Last year, when I introduced my NFL Tortured Fan Base Rankings, some worried that doing them annually would prove unnecessary, and that not enough would change in one year to require a new one each February. I pooh-poohed these people … and then watched as the Super Bowl featured two of the top three least tortured fan bases in the league, while every team in the conference title games had won a Super Bowl in the last 10 years.
Not the best argument for the necessity of annual rankings, but here we are again, regardless. I'd argue that 2015's rankings may be more precise than 2014's, if just because I probably adhered too much last year to the how long has it been since they've won a Super Bowl? question. The Washington Football Team has won a Super Bowl more recently than the Chicago Bears have … but, frankly, I don't think the pain the two franchises' most loyal fans have gone through is even slightly comparable. Recent pain is always more acute than historic pain. I tried to remember that in this year's rankings. (That it helps the list be more dynamic is just a happy byproduct.)
It's a ranking of every team's fan base, from most to least spoiled. I want to find out who deserves it the most: who you, as a disinterested party, should be cheering for next year. Lots of factors are involved here: fan loyalty, passion, historical success, particularly painful eras, near-miss title chances, current roster, any ineffable notion that just occurs to me while I'm putting this list together. I'm doing my best to give an honest accounting here. This ranking will get a lot better once all of you have had a chance to look at it and tell me what I got wrong.
Same NFL-specific note as last year: You might not agree with this policy, but I've decided to ignore anything before January 1967 in these rankings. The NFL that existed before the Super Bowl era and the one after it are so dramatically different that they seem like two different leagues altogether, maybe even two different sports.
This list is subjective, and even its subjectivity is not perfect: There will surely be much wrong with it. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org with all revisions, or just leave 'em in the comments.
Let's get to it:
32. New England Patriots. (Super Bowl appearances: 8: Super Bowl wins: 4. Last championship: 2015.) Obviously an easy call here. If the worst thing you have to deal with for 15 years is that everyone hates you for winning so often, I think you're living just fine.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers. (Super Bowl appearances: 8. Super Bowl wins: 6. Last championship: 2009.) Even when the Steelers go through a "rebuild" like they have the last couple of years, they come out of it a playoff team. This year they even had a rather entertaining one. The Steelers are the Cardinals of the NFL, and vice versa: No matter what, they always must be dealt with, and they're never going away.
30. Baltimore Ravens. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 2013.) Sure, that loss to the Patriots stings a little bit, but winning a Super Bowl because Joe Flacco turned into Joe Montana for a month -- and looked pretty good this year, actually, now that you mention it -- buys you a few frustrating postseason losses that you just have to deal with.
29. Green Bay Packers. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl wins: 4. Last title: 2011.) Yeah, ditto here too. That onside kick will haunt the dreams of Cheeseheads for a decade … but they have four Super Bowl highlight videos to watch to make them feel better.
28. Indianapolis Colts. (Super Bowl appearances: 4. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 2007.) Every year that Andrew Luck moves that much closer to becoming the best quarterback in the NFL, I get a little more irritated with the Colts. Most of the league spends two decades trying to find a halfway decent quarterback, and the Colts get two all-timers back-to-back. That is the exact opposite of torture.
27. New York Giants. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl wins: 4. Last championship: 2012.) Speaking of luck -- the theoretical version, not the Andrew version -- the Giants arguably should have lost three of their last four Super Bowls … and probably shouldn't have even made it to any of those. Even when they go through rough two-year stretches like now, the world is still shining on them.
26. New Orleans Saints. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 2010.) This is still the greatest fan celebration video of all time, and more than enough to keep them low on this list for at least the next decade or so:
25. Seattle Seahawks. (Super Bowl appearances; 3. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 2014). This seems about right: They were 31 last year, and a leap to 25 this year. On one hand, they just won the Super Bowl last year; not much torture there. On the other, if a historically tortured fan base like Minnesota or Buffalo had just lost a Super Bowl the way the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl, we would consider it the cruelest thing that has ever happened in sports.
