Rock bottom. We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve drunk-texted an ex, cried after failing a midterm or eaten an entire large pizza by yourself (I may or may not have done all three in one night). No matter how you’ve gotten there, you’ve felt like it can’t get worse than that. There is no rock bottom’s bottom.
In the NFL, there is a universal understanding of what rock bottom is — the winless season. The shameful 16 has inspired some of the most infamous sports moments of all time — Detroit Lions fans wearing paper bags over their heads with 0-16 plastered on the front, Cleveland Browns fans holding an ironic parade for the “Perfect Season 2.0” and the Colts literally leaving Baltimore after their goose-egg season. These are picture-perfect examples of rock bottom.
But there’s a fate far worse than 0-16 record. There is a more devastating legacy than the winless season. There’s a bottom deeper than rock. It’s the 1-15. And not the team that won only one game, but the team who gave the worst team in the league their only victory — the team that put the one in one and 15.
There have only been 10 teams in NFL history that have won one game. Recent examples include the 2016 Cleveland Browns, the 2009 St. Louis Rams and the 2007 Miami Dolphins. Without a doubt, these 1-15 teams were by far and away the worst overall team in their respective seasons.
But they weren’t the saddest or most pathetic team by any means. That title belongs to the teams that were beaten by the Browns, Rams, Dolphins or any other team with only one win. Those dreaded organizations, the franchises that lost to the worst teams, should get their own special chapter in the history books. They belong in rock bottom’s bottom.
It might seem contradictory, at first glance, to think that a team like the 2007 Ravens, who had a 5-11 record, were worse than the aforementioned Dolphins, whose only victory was against that Ravens team. Simple math would indicate that a .3125 win rate is greater than .0625 win rate (literally five times greater). Yet it was still far better to be the Dolphins than the Ravens.
The Dolphins knew they were laughable. They dwelled on it. Their starting quarterbacks were Cleo Lemon, Trent Green and Johnathan Lawrence. That last name I completely made up, but it doesn’t matter because you didn’t know who the first two quarterbacks were anyway. No one believed in the Dolphins. Talking heads, pundits and bloggers asked for 17-straight weeks if Miami was the worst team in NFL history. Put succinctly, the Dolphins lived in the rock bottom.
The Ravens, on the other hand, were bad, but not that bad. They had four wins coming into their matchup with the Miami, which, while poor, was certainly nowhere near the historic atrocity that was Miami’s 2007 campaign. Nor were they the subject of media attention or national scrutiny, because who cares about a subpar team in a small market? They lived in a place above rock bottom — mediocrity. We might be bad, mediocre teams say, but at least we aren’t them.
But the 2016 Chargers, 2008 Lions, 2007 Ravens and any other “one in one and 15” don’t get to say that. They don’t have the luxury of punching down to the next-lowest team on the totem pole. Mediocrity isn’t just mediocrity for them. Because they lost to rock bottom.
Rock bottom in it of itself isn’t the worst place to be. For teams that are 0-16 or 1-15, it really can’t get worse. You’ll get the first draft pick, develop some promising young players and eventually get back into the fray.
But mediocrity doesn’t carry with it the same level of optimism that rock bottom does. Mediocre teams are hopelessly trapped in the “just OK.” And while alone this seems manageable, when you couple it with the worst losses one can endure, mediocre teams crash through rock bottom to an all-time low. When you lose to a historically terrible team that’s the laughingstock of the league, you arrive at rock bottom’s bottom.
No one is doomed to stay at rock bottom. We can all apologize for drunken calls, study harder for the next midterm, make smarter eating choices or draft and develop talent better. But the biggest trap of leaving rock bottom is settling for mediocrity and thinking that it can’t get worse than that. Because it can. The ones in one and 15 are living proof that the worst is never truly the worst. Put another way, rock bottom has its own bottom.