Detroit Lions MythBusters! Lions will go 0-16!


Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, a team or two sits a few weeks into the season without a win.  If that team happens to be the Detroit Lions, the inevitable talk of 0-16 creeps up.  Well, it doesn’t so much creep up as it comes as a sweeping tide from the disappointed and frustrated fan base, made louder by the pandering media personalities.  We’ve already taken a look at how far the divide between the last winless team and the 2015 Detroit Lions is, but today we’re going to look at it from another angle:  Probability.  As usual, all numbers courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Can This Team Go Winless?

The easy answer to this questions is yes, since we’ve seen it happen in recent history. The problem with that line of thinking is that probability and possibility are not the same thing.  Just because the Detroit Lions went winless in 2008 doesn’t mean they are doomed to repeat that feat.  Just because Tom Brady was drafted in the 6th round doesn’t mean that picking a 6th round QB will net you the next Tom Brady.  The trick is to look at how likely something is to happen, rather than looking at it as if it were possible.  In today’s NFL, nearly anything is possible, so it isn’t a logical conclusion that this 0-5 team will lose their next 11 games any more than it is to think they’ll win the next 11.

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So how do we gauge probability of such a feat?  Based on numbers alone, it’s not too difficult.  We just take a look at how many seasons have been played in the NFL and how many times has a team went winless.   But wait, not every winless season is the same.  You see, we may play 16 games today, but we haven’t always.  So let’s quick gun some stats for you to see just how crazy unlikely it is for a team to go winless in any season, let alone a 16 game season (This will also show just how bad 2008 was). All of these statistics ignore 2015, since the season is still in flight.

  • Since 1920, there have been 1,870 NFL seasons from its 32 teams.
  • 1,050 of those seasons were seasons in which the team played 16 games.
  • Of the 1,050 16 game seasons, only the 2008 Detroit Lions were winless, or 0.10% of all seasons.
  • There have been 7 winless seasons in the history of the NFL.
  • 4 of the winless seasons came from 1960 or before.
  • 2 of the winless seasons, 2008 and 1942, were from the Detroit Lions.
  • They aren’t alone, though.  2 of the others are the Arizona Cardinals (Chicago at the time).
  • Those 2 Cardinals seasons were back to back, 1943 and 1944.
  • The 42 Lions, and both Cardinal teams were with depleted rosters due to WWII.
  • 2 of the winless seasons came from expansion teams, the 1976 Buccaneers and 1960 Cowboys.
  • The remaining winless season came from the Baltimore Colts in the strike shortened 1982 season.

So to put this in clearer terms, there are the 2008 Detroit Lions, whose roster saw more than 60% of it’s players out of the league by the following season’s end. And that’s it.  That ends the list of teams in NFL history who went winless without any mitigating circumstances (Though you could easily argue Matt Millen was mitigating circumstances).  The other winless teams were expansion teams, were in a strike shortened year, or lost a majority of their players to a world war.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it.  We’re all frustrated, but the chances of the 2015 Detroit Lions going winless are a measley 0.10%.  That’s pretty close to what their chances of winning the super bowl are right now, so you can hang your hat on that.  So they probably won’t go winless.  But what are their chances of a disaster season?  1, 2, or 3 wins? First overall pick area.  Well, let’s dig a little deeper.

  • Of the 1,050 16 game seasons, only 9 have had 1 win.
  • A mere 35 teams have went the season with a single win, that’s 1.87% of the 1,870 seasons.
  • Only 1 of the 35 one win teams was the Detroit Lions, in 1946.
  • The Cardinals, who were tied for most 0 win seasons, lead with 5 single win seasons in history.
  • No other team has more than 3 single win seasons.
  • There have been 31 two win teams in 16 game seasons.
  • That’s 80 in NFL history with only 2 wins, or 4.28%.
  • 4 of those 2 win teams were the Detroit Lions, two of which happened since 2000 (2001, 2009).
  • The Philadelphia Eagles had the most 2 win seasons, with 8 of them.
  • The Cardinals, again in the running for worst team ever, came next with 6 two win seasons.
  • There have been 33 three win seasons in 16 game format.
  • A total of 94 3 win seasons in NFL history, or 5.03%.
  • The Cardinals once again lead in a suck category, with 8 three win seasons in their team history.
  • The next most seasons with 3 wins is 6.
  • There were 219 seasons where a team won 3 or fewer games.
  • 22 of those seasons were the Arizona Cardinals (Around 10%).
  • 13 of them were the Detroit Lions (About 6%).

So there you go, some more fun numbers to chew on.  There’s an increasing likelihood the more wins you get past 0, though obviously you don’t want to be there either.  The Detroit Lions are so anemic offensively that it’s unlikely they win many games this year.  0-16 is a nearly impossible feat, and even 1 or 2 win seasons are pretty dang unlikely.  Still, I’m glad I picked today to run these numbers, if just to see an area the Arizona Cardinals are historically terrible in.

Next: Detroit Lions Mythbusters! Trade Matthew Stafford?

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