24. Denver Broncos. (Super Bowl appearances: 7. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 1999.) They're going to give it one more try with Peyton Manning next year, but if they don't win the Super Bowl in 2016, you have to consider moving them up this list quite a bit. John Elway feels like a long time ago now.
23. Carolina Panthers. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) They drop from 17 because of their abnormal luck this year, not only winning the division because every other team in it was terrible, but also because they faced an entirely depleted and injured Cardinals team in the first round. It will be fascinating to see which direction Cam Newton will take these guys next.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars. (Super Bowl appearances: 0.) We come to a regular philosophical question on lists like these: Is it more painful to have great success but come up just short on the grandest stage, or simply to never have much hope in the first place -- just years of dull, empty sadness but never being disappointed? The Jaguars typify the latter as well as anyone, but unlike, say, the Lions, they've only been doing it 22 years. They actually move from the 20th spot last year because, with the moves of the Rams in the last two months, they're slightly less likely to leave town.
21. Dallas Cowboys. (Super Bowl appearances: 8. Super Bowl wins: 5. Last championship: 1996.) They had a rough ending to a terrific season, and considering Jerry Jones is still in charge of this team, you worry that this was in fact the peak of the Tony Romo era. I've been thinking a lot about hated teams recently, and you have to feel uniquely bad for the Cowboys diehards: Their team is as hated as any in sports, but unlike teams like the Patriots, Cardinals and Yankees, they don't have the decades of success to counterbalance it. People hate the Patriots, Cardinals and Yankees because they've won so much (among other reasons). They hate the Cowboys simply because they're the Cowboys. If you truly love the Cowboys -- and didn't just show up in the last decade -- that must sting.
20. Chicago Bears. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 1986.) I had the Bears all the way down at 13 last year … way too low (or high, depending on how you look at it). Sure, the Marc Trestman era was a bust, and you're stuck with Jay Cutler forever … but John Fox was doing backflips to come there and you still are a marquee franchise that everybody loves and admires. (You still, still rule the third biggest city in the country.) Sure, it has been a long, long time since that Shufflin' Crew … but that doesn't make them any less a part of the public consciousness. Most franchises would happily suffer through 30 championship-less years to have that specific team.
19. Houston Texans. (Super Bowl appearances: 0.) They move up two spots on the torture rankings with the news that Peyton Manning wanted to go there after he left the Colts, but Texans coach Gary Kubiak was too enamored with Matt Schaub. Ouch.
18. San Francisco 49ers. (Super Bowl appearances: 6. Super Bowl wins: 5. Last championship: 1995.) It has now been 20 years since the 49ers last won a championship: Those 20 years went by fast, didn't they? The 49ers move toward the more-tortured side of the rankings this year because they ran their best coach since Bill Walsh out of town for no good reason, their quarterback suddenly doesn't look like the future star we all thought he was and their fancy new stadium immediately became one of the least-liked in the NFL.
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 2003.) This is about as low as I can put a team that was one of the last 10 teams to win a Super Bowl and a city that isn't likely to be saying goodbye to its team anytime soon. The Buccaneers are a mess, and sort of seem perpetually so … but again, there are 23 teams who haven't won a Super Bowl since the Buccaneers have and therefore likely don't have much sympathy.
16. Tennessee Titans. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) The Titans feel like a perpetual middle-of-the-pack team in just about every other aspect of the NFL, so why not here?
15. Miami Dolphins. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 1974.) Another team I had too low last year (No. 10). The Dolphins have been through a lot -- they make Hootie cry! -- and they've still gone 40 years without a championship. But this team is still always relevant and, frankly, always gets a little more national attention than they might otherwise deserve.
14. Oakland Raiders. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl wins: 3. Last championship: 1984.) How much do I still, ultimately, value Super Bowl championships? The Raiders might be one of the most poorly run franchises in all of sports … and they still can't get lower than No. 14 (from No. 16 last year) because of those three championships. Even more amazing: There's a team with three titles left to come on this list.
13. Arizona Cardinals. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Keeping in mind that this is my team, I would like to note that no fan should ever have to watch Ryan Lindley try to win a playoff game for his or her team. I'm still shaking. Nonetheless, this was a nice little bonus run for the Cardinals this year, with a suddenly stable franchise on the uptick and with the most likable coach in the league. Usually it's torture to be an Arizona Cardinals fan, but not right now.
