Until 2016, the answer would have been yes. In 1937 the debut edition of the Cleveland Rams and their 0–10 (.090) record put in a performance of on-field futility that surpassed even the inaugural Cleveland Browns II of 1999 (2–14, .125).
And then along came the Browns of 2016 and their 1–15 (.067) record.
Yes, Cleveland football fans—not just Browns fans but fans of all Cleveland NFL teams through the decades—have never seen an NFL season more awful than the one they’ve just witnessed. And that’s saying a lot.
You see, Cleveland was a charter member of the American Professional Football Association (APFA) all the way back in 1920—just shy of a century ago. We now know the APFA as the National Football League, born of man in that famous manger Hupmobile dealership in Canton, Ohio; and believe it or not, it actually took some time for NFL football to take hold in what was then baseball- and boxing- and college-football-mad Cleveland.
Three NFL teams predate the Rams and the Browns in Cleveland: an NFL charter franchise called first the Tigers then the Indians in 1920 and 1921; a Canton Bulldogs / Cleveland Indians blend (1923-1927) newly christened the Cleveland Bulldogs in time to become NFL champs in 1924; then, for one single season that was underwritten by the league in hopes of getting something started in Cleveland, a second version of the Indians. But that team was was disbanded after compiling a 2-10 record, thereby qualifying it for fifth on Cleveland’s all-time infamy list.
In terms of losing percentages the 2016 Browns have beaten ’em all—the debut rosters of four different expansion teams included.
Optimistic Browns fans might choose to derive some hope from the Rams’ rags-to-riches story. And it is indeed true that after cycling through four head coaches and turning over their entire roster between 1937 and 1944, the Rams dove deep into the 1944 NFL draft and selected, with the 42nd overall pick, a dark-horse quarterback out of UCLA who hadn’t even earned All-American status. The very next season, 1945, Bob Waterfield passed the Rams to a 9–1 record and the NFL championship.
The Browns can only hope the 2017 player draft in April brings much the same result. They currently hold the number-one pick.
What: Though home to baseball’s Cleveland Indians, League’s Park rectangular configuration and seating capacity of 23,000 made it a surprisingly accommodating facility for football—professional as well as collegiate. Located at a trolley stop at the corner of Lexington Avenue and East 66th Street, League Park was sewn into the middle of the Hough neighborhood on the city’s East Side, with automobile parking accommodated—for a small fee, of course—by local residents and their shallow front yards. The final two NFL games there were particularly momentous. On November 11, 1945 a flash overflow crowd of 28,361 jammed into the park’s grandstands as well as a battalion of temporary bleachers erected along the right-field wall, causing the latter to collapse and injure 31—though many joyous fans engrossed in the Rams’ 20–7 victory over the hated Green Bay Packers hardly noticed. At League Park’s very last football game, on December 2, 1945, the Western Division champion Rams ran their record to 9–1 by defeating the Boston Yanks, 20–7, before 18,470. Boxing legend Jack Dempsey was on hand to help celebrate a special “day” for fan favorite, lineman Riley “Rattlesnake” Matheson. Just six weeks later, Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves announced the team was moving west to become the Los Angeles Rams.
What: The founding of the Rams usually is attributed to lawyer-businessman Homer H. Marshman, and indeed it was at Marshman’s house in the exclusive Cleveland suburb of Waite Hill that funding was lined up to launch the team in the American Football League in 1936. But it was young Damon “Buzz” Wetzel—barely out of The Ohio State University, son of a Cleveland Indians scout, and with one season under his belt as an NFL player for the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Pirates (now Steelers)—who prevailed on Marshman and other Cleveland moneymen to invest. Wetzel recruited future Hall-of-Fame coach Sid Gillman to play for the Rams, became the team’s first head coach, and served as its general manager when the team entered the NFL in 1937. In 1938 he was pushed out by many of the same investors he had brought in and never worked in the NFL again.