s coaching staff at the University of Tennessee. The only silver lining in this whole story is that it happened to Tampa Bay and I hate them so much because of the 2002 NFC Championship Game. But, either way, I’m sure that all 17 Buc fans are completely miserable.