April 16, 2014

Waiting For Next Year: Is This the Worst Three-Season Stretch in Cleveland History?

As a young sports fan in Northeast Ohio, I know I haven’t had it as rough as my elders. I wasn’t alive or sports-literate for most of the Browns more recent playoff appearances nor some of the Michael Jordan-related heartbreaks in the ’80s.  The fact that I have yet to celebrate a sports championship — besides the Buckeyes in 2003 — isn’t that peculiar or extraordinary, since the same is also true for my mother and five of my six aunts.

Yet, I know we all like to complain about our fair share of details surrounding the three major Cleveland sports teams. We love talking about how the Cavaliers just were historically awful, the Browns have sucked since their return in ’99 and the awfully depressing state of the Indians. I always tried to stay grounded, however: No matter how much suffering I think I’ve had in my 22 years of life and maybe 18 years of sports-literacy, I really shouldn’t complain compared to the true CLE veterans.

But, my older brother shared with me an interesting realization the other day: When was the last time all three teams were simultaneously this bad? Like, last-place bad? I hadn’t thought of the ol’ Waiting For Next Year mentality in those terms before, so obviously, my mind starting ticking and my research skills got put to some use on the fabulous Interwebs.

Since the Cavaliers joined the fold in the Cleveland sports scene in 1970 and excluding the three-year hiatus of the Browns, there have been 118 complete sports seasons for analysis. I’m including the soon-to-be-completed Indians season, making that the 40th baseball year in the fold along with 39 football seasons and 39 of the basketball variety.

For starters now, let’s go team-by-team and take a look at some peripheral stats:

Cleveland Indians: 40 seasons from 1970-2012, excluding 1996-1998

1 Pennants; 1995
4 Playoff Appearances: 1995, 1999, 2001, 2007
7 Last-Place Finishes: 1971, 1973, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1991, 2012

So while a ratio of less than 1:1 playoff appearances:last-place finishes isn’t very good over a 40-season span, I was very impressed by my wholly unofficial research that the Indians only have 9 last-place finishes in their division in over 110 seasons. The odds of that occurring have to of course be pretty rare since the vast majority of time the team played in a division of 4-6 teams. Of course, the Indians have three consecutive playoff appearances and a second pennant unlisted because of the three years the Browns were out of town.

Cleveland Browns: 39 seasons from 1970-2011, excluding 1996-1998

8 Playoff Appearances: 1971, 1972, 1980, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1994, 2002
14 Last-Place Finishes: 1974, 1975, 1977, 1981, 1990, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011

Does any professional sports team have more last-place finishes since 1999 than the Browns? I seriously doubt it, as they have as many during this 13-year stretch alone than the Indians do in their franchise history. The Browns have the perfect combination in place for last-place finishes: Consistently changing leadership, poor skill development and a division of two playoff teams annually, at least. On the good side, at least they have more playoff appearances, but I suppose that has to do with the Wild Card in the NFL and how much easier it is historically to make at least the first round of those playoffs, than the previous iteration of realignment in MLB.

Cleveland Cavaliers: 39 seasons from 1970-2011, excluding 1996-1998 (years listed are from the date the season began) 

1 NBA Finals Appearance: 2006
17 Playoff Appearances: 1975, 1976, 1977, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009
9 Last-Place Finishes: 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1981, 1986, 2002, 2010, 2011

The playoff easiness scale has to be MLB, NFL and then NBA, with a huge jump from the second-to-third leagues. The Cavaliers have made 17 playoffs in these 39 season, almost a stretch of every other year, which actually almost seems right since nearly one-half of the NBA makes the playoffs each season. There aren’t as many last-place finishes as I would have thought at first, with only three occurring in the most recent 26 seasons. The Cavs also had several impressive stretches that are easy to spot here: 1987-1995 (8/9 playoffs) and 2005-2009 (5/5 playoffs).

So to continue forward, I wanted to cross-check the occurrences of back-to-back seasons of last-place finishes over this data set. Here are the five instances:

1970-1971: Cavaliers’ first season that began in Nov. 1970, Indians year that began in Apr. 1971
1972-1973: Cavaliers’ third season that began in Nov. 1972, Indians year that began in Apr. 1973
1981-1982: Browns season that began in Sept. 1981, Cavaliers year that began in Nov. 1981
1986-1987: Cavaliers season that began in Nov. 1986, Indians year that began in Apr. 1987
2011-2012: Browns season that began in Sept. 2011, Cavaliers year that began in Nov. 2011, Indians season that began in Apr. 2012

Unofficially, it appears that this will be the first time since the Browns moved to town that we’ve all had three franchises playing and all three finish in last place in a row. There were four other instances of back-to-back, and many, many others of 2/3 or worse, but never quite like we’re experiencing at the moment.

Yes, relating back to my introduction with my age and usually not wanting to complain about Cleveland sports misery, this is the first such back-to-back stretch I’ve been alive for. And although some stretches have potentially been worse — such as seasons starting in Nov. 1972-Sept. 1975, with five last-places and zero playoff appearances out of nine years — this current stretch has to be up there for all-time futility.

And really there’s no hope necessarily in sight. All signs lead to the Browns finishing in last place again this season and unless the Cavaliers can improve enough to surpass Detroit, there’s no stopping this stretch from hitting five. And if it gets back to the 2013 Indians, then it’s all trouble from there.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I’m not sure what’s worse. That this is the worst stretch, or that the Browns have been in last 9 of 13 seasons since returning – after just 5 last-place finishes prior.

    On the flip side, at least the Cavs and Browns are on the way up.

  • Skeptical Browns Fan

    Are the Browns? Not convinced Weeden is the answer and we’re about to get yet another new head coach..Plus decent chance new gm coming as well. We might just play our way into the Matt Barkley sweepstakes.
    Love Kyrie but if Tristan, Waiters, and Zeller need to be at least solid starters. I’m still a believer that they would be better off missing playoffs again(very likely) and adding another piece or 2 if you count the Lakers first rounder. Like Gee but being able to add a SF who can shoot and create his own shot would be huuuge for our future. Like where Cavs are headed but still a lot of things need to go right to get back to where we used to be

  • Die Hard Fan

    The die hardest of die hard Browns fans are dying. Honestly, it is really that bad.

  • Chris

    I think we have the elements of a good team with the Browns. They’re just raw and will take a season or two to start hitting on all cylinders. We (the “die hardest” of the diehards) will hang in if we see some more aggressive coaching, development of the players, and no injuries, stupid penalties or suspensions. The offense needs to be more daring and less predictable, but I put that on the head coach.

  • Garry_Owen

    Thank you for excluding the 1986 and 1987 playoff appearances for the Browns. I’ve been trying to forget them for 27 years. Now it’s done. It officially never happened. What’s an “Elway”? Earnest Who?
    Now, “drive” is just something that I do to get to work every day, and “fumble” is just a normal play in the Browns playbook.