12. Atlanta Falcons. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Maybe it's because I live in Georgia now, but I've come around on the unique pain of being a Falcons fan. There was the Michael Vick mess, the implosion in their lone Super Bowl (with the specter of Eugene Robinson hanging over the whole thing) and now the Mike Smith era going poof. Of all the Atlanta sports teams, the Falcons are the one I find their fans the most perpetually disgusted by.
11. Kansas City Chiefs. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 1970.) I said this last year, and it bears repeating: The Chiefs have made the playoffs seven times since they last won a playoff game, and the quarterback who won it for them? Joe Montana. That is amazing.
10. San Diego Chargers. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Here's the first team that makes the playoffs almost every year but never does anything with it …
9. Cincinnati Bengals. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 0.) … and here's the other one. The Bengals go a slot lower than last year because 1990 was the last time they won a playoff game. The Chargers have won six since then. But that curse of perpetual contention with no payoff? The Bengals know that better than anyone.
8. St. Louis Rams. (Super Bowl appearances: 3. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 2000.) Shooting higher on this list (they were No. 19 last year) because when it looks like your team is going to leave for Los Angeles just 20 years after you gave them a brand new stadium, you get plenty of sympathy from me. The only thing that would be worse for St. Louis fans than the Rams leaving would be if their city, county or state makes those taxpayers pay for another new stadium.
7. Philadelphia Eagles. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 0.) They actually move up a couple of spots because, out of nowhere, they feel like the most innovative, exciting team in the league. (At least on offense. Please get this team Marcus Mariota, somehow.) If the Eagles are ever going to win that Super Bowl, I hope it's Chip Kelly who does it.
6. Washington Football Team. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl titles: 3. Last championship: 1992.) The good news for Washington fans is that their team has won three Super Bowls, including one in the last 25 years. The bad news is literally everything else involved with this train wreck of a franchise. Nothing's going to get better until the rot at the core of this organization is excised … and that's not happening for a long, long time. Sorry.
5. New York Jets. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 1969.) The only team left on this list that has won a Super Bowl, albeit six years before I was born and maybe 20 before you were. Would they have traded that championship for not being the laughingstock of the league since? I wonder. They also lose points for firing the most fun coach in the league.
As with last year, we stop here to point out that the four most tortured franchises are all so tortured that they are virtually indistinguishable from each other. This is where the red line is drawn. They could be in any order from the rest of the way out.
4. Minnesota Vikings. (Super Bowl appearances: 4. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Teddy Bridgewater is a nice ray of sunshine for this franchise, and that new stadium sounds like it's going to be lovely (even if you'd maybe rather not play a Super Bowl there) … but the Vikings lost four Super Bowls before this happened:
3. Detroit Lions. (Super Bowl appearances: 0.) The oldest franchise never to reach a Super Bowl added some more pain to the ledger this year with the phantom penalty flag that never happened against Dallas in the playoffs. That Dallas was drilled with its own unfair call the next week might be cosmic justice, but that cosmic justice doesn't do the Lions any good.
2. Buffalo Bills. (Super Bowl appearances: 4. Super Bowl wins: 0) And … we have a change atop the standings. As I said, the top four are basically interchangeable, but the Bills drop out of the No. 1 spot because:
a) They now appear comfortably ensconced in Buffalo for the near to long-term future.
b) They have a playoff team that just has a big hole at quarterback.
c) They have the most fun coach in sports.
d) Seriously, they're not moving.
So there, Buffalo: You had a "good" year!
1. Cleveland Browns. (Super Bowl appearances: 0.) Remember all that hope, with the new ownership group and the new coach? Remember the savior quarterback who was just cocky and charismatic and crazy enough to make all this work? Remember that start to the season, when it looked like the Browns might just sneak in the playoffs? That is all gone now. Success feels even farther away than it did in the first place. That's just life as a Browns fan. So: Congratulations. You made it. There is nowhere to go but up.