Last June, I introduced my Tortured Franchise Rankings, which attempted to quantify which franchises and fan bases had suffered the most -- in other words, which ones were in most dire need of a championship. To quote from the NBA rankings intro:
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.
We're going to do one of these at the end of every major sport's playoffs; thus, the NBA in June, and Major League Baseball last November. It's time for our first edition of the NFL's most tortured fan bases. So who is most due? Which team and its fan base most deserves a title? Who's been through the most? Who has earned it? (Congrats, Bills fans -- you've finally won something.)We'll go from most spoiled to least spoiled, and we'll do a new list at the end of every season: You never know, after all, when it could be The Year to break through. I also tend to overvalue recent championships: If your team has won a bunch of titles but none in 20 years or so, you'll do better on this list. If a generation has never seen your team as a champion, to them, you might as well have never been one.
One note on this: You might not agree with this policy, but I've decided to ignore anything before January 1967 in these rankings. The NFL of before the Super Bowl era and the one after it are so dramatically different that they seem like two different leagues all together, maybe even two different sports. So that's what I'm doing.
Let's get to it.
32. Pittsburgh Steelers. (Super Bowl appearances: 8. Super Bowl wins: 6. Last championship: 2009.) A pretty solid sign the Steelers have the most spoiled fan base in the NFL is that most of them are seeing this ranking and thinking, "But we haven't won a title in five years. It has been so long!"
31. Seattle Seahawks. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship? 2014.) The Seahawks have been through enough historically that their complete annihilation of the Broncos doesn't quite drop to them to the top of the tortured list … but suffice it to say, no one's doing much complaining or reminiscing about the bad old times this week.
30. New England Patriots. (Super Bowl appearances: 7: Super Bowl wins: 3. Last championship: 2005.) Speaking of which! All told, it has been a while since the Patriots won a Super Bowl, but here's the thing about that: Tom Brady is 9-8 in the playoffs since winning that last title, which means that the Patriots have made the playoffs eight times in the last nine years. You shouldn't feel too bad for these guys, and I'm sure you don't.
29. Baltimore Ravens. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 2013.) The Ravens came into existence in 1996. In that time, the Ravens have won two Super Bowls, fostered a no-doubt, top-tier Hall of Famer from draft to retirement (Ray Lewis) and made the playoffs nine times. Meanwhile, the Browns have been to the playoffs once in that time. (They lost.)
28. Green Bay Packers. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl wins: 4. Last title: 2011.) The Packers arguably should have more titles than this: It still seems sort of strange that they only won one during the Favre era. (Favre had a bit to do with that.) It's tough to feel too bad for a franchise that had a Hall of Fame quarterback and replaced him with … just another Hall of Fame quarterback.
27. New York Giants. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl wins: 4. Last championship: 2012.) The Giants haven't really been as regular-season dominant as you might think a team with four titles in the last 30 years (and two in the last seven) would make you think, but considering those postseason wins, who cares? Mock Eli Manning all you want, he's 8-3 in the playoffs, and the G-Men have two of the most thrillingly improbable titles in all of sports over the last decade.
26. Indianapolis Colts. (Super Bowl appearances: 4. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 2007.) The Colts have their history counted as one franchise even though they won titles in two difference cities, as do the Cardinals and the Rams, but the Browns/Ravens do not. It's all about the nickname, I guess. (And how furious the abandoned fan base is.) Anyway, like the Packers, the Colts lose some torture points because they had Peyton Manning for 14 years, had one bad year and then got to draft Andrew Luck for the next 14. They're the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL.
25. New Orleans Saints. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 2010.) The Saints would have been in the top five, easy, before that Super Bowl XLIV championship, but a win like that goes a long way. It's difficult to argue they didn't celebrate it to the maximum of their abilities.
24. Denver Broncos. (Super Bowl appearances: 7. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 1999.) With Sunday's loss, no team has lost more Super Bowls than the Broncos, and none of those losses have been particularly close. (Point spreads, heading backward, of 35, 45, 32, 19 and 17.) So that's painful. But those two John Elway Super Bowls were so great that, even in the wake of Super Bowl XLVIII, it's hard to work up too much pity.
23. Dallas Cowboys. (Super Bowl appearances: 8. Super Bowl wins: 5. Last championship: 1996.) Without question the toughest team to peg on this list. On one hand, it has been a legitimately long time, for a franchise that talks as big as this one, since they won a title. (If you were born on the day the Cowboys last won a Super Bowl, you can now fight in a war.) On the other hand … it's the Cowboys, and everybody hates the Cowboys. I tend to give them a little more credit for being tortured if just because they have an owner who is driving them farther away from another title rather than toward one. But still not that much.
