It seems like training camp just opened, and we’ve already put another NFL regular season in the books. But as we sit on the eve of the 2012-13 playoffs, I want to turn my attention to the unfortunates — the teams that haven’t won a National Football League title since I’ve even been alive. While there are some pretty good franchises on this list, it’s mostly a collection of clubs that have come to represent football futility for most.
Unlike the other major American sports leagues, the NFL has seen fit to establish a clear distinction between the pre- and post-Super Bowl eras. I have never bought into that line of thinking, and so I count Super Bowls, NFL titles, and AFL titles equally. If you think that’s bunk, I’m not going to try to change your mind.
(Note: Season totals are accurate through the end of the 2013 NFL regular season.)
#10 – Miami Dolphins (40 seasons)
I spend a lot of time watching classic Super Bowl highlight films on DVD, so it’s hard for me to conceive of a time when the Dolphins weren’t perennial title contenders. And yet they last hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy after Super Bowl VIII in January 1974. That was seven months before President Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal and barely four years after the Beatles broke up.
Miami did, however, remain a competitive franchise for another decade or so. They even returned to the Super Bowl twice in the ’80s — losing Super Bowl XVII to the Redskins and XIX to the 49ers. It’s been less rosy since then. The last playoff win for the Fins came against the Colts in the 2000 Wild Card round. Since that season Miami has just two playoff appearances and five winning seasons.
#9 – Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings (44 seasons)
Those of you with good math skills might have already figured out that the last taste of glory for both the Chiefs and Vikings came during the 1969 season. In the final year before the AFL/NFL merger, Minnesota claimed the NFL crown while Kansas City conquered the AFL. The two squads met in Super Bowl IV and the Chiefs dominated for their last league title of any kind.
Minnesota of course went on to lose three more Super Bowls in the ’70s, while Kansas City quickly faded into irrelevance. Since their last Super Bowl appearance (XI), the Vikings have made the playoffs 18 times and advanced to the NFC Championship in 1977, 1987, 1998, and 2009. The Chiefs did not win another playoff game after Super Bowl IV until 1991, and have only won three in total.
#8 – New York Jets (45 seasons)
I shouldn’t even have to tell you when the last time the Jets won the Super Bowl was, because the franchise has spent the ensuing four-plus decades milking ever-diminishing returns from its glory. While the 1970s were a brutal decade for New York, there have been bright spots since then. But there has also been much pain and frustration.
The Jets made the playoffs four times in the ’80s, including the ’82-’83 round. There they fell to the Dolphins and A.J. Duhe in a muddy AFC title game in the Orange Bowl. Things got rather ugly for several years but New York returned to the AFC Championship after the ’98 season, only to get run over by Denver’s Terrell Davis.
Most recently, the Jets made it back to the conference title game in 2010, where they were unable to beat the Steelers after spotting them 24 points in the first half.
#7 – Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns (46 seasons)
The Bengals are the first franchise on this list to have never won a championship in team history. Their playoff history in general is rather light, as they’ve played in just 15 total postseason games since 1968. Two of them, however, were Super Bowls.
They lost twice to San Francisco, first in Super Bowl XVI and then Super Bowl XXIII. Cincy’s last playoff win came against the Houston Oilers in the 1990/91 Wild Card round, giving them the longest active streak without a postseason victory in the NFL (along with the Detroit Lions).
It’s impossible to imagine now, but once upon a time the Cleveland Browns were a damn good franchise. After owning the short-lived AAFC, the Browns won three NFL championships from 1950-1955, and made it to the title game the other three years. They claimed their last title to date in 1964, when they blanked John Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. They remained strong throughout the remainder of the ’60s.
After that? Well, just fast forward to the mid ’80s, when Cleveland lost three heartbreaking AFC Championship games to the Denver Broncos, including The Drive and The Fumble. The team won their last playoff game in 1994, and moved to Baltimore after the ’95 season. The new Browns debuted in 1999 and have pretty much set up shop in the AFC North basement since.
#6 – Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills (48 seasons)
The Falcons are the oldest franchise on this list (established 1966) to never win a league title. It took them until 1978, in fact, to notch their first playoff win. The closest Atlanta has come to taking it all was in 1998, when the Dirty Birds advanced to Super Bowl XXXIII and were soundly beaten by John Elway and the Broncos.
Despite the team’s recent run of success with quarterback Matt Ryan, Atlanta sits exactly 100 games under .500 for their regular season history. That said, the team looks poised to contend for their first title for the next several years.
