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How the Seahawks have been one of the best at not being the worst

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Using division standings to establish an NFL misery index.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the Cavaliers are NBA champions, Cleveland has fallen down the lists of most-defeated American cities. But the Browns of course remain among the most moribund NFL franchises; they have finished last in their division five straight times and 11 of the past 13 years. But its long-term tally of 16 bottom placements in the last 40 years actually puts Cleveland ahead of one other NFL franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs have been the worst of their group 19 times in that period, and also have an active streak of five years.

I wanted to look at this 40-year scope because that’s how long the Seahawks have been around, and I noticed while investigating a little-known scheduling formula that pitted Seattle against New England twice in 1993 that the Seahawks finished last only seven times in their history. Indeed, they haven’t done it at all for 20 years. That gives Seattle quite a leg up on its expansion-mates in Tampa, and I was curious how it compared to the rest of the league.

I’m sure Field Gulls readers know better, but I’ve got a feeling some newborn Seahawks fans (as well as football fans more broadly) assume Seattle was perpetually terrible before Pete Carroll arrived.

Maybe my perception of those perceptions is also false, but it’s an insecurity native to a fan whose team definitely also wasn’t perpetually terrific for most of that time. So, even if just to prove it to myself, the first thing I did was check out other teams considered the lowlifes of the league.

NFL Team Last place finishes since 1976
Buccaneers 19
Browns 16
Cardinals 15
Bengals 12
Lions 11
Jets 11
Saints 8

If Dostoyevsky is right and the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by looking at its prisons and slums, then perhaps we can gain some insight into a pro football franchise’s relative success by looking at its frequency of last place finishes.

Of course, this analysis doesn’t tell us everything. It doesn’t account for the difference between mediocrity and playoff qualification, obviously. And not all last place finishes are created equal. Cleveland went 7-9 in 2014 and ended up last in an AFC North when no other squad in the division had fewer than 10 wins. Meanwhile, Jacksonville was 3-13 that year and avoided bottom in the AFC South because Tennessee did even worse.

Moreover, before 1995 the NFL’s unbalanced alignment made it so most teams found themselves somewhat protected in five-team divisions while those competing in four-team divisions had greater mathematical likelihood of a last-place result. Cincinnati’s official count up there likewise doesn’t recognize the two years it finished fifth in a briefly six-team AFC Central after the Browns’ 1999 resurrection but before the Houston Texans joined the league to even things out in 2002.

Plus reaching bottom has undergone inflation in the years after realignment from six to eight divisions made more last-place finishes to go around. Since 2002, teams accumulated 28 more of these humiliations than would have happened in the earlier system, spreading more than four and half years’ worth of extra unhappy endings among the league’s teams.

Either way, so long as we remember this standard of lousiness as a conceptual label rather than an outcome of absolute comparisons, we can have some fun with it.

If I’m surprised by anything in the list above, it’s that Detroit wasn’t worse more often and that New Orleans has been nearly as good by this index as Seattle. The Saints, happily styled the "Aints" by fans and hecklers alike, didn’t win a playoff game until 2000 and carried a historically hapless reputation before winning the Super Bowl in 2009. Evidently a lot of that legacy lingers from before the Seahawks' era, when New Orleans finished last place six out of its first nine years of NFL existence.

The Saints were actually in the NFC West from 1978 until 2002. Here’s how the today’s NFC West teams stack up:

NFL Team Last place finishes since 1976
Cardinals 15
Rams 13
Seahawks 7
49ers 5

The Cardinals already appeared above, but it’s delightful to find any reason to make fun of Arizona these days. Also cool to realize Seattle has done almost as well as San Francisco in this category—and the 49ers stayed out of the division cellar every year I was alive until I turned 23.

