There have been plenty of NFL teams that have rolled through their opponents and then struggled to reach .500, but we’ll be counting down the worst culprits. Which teams started the season roaring like a lion, but finished like a sacrificial lamb?
Honorable Mentions (5)
5. The 1986 New York Jets (10-1 to 10-6, plus a playoff choke to Cleveland)
This is an entry that could only be the lowest of honorable mentions, as it wasn’t a conventional collapse. The Jets started 10-1, and seemed positively unstoppable. Ken O’Brien finally showed Jets fans why they passed on Dan Marino in 1983 for him, as he and an offense featuring Wesley Walker and Al Toon romped all over the NFL, beating the future AFC Champion Broncos by 12 points and winning a wild 51-45 shootout against the Dolphins. After a Week 11 win over the soon-to-be 3-13 Colts, The Jets’ base fell out, as they suffered through the remaining 5 games of their season. The offense fumbled around and could never get anything going, Scoring 10 or fewer points three times in this stretch, something they had only done once (in their loss) throughout the season. The defense also seemed to get worse as the season ended, giving up 45, 17, 24, 45 and 52 points in the final 5 games. As New York entered the playoffs, they seemed dazed and unfocused, and choked away a manageable lead against the Browns late in the game to lose in OT in a game that is now known as “The Miracle on the Lake”.
4. The 2008 Dallas Cowboys (8-4 to 9-7, missed playoffs)
The 2008 Cowboys were coming off a fantastic 13-3 season in 2007, and looked poised to make another run at a Super Bowl. Although they started out 8-4, Dallas fans were pleased, believing their team had a playoff spot away and secured. Terrell Owens and Tony Romo had fantastic chemistry, but there was clearly a leadership problem, as the nearly anonymous Wade Phillips struggled to take control of his team. What followed was an ugly collapse that saw the Cowboys lose the final game played in Texas Stadium to the Ravens, along with a close loss to the Steelers and a blowout in Week 17 to the Eagles, 44-6. The Cowboys finished 9-7, missing the playoffs. What makes this even more painful for Dallas fans is that in Week 7, the Cowboys lost a very winnable game against the 2-14 St. Louis Rams. Had they won that game, they would have made the playoffs despite the collapse.
3. The 1977 Cleveland Browns (5-2 to 6-8)
The 1977 Browns can be looked at as a precursor to the famous Kardiac Kids, as they did anything but provide fans with exciting finishes. The Brian Sipe-led Browns seemed like a contender at first, starting 5-2, destroying Kansas City 44-7 and losing their two games to the understandably strong Steelers and Raiders. After their fast start, the Browns tripped and faceplanted to a 1-6 finish, losing repeatedly close games to inferior foes.
2. The 1988 Los Angeles Raiders (6-5 to 7-9)
The Raiders, unlike other teams on the list, didn’t start off very well. Despite Tim Brown beginning his NFL debut by returning the opening kickoff of their first game for a touchdown, they began 3-5 but quickly adjusted to win their next three games. Feeling a turnaround was in store, Raider fans raised the L.A. Colosseum to a deafening roar, one that seemed to silence the Raiders. Losing a game to the 5-11 Falcons began their descent, as they lost tough games against the division winning Seahawks (twice) and the AFC East champion Bills, placing their final record at a tepid 7-9.
1. The 1996 Houston Oilers (6-3 to 8-8)
Right before the Oilers moved to Tennessee, they were still the Oilers, but nobody payed attention to them. After a terrible 1994 campaign and a lukewarm 1995 season, the Oilers started strong, riding rookie running back Eddie George and a young Steve McNair to early success. After suffering through negligent attendance levels the previous two seasons, Houston finally was receiving attention from the people of the city, but quickly yanked away any reason to go to Oiler games. Houston dropped 5 of their next 8 games, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs.
Other considerations: 1998 Steelers (7-4 to 7-9), 1994 Jets (6-5 to 6-10), 1995 Rams (5-2 to 7-9)
Onto the real list.
10. The 1999 New England Patriots
Pete Carroll’s thinking face.
After a 1996 season in which the Patriots reached the Super Bowl (and lost), Bill Parcells was fired and the excitable Pete Carroll was brought in. At that time, Carroll was regarded as a college coach who was way out of his depth in the NFL, coaching only one season (a 6-10 season in 1994 with the Jets, who were on the honorable mentions list). After moderately successful 10-6 and 9-7 finishes in 1997 and 1998, the Patriots were trendy AFC picks in 1999. Trouble loomed before the season began, however. Second-year running back Robert Edwards, who rushed for over 1,100 yards in 1998, was injured in a rookie beach game in Hawaii and was out for the season. The Patriots’ rushing attack plummeted to 23rd in the league as a result. However, behind the hot hand of a still-young Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots sprinted out of the gate with a 6-2 mark, and people all around the East coast were breaking their ankles to hop aboard the New England bandwagon. But, just as soon as they had jumped on, they were jumping off again, as the Patriots went 2-6 in the second half of the season, losing five divisional games that crippled their playoff hopes. The Patriots ended up finishing 8-8, and Pete Carroll was fired.
