The 2020 New York Jets have sunk to almost unfathomable lows. By at least one measure, this may be the worst team in modern NFL history.
What do I mean by modern NFL history? There are two critical team building developments that happened in the early 1990s that changed how NFL teams are constructed. In 1993 the age of modern free agency began. Prior to 1993 it was much more difficult for players to attain free agency, and more costly for teams to sign free agents. For years the NFL threw up barriers to free agency, including, among others, the right of first refusal for teams losing free agents and mandatory compensation paid by a team signing a free agent to the team losing that free agent. These barriers greatly suppressed the free agent market, making rebuilding a much more lengthy and difficult process. In addition, in 1994 the salary cap was introduced. The salary cap made it extremely difficult for the league’s most talented teams to hang onto all of their talented players. The good teams had too many good players to pay them all. This went a long way to further opening up the free agent market, as teams had no choice but to accept a certain number of good players would hit the free market every year. Between the changes to the free agent rules and the implementation of the salary cap, rebuilds that once took many years of careful drafting now could be accelerated through shrewd free agent acquisitions. For the best teams it became more difficult to stay on top, and for the worst teams it became easier to get out of the cellar. So by modern NFL history, I mean the time beginning with the year 1994 and continuing to the present.
In modern NFL history the worst team ever put together in terms of point differential was the 2009 St. Louis Rams. That 2009 Rams team had a point differential of -261 points over 16 games. The 2020 New York Jets through eight games have a point differential of -144 points. If we prorate that point differential over a full 16 game season, the Jets are on pace to finish the 2020 season with a -288 point differential. That would top the 2009 Rams by an enormous 27 points, or more than 10% of the 2009 Rams point differential. There is no guarantee that the Jets will continue to put up such awful performances in the second half of the 2020 season, but for now, they are on pace to be the worst team ever constructed in the modern era, by a wide margin.
So where do we go from here? It is often said that in the modern era, rebuilds happen quickly, and no team is more than a couple of years away from being a contender if they make good decisions. But is that really how things usually play out? Let’s take a look at the 20 worst teams in the modern era, based on point differential, and how long it took each team to make it back to a .500 record. A quick note here: the Kotite Jets weren’t quite as bad as people remember. Those two years don’t even make it into the worst 30 teams in the modern era. The 1996 Jets rank 31st in the modern era with a -175 point differential, and the 1995 Jets rank 60th at -151. Anyone telling you that this is what it was like during the Kotite years, well, no it isn’t. This is much, much worse.
Here are the 20 worst teams in the modern era, their point differentials, and the time it took to climb back to .500.
- 2009 Rams, -261, 8 years
- 2000 Browns, -258, 2 years
- 2008 Lions, -249, 3 years
- 2000 Cardinals, -233, 7 years
- 2008 Rams, -233, 9 years
- 2009 Lions, -232, 2 years
- 2003 Cardinals, -227, 4 years
- 1999 Browns, -220, 3 years
- 2012 Chiefs, -214, 1 year
- 2011 Rams, -214, 6 years
- 2010 Panthers, -212, 3 years
- 2011 Buccaneers, -207, 5 years
- 2013 Jaguars, -202, 4 years
- 2018 Cardinals, -200, 2 years? (Looks like they’ll be a .500 or better team this year)
- 2014 Raiders, -199, 2 years
- 2004 49ers, -193, 5 years
- 2012 Jaguars, -189, 5 years
- 2005 49ers, -189, 4 years
- 2016 Browns, -188, 4 years? (Looks like they’ll be a .500 or better team this year)
- 2019 Dolphins, -188, Unknown
A few things of note here. First, the number of teams that appear multiple times here is a bit disconcerting. The 2008, 2009 and 2011 Rams are all on the list. The 2008 and 2009 Lions are on the list. The 1999 and 2000 Browns are on the list. Those are the three worst franchises atop the list. It seems when you sink this low you tend to stay really terrible for a while. The 2012 and 2013 Jaguars are on the list. The 2004 and 2005 49ers are on the list. In all more than half the list consists of repeat offenders. That does not bode well for the Jets’ chances of making a quick recovery next year.
