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No wins, but lots of sympathy

Star-crossed Lions become the feel-bad story of the NFL.

A fan with a mushroom-cloud decoration on his cap watches the host Lions fall to the Saints - and to 0-15.
A fan with a mushroom-cloud decoration on his cap watches the host Lions fall to the Saints - and to 0-15.Read morePAUL SANCYA / Associated Press

How bad have things gotten for the winless Detroit Lions?

The Lions, teetering on the brink of the NFL's first 0-16 season, have evoked the rarest of emotions around the league.


The son of the late coach whose 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished 0-14, the only modern-era franchise to lose every game, said he was sickened by what was unfolding.

The quarterback of the 1980 New Orleans Saints, a team that went 1-15, says his heart goes out to the Lions.

A linebacker from the 1960 Dallas Cowboys, who went 0-11-1, says he can hardly watch the Motor City meltdown.

And yet we watch. We can't turn away.

"This is history," said Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, who is triple-staffing the Lions' finale at Green Bay tomorrow with six camera operators. "We're covering it almost as if it were a playoff game."

A year after the New England Patriots became the first team to go 16-0, the Lions are perfection's hideous mirror image, four quarters from being crowned champions of Stupor Bowl 0-and-XVI.

"It's sickening for me to watch, because I feel so bad for them," said Rich McKay, president of the Atlanta Falcons and son of legendary coach John McKay, coach of the winless Tampa Bay expansion team. "People say, 'Are you happy to see someone pass up the '76 Bucs?' Absolutely not."

Archie Manning, father of NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning, knows just how painful it can be to be part of a pathetic team. Even now, nearly 30 years after quarterbacking those woeful 1980 Saints, he vividly recalls the feeling as the losses piled up.

"One of the worst things was watching our coach, who we all liked and admired in Dick Nolan - good coach, good man - and every week he'd stand up there and it was almost like he would die a little more," Manning said. "It would kill you.

"I have so much empathy for these teams when they go through that because, even though it's been that long ago, I can remember what it's like. It's awful."

It seems the one place where sympathy is running low is in Detroit, where long-suffering Lions fans for years have endured the mismanagement of that franchise, the bad decisions on draft day, the worse decisions on game day - the whole stinking mess.

The Lions might be on a collision course with the worst record in league history, but Sabol doesn't think that, talent-wise, they're at the all-time bottom of the barrel. He says the 1972 and '73 Houston Oilers were worse - teams that posted consecutive 1-13 seasons.

"They were the standard bearer for sustained, incurable losing," Sabol said. "They were so out of sync. Their quarterback, Dan Pastorini, would turn around and try to hand off, and he'd collide with the running back. Throwing passes with no one there. They were so out of sync, it was like watching a dubbed Kung Fu movie."

Bill Peterson was coach of those Oilers and, well, wasn't the best communicator. Sabol recalls working one of those games as a cameraman and, because NFL Films had no on-camera reporters, he had to ask his own questions.

"How's the team's morale holding up?" Sabol asked.

"Morality," Peterson snapped, "has nothing to do with it."

When it comes to rating the all-time worst football teams, Sabol takes the expansion Cowboys of 1960 and the '76 Buccaneers off the table. It's not fair to judge them, he says, pointing out there was no free agency at the time, and none of the special rules the NFL now has in place to help a new franchise get off the ground. In those days, it was sink or swim. Make that stink or swim.

Rich McKay recalls the Buccaneers' receiving just 72 hours before the expansion draft a list of players that teams had made available. That left Tampa Bay with no time to perform physical exams on those players.

"A lot of the players they drafted were medical rejects," McKay recalled. "A lot of them didn't even come to camp. I couldn't describe how bad it was."

It was even worse for his father, who had won four national championships as Southern Cal's coach from 1960 to '75. Although known for his sense of humor, the elder McKay didn't do much laughing that year.

"Because he had some one-line quips that year, I don't think people realized how horrific that whole experience was for him," his son said. "It was like taking off in a jet airplane and finding out that neither engine works."

J.K. McKay, another son, was a receiver on that team, which didn't score its first touchdown until its fourth game and had just one fleeting fourth-quarter lead all season - against Seattle, the league's other expansion team.

"The Lions might go 0-16," J.K. McKay said. "But man for man, we were worse at every position - myself included."

The start-up Seahawks finished 2-14 that season and were coached by Jack Patera, who was a linebacker on the first-year Cowboys, a team that failed to win a game but tied one.

Patera, who said he felt for the Lions, knows that sometimes bad things happen to good people - and good coaches. Tom Landry was coach of those Cowboys, and, Patera said, "I was amazed at what a good teacher he was."

Sabol's Futile Five NFL Teams

The Los Angeles Times asked Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, to list the five worst teams in league history. He took first-year expansion franchises out of consideration, reasoning that "real ineptitude has to develop and percolate over time." Sabol's futile five, along with his comments:

1. 1972 Houston Oilers (1-13):

In every way a team could be measured, they came up short.

2. 1952 Dallas Texans (1-11):

They went bankrupt two-thirds of the way through the season and wound up finishing the year in Hershey, Pa.

3. 1981 Baltimore Colts (2-14):

They had the worst defense in history; gave up the most touchdowns, most points, most yards - everything.

4. 1980 New Orleans Saints (1-15):

Everyone called them the "Aints", and their fans wore bags on their heads. I would put them higher on this list but they had Archie Manning at quarterback.

5. 2008 Detroit Lions (0-15) or 1990 New England Patriots (1-15):

If the Lions lose, they deserve the fifth spot. Otherwise, it goes to the Patriots, who had the worst offense and the second-worst defense, and were coached by the appropriately named Rod Rust. New England also had a logo of that squatting, constipated Patriot. That would have to go down as the worst logo ever.

- Sam Farmer