22. San Francisco 49ers. (Super Bowl appearances: 6. Super Bowl wins: 5. Last championship: 1995.) Long time with these guys too, though they've been a little closer in the last 20 years, which puts them a spot above the Cowboys here. If the 49ers make it through the Harbaugh/Kaepernick era without winning a championship, they'll shoot up this list.
21. Houston Texans. (Super Bowl appearances: 0.) They've never made the Super Bowl, but they've only been around for 12 years. The little window of success they've had the last couple of years appears to have closed.
20. Jacksonville Jaguars. (Super Bowl appearances: 0.) Obviously, there hasn't been much to cheer about in Jacksonville in a while -- they did make two AFC Championship Games in the '90s -- but at least there haven't been very many fans around not to cheer. Trying to look at the bright side here.
19. St. Louis Rams. (Super Bowl appearances: 3. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 2000.) Remember: Days before the 1999 season, Rams fans, such as they were, were devastated because Trent Green got hurt in the preseason. The Rams haven't had much to cheer for outside the Greatest Show on Turf era, but that era was so great, and so singular, that it should still keep them sated.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl titles: 1. Last championship: 2003.) The Buccaneers are this strange anomaly: A team that was relevant for one five-year stretch of its history, and then never was again. From 1997-2002, the Bucs won five playoff games and won a Super Bowl. Before that, they'd won one playoff game ever, and since then, they've only won one. At least they got a title out of it.
17. Carolina Panthers. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) There's a mildness to the Panthers fan base that keeps them lower on this list, but you can certainly understand why they might still be sore about Super Bowl XXXVIII, a game they absolutely could have won. They have a franchise quarterback now in Cam Newton, something they've never really had, so if they go 13 years without ever breaking through with him, that'll count for something.
16. Oakland Raiders. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl titles: 3. Last championship: 1984.) It's crazy that the Raiders have won three Super Bowls, and that they went to win within the last 11 years. By the end, Al Davis had driven this team into the ground, and they're still trying to dig their way back out. The last time they won a title, Ray Guy was their punter, and he is now 64 years old.
15. Tennessee Titans. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) That Super Bowl loss was excruciating -- the Titans played the game of their life only to fall, literally, two feet short -- but that only happened in the first place because of the Music City Miracle. That was enough good fortune that the Titans can't feel too persecuted.
14. Atlanta Falcons. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) The Falcons looked like they were about to break through -- and out of the post-Vick era -- before it started spinning on them this year. The Falcons have been surprisingly solid over the last decade -- they've made the playoffs six times since 2002 -- but they've never broken through. Still: The region is still more disappointed when the Bulldogs lose four games than when the Falcons lose 10.
13. Chicago Bears. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 1986.) The Bears have as passionate a fan base as any in the sport, and friends of mine in the city still claim that the Bears winning another Super Bowl would be bigger than the Cubs winning a World Series. (I have my doubts on this.) But still: The Bears have won a Super Bowl, and they did it with one of the most memorable teams in the history of the NFL. A team like the Shufflin' Crew comes along once every 40 years, and it might be that long until Bears fans can truly feel top-tier tortured, at least compared to the rest of the NFL.
12. Cincinnati Bengals. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 0.) This might be too low: The Bengals lost two Super Bowls, to the same team no less, in tight, painful fashion. Plus, they had a horrible management system in place until fairly recently. Their recent habit of making the playoffs but not doing much (or even really being noticed) once they get there is of note as well. Chili's great, though.
11. Washington Football Team. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl titles: 3. Last championship: 1992.) This is awfully high for a team that has made the Super Bowl five times, but boy, Washington fans have earned their stripes on this one. They've won one playoff game this century, they've watched their legendary coach return and get swallowed up by the nightmare his franchise has become and they have the worst owner in professional sports who seems to actively despise his fans. That golden era, at this point, barely feels like it happened at all.
10. Miami Dolphins. (Super Bowl appearances: 5. Super Bowl wins: 2. Last championship: 1974.) 1974! Can you believe that? I was a bit stunned to realize the Dolphins -- who always feel like a marquee NFL franchise -- had gone 40 years between titles. That they did it with one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history for half that time is particularly astounding. They're 1-3 in the playoffs since Dan Marino retired, and his final playoff game ended with a 62-3 loss. The Dolphins are a bit underrated, fan torture-wise.