9. The 2000 New York Jets
Here’s a trivia question for you: Who coached the 2000 New York Jets?
A) Rich Kotite
B) Bill Parcells
C) Herman Edwards
D) Bruce Coslet
The answer is E, none of the above. The man to guide the Jets was Al Groh. Following a miraculous 12-4 season in 1998 and a disappointing 8-8 finish in 1999, Bill Parcells was replaced as head coach with the previously mentioned Groh. The Jets started out extremely hot, winning 6 of their first 8 games, including a game known as the Monday Night Miracle, in which the Dolphins choked away a 30-7 lead to lose the game 40-37 (hurts to even write it). After that game, it seemed the Jets had ran out of steam, losing their next three but winning three after that. Needing a win to possibly secure a playoff spot, the Jets seemed poised to rise above that challenge. Instead, they were crunched 31-7 by the Raiders, and then lost at home to the Lions 10-7, missing a tying field goal as time expired. It all came down to Week 17, as the Jets faced the vaunted 2000 Ravens defense. They began with a no-huddle attack, and actually had very good success, jumping out to an early 14-0 lead over one of the best defenses ever. However, Vinny Testaverde threw an interception that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown, and the bottom fell out. Jermaine Lewis returned two punts for touchdowns, as the Jets fell 34-20, missing the playoffs. Shortly after the season was finished, Al Groh resigned, leaving to coach the University of Virginia’s football program.
8. The 1978 Washington Redskins
1978 was the first year the NFL was introduced to the 16 game schedule, and had they played only 14 games, the Redskins may have qualified for the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t how it worked out. Washington started with a surprising 6-0 record under head coach Jack Pardee, and Redskins fans reached a fever pitch. This team looked like it could have made a deep playoff run, if not challenged for a title…if the league only played 6 games. The Redskins then proceeded to crumble to a 2-8 record as the season progressed, including a Thanksgiving Day embarrassment at the hands of the Cowboys. Bad things seemed to follow the Redskins as time went on, as they finished 10-6 in 1979 but failed to make the playoffs. In 1980, they went 6-10, and Jack Pardee was fired.
Although it is remembered more as a collapse, Joe Theismann claims that the 1978 season was a catalyst for their championship 1982 season and their 14-2 wreckage of the NFL in 1983.
1978 was a disappointment, but I think that that year, we had leaders come out on both sides of the ball that helped us reach the Super Bowl a few years later.
7. The 1996 Kansas City Chiefs
The 1996 Chiefs came into the year as a powerhouse, being predicted by Sports Illustrated to be the eventual winners of Super Bowl XXXI after a dominating 13-3 campaign in 1995. At first, Sports Illustrated looked pretty wise, as Kansas City started 8-3, putting only 1 of 3 losses in Denver’s record that year. The Chiefs began 8-3 against a surprisingly competitive AFC West, and were leisurely walking through the NFL. A playoff spot was absolutely guaranteed, no question. Apparently nobody told Kansas City. An offense led by 64-year old Marcus Allen suddenly stalled, as Kansas City started losing games. With a 9-6 record, the Chiefs traveled up to Buffalo to take on the over-the-hill Bills, but were manhandled 20-9 in Jim Kelly’s last hurrah. The Chiefs missed the playoffs, beginning a spell of unfortunate missteps and playoff defeats in the organization.
6. The 2008 New York Jets
In a nearly identical pattern to Kansas City in 1996, the Jets relied on the services of a once gleaming offensive weapon who now carried a pair of dentures in his pocket. 39-year old Brett Favre was brought in to guide the Jets to an AFC East title and a championship run. Early on, signs looked good for the Jets. The Patriots lost Tom Brady for the year, and suddenly the AFC East was wide-open. New York looked like the class of the AFC, as they began 8-3 in an offensive explosion, with point totals of 56 and 47 over Arizona and St. Louis. But then…silence. Brett Favre was clearly injured but insisted on playing, but his throws began to get weaker and weaker. The Jets could generate no offense, and their defense was “Cavred” up. The nail in the coffin was to play the Dolphins at home in 2008, a team that had finished 1-15 in 2007. Chad Pennington, once the starting quarterback for the Jets, had been kicked to the curb to make room for Brett Favre. Miami picked him up, employed a new Wildcat offensive scheme, and slam-danced through the NFL. Against the Jets, it was no different, as Pennington and the Dolphins beat New York 24-17, clinching the AFC East title for the Dolphins and costing the Jets a potential playoff spot. Tom Curran, a New England sportswriter, provided a valid point.
I think there was a higher power at stake. We can’t have Brett Favre, with the Jets, in the playoffs. So I think God intervened.
