Chasing perfection and imperfection
Fittingly, only two teams have achieved the two poles of the 16-game NFL season.
There is the New England Patriots of 2007, the scenery-chewing offensive juggernaut that featured nine All-Pros and scored 315 more points than its opponents over the course of the year, an NFL record, as it cruised to 16-0.
And then there’s the Detroit Lions of 2008, coached by Rod Marinelli and featuring zero Pro Bowlers, a minus 249-point differential, three different starting quarterbacks, and an infinite amount of sorrow.
We were able to hold on to the hope of a new 0-16 team — one of the most beautiful, insane achievements in sports — for a pretty long time this season, but the dream died this week, with both the feckless Jaguars and the surprisingly unlucky Bucs finally grabbing their first wins.
On the other hand, we still have the Kansas City Chiefs, 9-0 at their bye week, with a possible — though highly unlikely — shot at 16-0. Sure, it’ll take two victories over the juggernaut Broncos, but hey: Peyton’s ankle is sketchy; football’s a weird game; who knows!
It is not surprising that the Bucs finally won; they should’ve beaten the Seahawks last week, but, in true Schiano-man fashion, wasted their lead in the face of an absolutely possessed Russell Wilson.
Their point differential isn’t even that bad: -63, better than that of the Falcons (!), Giants, Texans (!!), and Jaguars. (Yes: the Falcons and Texans are, in at least this way, worse than the Bucs are.) (Also, and even weirder: the Bucs’ point differential is only one worse than the Jets’, and the Jets are 5-4.)
The Jaguars, on the other hand, are truly bad, with a point differential of minus 176 that is 98 points worst than the next closest and still on pace to be the worst in NFL history.
But this is key: the Jags are on pace to score less points than their opponents than any team has and they still managed to win a game. Meanwhile, the Patriots, holders of the record for best point differential, did not lose until the playoffs. So what’s harder: going undefeated or going winless?
My money’s on winless.
When you’re an NFL team that has yet to win a football game, your motivation is absolute: You do not want to go into the offseason joining the most ignominious football company that exists.
And you’re playing against the playoff-bound teams that want to crush you, sure, but you’re also taking on teams like the ones that the Jaguars and Bucs beat this weekend: teams like the Titans, who lose their starting quarterback in the middle of the game; teams like the Dolphins, who have been wrapped up all week in one of the worst locker-room scandals of the last few years.
It says something about both the Jags and Bucs that they still almost managed to lose these games, but they didn’t; they won.
Meanwhile, it’s unlikely that the Chiefs will go 16-0 for a few different reasons: they’re not that much better than their opposition; they could be hit by injuries; they might just have a bad day or night.
It’s also important to remember that for the Chiefs, 16-0 would be nice, but it isn’t the priority. NFL teams have to prepare for the playoffs first and foremost once they enter the back quarter of the season. Even if the chance is there that they could win the rest of their games, most coaches will still rest their quarterback or some of their starters because 16-0, in the minds of fans, players, coaches, and executives, is nothing compared to a Super Bowl ring. (The 2007 Patriots, everyone!)
On the other hand, when you’re staring 0-16 in the face, you’re looking at infamy, the absolute bottom of your profession, complete and total failure.
You might still be getting paid, but in every other way, you’re a disaster. No player wants that. And no player, or coach, or executive, is going to punt the last few games of a season in order to go 0-16. (We can talk about tanking, but there are few seasons in which a team would need zero wins to have a shot at the last spot. If that comes into play, that changes the conversation to some extent, but with the roulette wheel that is the NFL Draft, it’s rarely at issue anyway.)
So: it may actually be harder to go 0-16 than 16-0. Let’s appreciate that Lions team even more.