In 1980, a New York City rock outfit called the Talking Heads released a single off their new studio album. The song, “Once in a Lifetime,” follows lead singer David Byrne as he questions the realities of its main character’s life—his beautiful house, his large automobile, and his beautiful wife—before he comes to an all-encompassing inquiry: How did I get here?
It’s an existential query. For Byrne, it’s a positive—how did life get so good? Up and down the halls of the Cleveland Browns practice facility near the banks of the Rocky River, it’s the same question, but the opposite context. How did Cleveland get here? How did the Browns, whose season started last offseason with a proclamation from head coach Hue Jackson that they wouldn’t again go 1-15, manage not only to prove him right, but actually fail to meet that low bar? How did a franchise that has consistently selected high in the draft wind up without a quarterback of the future? And how did the Browns lose every game they played in 2017?
Let’s start with what we know: The Browns are bad. They’ve been pretty bad since their 1999 resurrection, but never more so than this season, when they were historically bad. They played 16 games, and won none of them. 0-16. They scored the fewest points of any team in the NFL, and allowed the second most. Even if you take a step back from this failure of a season, the Browns don’t get any better to look at. Ten teams in NFL history have finished with 15 losses. One of them was the 2016 Browns, meaning that by failing to win a single game this year, not only did Cleveland record one of the worst campaigns in football history, but it also completed the worst two-year stretch of all time.
Like all perennial basement dwellers, the Browns pin their hopes on the draft. With the top overall pick in 2017, they selected defensive end Myles Garrett, the consensus selection after a dominant three years at Texas A&M. Garrett seemed like a great fit for a defense that allowed the second-most rushing yards in the country the year before and tallied just 26 sacks. But any hope of improvement was short lived. The team cut star cornerback Joe Haden in August, after which he was promptly signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Garrett missed the first four weeks of the year nursing an ankle injury, and just like that, the Browns were playing from behind before the season had even really gotten going.
But poor roster-building doesn’t account for everything that went wrong for the Browns this year. It’s incredibly difficult to go 0-16. Losing games is easy. Losing every game isn’t. It takes not only a constant stream of poor decision-making and execution, but all-around disastrous luck. And that’s exactly what Cleveland had. Injuries throughout the defense and along the offensive line thinned the Browns depth chart, and they faltered in every close game they played.
The Browns lost six one-score games this year, starting with a 21-18 defeat at home against Pittsburgh to open the season. A costly interception deep in Steelers territory and an inability to stop Pittsburgh’s final clock-chewing drive doomed DeShone Kizer’s debut. It wasn’t a great performance by any measure, but it also didn’t indicate that a winless campaign was imminent. Two weeks later, they lost to the lowly Colts, 31-28, as another comeback attempt sputtered. Kizer threw two second-half interceptions in Indianapolis territory, and a third deep in his own on the game’s final drive. And the same happened again in Week 5, when the Browns lost a second-half lead to the Jets and never recovered in a 17-14 loss.
In Week 7, Cleveland squandered what would be its best opportunity to get a win. Though Kizer and former USC standout Cody Kessler combined for just 218 yards and three interceptions, the Browns defense kept the team within striking distance, and Zane Gonzalez netted a 54-yard field goal to send the game to overtime, locked at nine. Cleveland punted on its first possession, and after forcing a Titans punt, got the ball back and … punted again. Eventually, Tennessee took advantage of the generous field position, and Ryan Succop booted a 47-yarder to mercifully end the game. The moral victory—the Browns were so close!—came with a more stinging loss: After playing 10,363 consecutive snaps in his career, Joe Thomas left the game in the third quarter with a season-ending triceps injury.
Even when trying to improve, the Browns managed to make themselves the punch line. On Halloween, just minutes before the 4 p.m. ET trade deadline, Cleveland reportedly failed to send (or was saved from sending?) second- and third-round picks in the 2018 draft to the Bengals for backup quarterback A.J. McCarron. First reports suggested the Browns were so elated over the agreement that they forgot to confirm the deal with the league office. Later investigations indicated that they’d sent the right paperwork to Cincinnati, only for the Bengals front office to fax the wrong documents to New York. Or maybe it was sabotage.
But the most gut-wrenching moment would come in Week 14, when Cleveland wasted a vintage Josh Gordon performance in a loss to the Packers. After holding a 14-point advantage early in the fourth quarter—their largest lead of the season—the porous Browns defense allowed Brett Hundley to slice them up not once, but twice. When DeShone Kizer attempted to lead a game-winning drive in overtime, he was intercepted. Six plays later, Hundley found Davante Adams, and the Packers scored again. The best chance Cleveland had to win all season—the team’s win probability was once as high as 96 percent—was wasted.
Despite trying week after week to finally notch a victory, their efforts earned the same final record the team would’ve had if it had forfeited every Sunday. When the Lions completed their 0-16 season in 2008, Jason Hanson, the team’s longtime kicker, said the experience left him numb. “It’s here. It’s been coming, though, a train rolling down the tracks for a while,” Hanson said. “We tried to stop it. We couldn’t.” The Lions desperately tried to stop the losing, but they failed. They lost their final three games by a combined 55 points—three games they supposedly cared more about winning than their opponents, but contests in which they still failed to overcome their shortcomings. When the Browns limped into the locker room Sunday, losers for a 16th and final time, it’s likely they felt the same. Their last effort ended on the Pittsburgh 27, when Corey Coleman dropped a wide-open ball on fourth-and-2, sealing Cleveland’s sixth one-score loss of the year. They tried as hard as they could to stop the boulder from repeatedly crushing them on its way down the hill, only to wind up with its imprint on their backs.
In the end, Cleveland lost every game because that’s what it was built to do. After losing all but one game in 2016, the Browns made only minimal alterations to a bad roster. Instead of drafting a quarterback like Deshaun Watson, they settled on DeShone Kizer. Rather than giving Myles Garrett a defensive partner, they gave Haden away for nothing. Maybe if Gordon came back sooner, or Thomas had stayed healthy, or Haden had stayed around, or the trade for McCarron had gone through, they’d have finished at least one game as winners. But they didn’t. And the Browns didn’t. The legacy of this Browns team—like many before it, and possibly many to come—is failure. And based on what they showed this season, it will be some time until that changes.