The Buffalo Bills, on the other hand, appear nowhere close to their first crown since the 1965 American Football League season. They of course joined the Vikings in NFL infamy by appearing in and losing four Super Bowls to open the 1990s, but haven’t even made the playoffs in the 21st century. In fact, the Bills haven’t even had a winning season since 2004.
#5 – San Diego Chargers (50 seasons)
The Chargers have enjoyed four periods in their history when they could be considered legitimate title contenders. But the only time they cashed in was during the first half of the AFL’s existence. San Diego appeared in five AFL championship games under Sid Gillman from 1960 through 1965, and came away with one crown — a 1963 win over the Boston Patriots.
The team made it to two AFC championship games in the early ’80s but came up short both times. They finally made it to the Big Game in 1994, where they were trounced by the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. Under head coaches Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner, the Bolts won five AFC West divisional titles but advanced out of the divisional round just once.
#4 – Tennessee Titans (52 seasons)
Two of the AFL crowns the Chargers didn’t win (1960 & 1961) went instead to the Houston Oilers. Since then the franchise, which moved to Tennessee in 1997, has had a fair amount of playoff appearances with not much to show for it. They almost took a third straight AFL title in ’63 but lost in a double-overtime thriller to the Dallas Texans (Kansas City Chiefs).
The Luv Ya Blue Oilers of the late ’70s won games and the hearts of Houstonians, but were stalled twice in the AFC Championship game by the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the late ’80s and early ’90s the Oilers made seven straight playoff appearances but advanced no further than the divisional round.
As the Tennessee Titans, the franchise has racked up three divisional titles since 1999. They advanced to Super Bowl XXXIV against the St. Louis Rams, and lost one of the all-time great Super Bowls when Kevin Dyson was tackled one yard shy of the goal line. Since then, the Titans have made the playoffs five more times and gotten as far as the AFC Championship (after the 2002 season).
#3 – Philadelphia Eagles (53 seasons)
If you were born the last time the Eagles won an NFL title, you would be eligible for membership in AARP by now. That would be the 1960 season by the way, when Philly notched their third league crown. They then went dormant until Dick Vermeil arrived in the late ’70s and made it to Super Bowl XV — where they got smacked down by the Oakland Raiders.
Philadelphia was a good, albeit inconsistent, club from the late ’80s through the mid ’90s. But they had just two Wild Card victories from 1988 through 1998, and so the Andy Reid era began in ’99. The zenith of Reid’s tenure was the 2004 season, when his Eagles cruised past the Vikings and Falcons en route to a narrow Super Bowl XXXIX loss against the New England Patriots.
#2 – Detroit Lions (56 seasons)
The Lions have played well over 1,000 games as a member of the NFL, but shockingly few of them have been in the postseason. Since 1932 — the first year of the NFL playoffs — Detroit has won seven postseason games, but has made the most of those wins. They took the NFL crown in 1935, 1952, 1953, and lastly in 1957.
Since the 1957 season? Three divisional titles, ten playoff appearances, and one playoff win. One. That was a 38-6 thrashing of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1991 divisional round. Three times since ’57 the Lions have gone at least 10 seasons without a playoff appearance. Ouch.
#1 – Arizona Cardinals (66 seasons)
Futility, thy name is the Cardinals. As a charter member of the NFL, Chicago/St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona has had more opportunities than most franchises to win games and titles. And as you might have guessed, they’ve squandered those opportunities most thoroughly.
Since the advent of the playoff era in 1932 the Cards have a lone league title to their credit, won against the Eagles in 1947. As in two years after World War II ended. That took place when the franchise was in Chicago. Their time in St. Louis (1960 – 1987) was basically a bust from a competitive standpoint, as the team won two divisional titles and no playoff games.
Things got little better after a move to the desert. The Cardinals’ first two decades in the Grand Canyon State yielded one postseason win, a stunning 20-7 upset of the Cowboys in the 1998 NFC Wild Card round. Then of course there was the magical 2008 season, when head coach Ken Whisenhunt and QB Kurt Warner led Arizona to nine wins, an NFC West crown, and an appearance in Super Bowl XLIII.
Since Warner’s departure the Cardinals have returned to earth, and have failed to make the playoffs since 2009. Their 5-11 record in 2012 leaves the franchise more than 200 games (regular and postseason combined) under .500. Double ouch.
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