Looking at the teams that got back to .500 the quickest, we have the 2012 Chiefs alone atop the list. They were back to respectability by the very next year. In fact they made the playoffs the next year. This seems to be a case of poor coaching (Romeo Crennel) and bad quarterbacks (Matt Cassell and Brady Quinn) holding back an otherwise talented team, much like the Kotite Jets. That 2012 Chiefs team had six Pro Bowl players on it, four on defense. The next year Andy Reid took over the coaching, Alex Smith took over at quarterback, and the Chiefs were in the playoffs.
Next up we have the 2000 Browns, the 2009 Lions, the 2014 Raiders and possibly the 2018 Cardinals, all at two years before they returned to respectability. The 2000 Browns were an expansion team in their second year of existence. Two years later they finished 9-7. Nice job building the franchise, right? Well, maybe not. Since 2002 the Browns have had one winning season in the last17 years. That doesn’t sound like a model anyone would want to follow.
The 2009 Lions brought in a new head coach, Jim Schwartz, and a new quarterback, Matthew Stafford, after the 2008 Lions went 0-16. Two years later the Lions were in the playoffs with a 10 win season. However, over the next eight years the Lions had just one double digit win season, two playoff berths and zero playoff victories. Again, that doesn’t sound like a model to follow.
The 2014 Raiders had rookie Derek Carr at quarterback. They brought in Jack Del Rio to coach the team in 2015, and by 2016 the Raiders won 12 games before losing in the wild card round of the playoffs. That was an excellent two year recovery, but the follow through left much to be desired. The Raiders have not had a winning season since 2016.
So we have three teams that got back to respectability, and in fact got to the playoffs within two years, but each of them immediately fell back into the dregs of the NFL. That’s not encouraging. The rest of the teams on the list took anywhere from 3 years to 9 years to get back to respectability.
The only team on the list to subsequently win a Super Bowl is the Chiefs, who won the Super Bowl last year, seven years after landing on the list. The Chiefs have had six playoff berths in the seven years since they appeared on the list. They are the only franchise that has had a sustained run of success after appearing on the list.
The Cardinals lost a Super Bowl and managed four playoff berths in the 19 years after they first appeared on the list. The Rams lost a Super Bowl and had two playoff berths in the 11 years since they first appeared on the list. The 49ers lost two Super Bowls and had 4 playoff berths in 14 years since first appearing on the list. The Jaguars had just one playoff berth in seven years since first appearing on the list. And finally the Buccaneers have not made the playoffs in the 8 years since they first appeared on the list.
What does it all mean? History is not destiny. This Jets team is unique, and may not follow the same path as its predecessors on the list. But if history is a guide, making the list brings a franchise to such depths it is difficult to extricate themselves and achieve lasting success. Only the Chiefs accomplished that feat, and they were already a loaded team at the time that just needed a new head coach and a quarterback, not an enormous infusion of talent at all levels. A few other teams made it to the Super Bowl, but none managed a long run of success. For most teams on the list, it was a long road back to respectability, and sustained winning eludes them to this day.
If you believe the Jets, with their cap space and draft capital, are just a year away from respectability, history suggests you are being overly optimistic. If you think the Jets are just two good drafts away from being a real contender, again, history suggests that isn’t likely. Unfortunately for Jets fans, once you reach this level of ineptitude, it’s usually a long, slow slog back to the playoffs, let alone sustained success. The most likely scenario is the Jets are three or more years away from a playoff berth. The silver lining, if there is one? For those of you who want Adam Gase gone, every franchise on the list fired their head coach the year they first made the list. Every, franchise, that is, except the Browns. The expansion Browns of 1999 - 2000 knew they were going to struggle out of the gate, and gave their head coach some slack. And the 2016 Browns stuck with Hue Jackson after a first year in which he went 1-15. It took a winless second year before Jackson was let go. If Adam Gase is still the head coach of the Jets in 2021, he would be the only coach on the list (assuming, as seems inevitable, the 2020 Jets make the list) ever to survive coaching a non-expansion team in any year other than his first year with the team.