9. Arizona Cardinals. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Like the Buccaneers before them, they've really only had one good era, and theirs only last two years. They also had a particularly painful Super Bowl loss, and a growing fan base in one of the nicest new stadiums in the league. The problem is that the fan base just isn't big enough to shoot them higher up this list. Even with the new stadium, the Cardinals are still prone to invasions from bigger fan bases like the Steelers, Cowboys and Packers. Still: If you've been a lifelong fan of the Cardinals -- like me -- trust me, you've suffered through a ton.
8. Kansas City Chiefs. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 1970.) The Chiefs are a great lunatic fan base, as anyone who has ever gone to a game in Arrowhead Stadium can tell you. Here's a factoid that'll surprise you: The last Kansas City Chiefs quarterback to win a playoff game is Joe Montana. That spans eight playoff losses in a row. That's brutal.
7. San Diego Chargers. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Don't sleep on the Chargers, pain-wise. They've had legit Hall of Fame superstar talents (Dan Fouts, LaDainian Tomlinson) but have never done that much with them: Somehow, the Chargers only won one more playoff game with LaDainian than the Jets did. For a couple of years there, the Chargers looked like the best team in the NFL. Even though they did make the playoffs this year, that feels like a long time ago now.
6. New York Jets. (Super Bowl appearances: 1. Super Bowl wins: 1. Last championship: 1969.) The good news is that they're undefeated in the Super Bowl! The bad news is everything else. You can make an extremely strong case that Rex Ryan has had the most success as Jets coach, in a macro sense, since that Super Bowl. I once wrote a piece for New York magazine about the horror of Jets quarterbacks, and that was before Mark Sanchez. The Jets are the team the rest of the NFL is always laughing at.
5. Philadelphia Eagles. (Super Bowl appearances: 2. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Every team's fans want a championship, but I think you can make an argument that no team's fans want a championship more than Eagles' fans. It's not particularly healthy, all told, and I'm not sure they deserve one as much as some others, but the coach and quarterback who bring a title to Philadelphia will be lionized. And then of course hit with something. But lionized first.
All right, we're going to pause here, because the last four teams are so obviously head-and-shoulders ahead of the rest of the NFL in terms of torturing their fans that I felt a paragraphs needed to separate them was necessary. All four of these teams could easily be in the No. 1 spot. Where you put them depends on your pain preference. Does it hurt more to have your team come so close to the precipice and fall short, or to have them never even make it that far in the first place? I decided to split the difference.
4. Minnesota Vikings. (Super Bowl appearances: 4. Super Bowl wins: 0.) Remember, it's not just that the Vikings have lost four Super Bowls, though there is of course that. It's that they've come so close to the Super Bowl often without making it since then so many times. Since their last Super Bowl appearance in 1977, the Vikings have made it to the NFC Championship Game six times. They lost all six, including two of them in overtime. The worst loss had to be the loss to Atlanta in the January 1999 conference title game, a dominant team that imploded at the exact wrong time. That there are three teams that arguably have put their fans through more misery than the Vikings is proof the NFL god is a vengeful god.
3. Detroit Lions. (Super Bowl appearances: None.) The Lions are the only team in the NFL that has played in every season of the Super Bowl era and has never made the game. They've played on 48 Thanksgiving days in that time, but never, ever in the Super Bowl. They've really never been all that close, making the NFC Championship Game only once. (Where Washington destroyed them 41-10.) And they've won one playoff game total in the Super Bowl era. The Detroit Lions are mean people doing mean things to their fans, and they'll never stop.
2. Cleveland Browns. (Super Bowl appearances: None.) Cleveland Browns fans, I'd argue, are the most loyal fan base to a team and an ownership that absolutely does not deserve them in all of sports. Like the Lions, the Browns have never made a Super Bowl, but they've been close, which just makes The Drive all that worse. Also pushing them above the Lions is that small matter of their beloved team leaving them for a few years, and then being horrible since they "returned." The Browns are cruel and wrong.
1. Buffalo Bills. (Super Bowl appearances: 4. Super Bowl wins: None.) The Bills hit the trifecta of pain. They:
a: Have not made the playoffs since 1999, the longest drought in the NFL. (This game also happens to have been lost in the most ridiculous fashion imaginable.)
b: Have made it to the Super Bowl four times without ever winning it.
c: Lost those four games right in a row, with an amazing collection of talent few teams in the NFL have assembled in succession since.
In addition to this, the Bills play one game every season in Toronto, live in a city that's constantly battling economic woes and are perpetually in danger of being moved to Los Angeles. If that ever happened, if the Bills ever moved, they better win a Super Bowl first. Because no fan base deserves one, and has earned one, more.
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