5. The 1986 Dallas Cowboys
Now we’re getting into the real nitty-gritty. Coming off a 10-6 record in 1985 in which they were stomped by the L.A. Rams in the playoffs, the Dallas dynasty was teetering on its heels. The squad was aging, and the game was starting to pass head coach Tom Landry by. Heismann Trophy winner Herschel Walker was drafted out of Georgia in 1986, and he provided instant dividends. With bulldozer power and unnatural speed for someone his size, Walker ambushed an unprepared NFL, as he carried the offense. Danny White also made plays when he had to. Dallas rose above expectations to begin 6-2, and speculation was about that Tom Landry would win the Super Bowl and then retire. Too bad for Tom, but it’s not quite that easy. Defenses began to realize what a threat Walker was, and began to key on him and play especially rough against Danny White, attempting to injure him and force inexperienced Steve Pelluer in at quarterback. Both these strategies worked, combined with a tough schedule, and Dallas hit a brick wall, going 1-7 in the remaining games, finishing with a losing record for the first time since 1965. Following this season, Dallas proceeded to go 7-8, 3-13 and 1-15 as the aging veterans of the team began to bog down.
4. The 1987 San Diego Chargers
1987 was an interesting season, as a player’s strike took place after only two weeks of play. One game off of each team’s schedule was canceled, and three games were played by replacement “scab” players. Despite many teams’ struggles with these players (particularly Minnesota, who went 0-3 with replacements), the Chargers surprised all by winning all three of their replacement player games. The Chargers were 4-1, and after the regular players returned, San Diego proceeded to rattle off four more victories. However, upon closer examination, the Chargers were consistently getting lucky in close game situations, winning games with scores like 10-9, 17-13, 16-14 and 16-13. They were quite possibly the luckiest and most overrated 8-1 team in history. But luck can always turn on you, and there’s no better example than San Diego that year. The Chargers fizzled out to finish their remaining games with a horrifying 0-6 record, and the Chargers finished 8-7, missing the playoffs. After the season, veterans Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow retired, but it was a bitter and improper season for them to retire on.
3. The 1994 Philadelphia Eagles
The term “Going the full Kotite” exists for a reason. After several underachieving seasons in previous years, the Eagles started 7-2, mainly behind the near superhuman abilities of Randall Cunningham. The Eagles also walloped the future Super Bowl champion 49ers 40-8, in a game where Steve Young was pulled mid-third quarter. Rich Kotite was the toast of the league. But as soon as fame enveloped him, it escaped him. The Eagles resembled a slowly sinking ship, losing their next 7 games thanks to the costly interceptions of the once heroic Cunningham, along with consistently idiotic coaching decisions. Rich Kotite was not Vince Lombardi anymore, he morphed back into Rich Kotite. The low point occurred in the season’s final week, as the 2-13 Bengals scored on a fumbled kick return in the final seconds to win 33-30. After the season, Kotite was predictably fired.
2. The 1995 Oakland Raiders
The 1995 Raiders is a lesson to us all about how much injuries can screw up your season. After relocating from Los Angeles in 1994, the Raiders treated their new Oakland fans with an 8-2 start, with wins over the near-Super Bowl bound Colts and the unexpectedly dangerous “Shake ‘n Blake” Bengals. Raider-mania was picking up, but key injuries, most notably one to starting quarterback Jeff Hostetler, derailed the season and the Mike White-led Raiders dropped their final 6 games to finish at .500. The Raiders didn’t find their way out of the storm after this season until 2002, in which they reached the Super Bowl. After that, Oakland reached the absolute bottom, and have played horrible football ever since. Currently, they sit at a predictably laughable 0-8 record in 2014.
1. The 1993 Miami Dolphins
This one stings. And by that, I mean it really stings. The Dolphins’ best chance to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1984 was right there, and they blew it. The ’93 Dolphins are a textbook definition of “collapse” in sport, and it can all be traced back to a Week 6 win over Cleveland. In this game, Dan Marino tore his achilles, and was out for the rest of the season. The immortal Scott Mitchell came in to fill in, and actually had a few really nice games for Miami, bringing their 4-1 record to 9-2. Miami’s final win was a Thanksgiving Day triumph over the Cowboys, in which Leon Lett lost the game for Dallas by touching the ball on a blocked field goal, giving the Dolphins another chance to win that they gladly took. After that game, the Dolphins never won again. After dropping a 5-point decision to the Giants, Miami suffered an agonizing 1-point loss to Pittsburgh before getting outscored 92-54 in two games to Buffalo and San Diego. In their last game, Miami faced the lowly Patriots, and needed to win only this game to secure a playoff berth. New England had suffered 1-15 and 2-14 seasons in 1990 and 1992, and were a lowly, talentless 4-11 going into the game. Drew Bledsoe yanked it away from the Dolphins, however, as he threw a touchdown to Michael Timpson in OT to secure a 33-27 New England victory. Miami finished 9-7, missing the playoffs, and to this day remains a bitter memory for Dolphins fans.