NFL Team Last place finishes since 1976
Chiefs 12
Oilers/Titans 11
Bills 11
Redskins 10
Chargers 10
Falcons 10
Bears 10
Colts 9
Giants 8

Here are the other teams with more bottom finishes than Seattle. All of Washington’s last place seasons have come since 1993, including eight in the past 12 years. Atlanta has been a historically undistinguished franchise, but its nadir came in the ’80s when the Falcons finished last seven times.

NFL Team Last place finishes since 1976
Raiders 7
Eagles 7
Seahawks 7
Cowboys 5
Vikings 5
49ers 5
Dolphins 5
Patriots 5
Packers 4
Broncos 3

As you can see only eight teams came in last place more seldom than Seattle (there’s one more, which I’ll reveal shortly). And it makes sense. The Vikings seem out of place maybe, but that’s probably an upside of sharing a division with Tampa Bay for so many years. Otherwise these are the NFL’s true blue bloods for the last four decades.

Among these, I’m mildly impressed by New England. Back when I started with the worst teams my imagination could come up with, I initially included them in the lot. Bill Belichick’s Patriots have strung together a San Franciscan 15 consecutive seasons with a winning record, as we all know, but I was under the impression the franchise had struggled more mightily in the years earlier. Yes, there were two sacrificial Super Bowl appearances in ’85 and ’96, but these were still the same Patriots who managed to finish even worse than the dreadful 1992 Seahawks. Then again breaking perceptions is the point of this exercise.

Before I get to the final team let me acknowledge the four I didn’t include in the tables because they weren’t active yet when Seattle expanded in 1976 so it skews their totals. The Panthers and Ravens each have three last place finishes (since 1995 and ’96 respectively); the Texans are on a horrendous pace of six since 2002; and the Jaguars finished last four times since ’95—although this detail doesn’t reflect how truly poorly Jacksonville has done. The Jags haven’t had more than five wins in any season since 2010 yet get "credit" for only one bottom finish in that time, and also tallied both a fourth- and a fifth-place result while the AFC Central held six teams at the turn of the century. (It’s worth mentioning the Browns’ wretchedness gets measured across 37 seasons, not the full 40, since the franchise disappeared for three years in the 1990s.)

But back to the best in the business: Miami’s five last place seasons gets better still when you peek beyond the 1976 threshold and notice the Dolphins touched futility only six times in their whole 50-year history. In contrast the Broncos’ general excellence during Seattle’s lifetime follows an ignominious AFL experience that saw Denver as the worst team in its division 10 out of 12 years from 1960-71, including nine in a row.

That’s a turnabout outdone only by the …

NFL Team Last place finishes since 1976
Steelers 1

Every Seahawks fan’s favorite, Pittsburgh only fell to the bottom of its division one time ever (1988) since Seattle’s expansion. Even more incredibly, the Steelers did it with the highest degree of difficulty playing in a four-team division all but seven years after 1976, the maximum possible (all divisions had at least five teams from 1995-2001).

In fact, though maybe not surprising due to Pittsburgh’s dominance in the ’70s, that was their only last place finish going all the way back to 1969. However, the Steelers were virtually always awful before that, with winning records in only five of 36 years between 1933 and 1969.

In other words it took nearly 40 years before Pittsburgh was ever reliably good. And yet with six Super Bowl wins it deservedly carries its tradition as one of the best of all NFL franchises.

As a whole, sorting through the bottoms of the standings serves yet another reminder to Seattle fans how grateful they can be for a team that has nearly always stayed competitive. It puts any past misery in perspective with the rest of the league. And even better, although these numbers certainly have no predictive power, the Steelers example adds more hope for the future.

Even the most optimistic Seahawks fans I know carry a slice of extra gratitude for the recent dominance because we expect it will be inevitably temporary. And at least some pride in that understanding comes stapled to the suffering we felt for so long; we believe we carry a complicated humility inside our entitlement. And yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

It may have taken Seattle 38 years to win its first title but a slow start doesn’t forbid them, with the right kind of leadership, from ruling the NFL for the next half century.