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Worst NFL team ever? 1934 Cincinnati Reds

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In a list of the worst ever - probably 

1934 Reds

The National Football League (NFL) began in 1920 with predominately small towns and medium-sized cities as their core. Every season clubs would fold or move and then more teams would take their place. Most franchises failed to break even each year; even the large city teams such as the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. Part of the reason was that most folks followed professional baseball and little else. And if they did go to a football game, it was of the college variety.

So for years, the pro football world floundered and tried to stay afloat. And since the beginning, there have been some very awful teams.

2017 Browns

The 2017 Cleveland Browns and 2008 Detroit Lions come to mind, with each posting 0-16-0 records; as does the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14-0.

Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been quite a few clubs that didn’t win a single game all season, but had a tie or three. The actual total? 33 clubs have ended their NFL season winless. 27 of those same winless teams ended up with all losses and no tie games. Add to that number 52 other teams that didn’t win a single game in a single season in other pro football leagues.

But, the aforementioned three teams have the most losses in a single season – an NFL season that is. There have been five other franchises who have tied the 16-loss without any ties in other leagues.

And behind those three are numerous clubs which finished 1-15-0: 1990 New England Patriots, 1989 Dallas Cowboys, 1991 Indianapolis Colts, 1980 New Orleans Saints, 2001 Carolina Panthers, 1996 New York Jets and 2000 San Diego Chargers.

Evolution of a League

The word “expansion” was never an actual thing until 1960 when the league labeled the new Dallas franchise as an expansion team. Instead, back then you simply paid the league an entry fee and you were a member of the NFL. Then-NFL commissioner Joe Carr wanted to rid the league of the smaller teams and had devised a plan to eliminate them. Part of that plan was to require $2,500 as the entry fee. However, large cities only paid $500.

The entire state of Ohio had been the early stages of the NFL with teams situated in Canton, Akron, Cleveland, Dayton, Portsmouth and Columbus. Before men unified their teams into the NFL, there was the “Ohio League” which had played professional football from 1902 through 1919 - one year before the NFL’s birth.

1933 Reds schedule with two extra “tenative” games at the end of the season

Cincinnati, Ohio was regarded as one of those medium-sized cities but had potential for enormous growth. The city already had pro sports established as the Cincinnati Red Stockings began as a Major League Baseball squad in 1882 and had won the 1919 World Series, now renamed the “Reds.”

In 1933, several businessmen pooled their financial resources together and entered their team into the NFL with the name “Cincinnati Reds.” As was the custom with a lot of pro football teams of that era, they named themselves after their baseball counterpart for the instant recognition and the hope that locals would want to become fans of both teams. They named Al Jolley as coach would had played for seven NFL clubs, mostly as a player/coach. Mike Palm was listed as the primary owner, although he was also a player/coach.

The Reds were placed in the Western Division alongside the Bears, Portsmouth Spartans, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cardinals. The Reds rented Redland Field which was built in 1912 during the same time that Boston’s Fenway Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago were also constructed (the latter two are still in use). In 1934, it was renamed Crosley Field and was the current home of the baseball Reds with a capacity of 26,060. It was the smallest stadium in Major League Baseball, but not the smallest in the NFL.

1934 Reds program

The NFL Reds went 3-6-1 and finished ahead of the Cardinals in their division. The roster was full of locals who were from all walks of life such as policemen, factory workers and sales staff. They also had 12 rookies and only a handful of roster members had ever played professional football before on other NFL clubs.

1934 Season

The Reds’ roster had 16 rookies with only four players who had four or more years of pro football experience. They opened the season on the road against perennial losers Pittsburgh Pirates. In front of 14,164, the Reds lost 13-0. After a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals at home, the defense didn’t look all that bad. The offense, however, had major issues.

In Week 3, after a scoreless first quarter, the Reds scored their first points of the season. After maneuvering inside the Bears red zone, their best drive of the game stalled and Algy Clark booted an 11-yard field goal to go up 3-0. Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski would each score touchdowns as Chicago took home a 21-3 victory in front of the best-ever Cincinnati home crowd of just over 6,000. But everyone wanted to see the great Red Grange play. This same season, the Grange-led Bears would finish 13-0-0 only to be defeated 30-13 in the NFL Championship Game by the Giants in what is referred to as the “Sneakers Game.”

After losing again to the Cardinals 16-0 and then 41-0 to the Packers, they traveled by bus for a road game against the Bears. Chicago went up 21-0 in the first quarter. Early in the second stanza, RB Pete Saumer dashed off an 11-yard TD, and with a Biff Lee PAT, the Reds were only behind 21-7. But the Bears and Grange were too much for Cincinnati who would go on to lose 41-7.

But the highlight on the bus trip home, was that the Reds had finally scored a touchdown. And they did it against the undefeated Bears who were also the defending 1933 NFL Champions.

The 1934 Reds highlight reel stopped with that TD and extra point. Cincinnati dropped a 38-0 home game to the Lions and then lost 64-0 against the 1-5-0 Philadelphia Eagles. The FG against the Bears, followed by the rushing TD and PAT would be the only scores all season. The Reds were 0-8-0 and simply a pitiful team. In four home games, they only drew 18,800 fans (4,700 avg.) including 2,500 the week after the Bears left town.

And with the huge loss to the lowly Eagles, the club folded and called it quits. But the history of this franchise did not end there.

Next stop: St. Louis

Before the 1934 season had even begun, a team called the St. Louis Gunners bought the Reds for $20,000. However, the other NFL owners did not approve the sale because in their minds, away games to Missouri was simply too far away and would increase travel costs for every club which at the time was strictly by train or bus. Every current NFL team was situated in the upper Midwest or Eastern states.

The Gunners were formed in 1931 and played as an independent professional football club. They held their home turf at the St. Louis National Guard Amory and were sponsored by the 128th Field Artillery of the Guard, which is where they received their team name. Every season, they played several NFL teams which were seeking games to round out a full schedule and add gate revenue.

In 1933 alone, the club went 2-2-1 against NFL franchises and finished the year 11-2-3. They had scored 297 points against only 72 – a mere 4.5 points allowed per game average. Home games were successful and at the end of the year the club was somewhat financially stable. At one point, they were described as the best independent team any team would ever face and in several years proclaimed themselves the “Independent Pro Champions.”

1934 was also the year in which a new pro football league formed called the American Football League (AFL) - the second such entity to call themselves that. The AFL wanted the Gunners, but the team owners thought the new league would be more of a minor league venture and certainly didn’t want to tarnish their reputation with the hopes of one day becoming an NFL franchise. So, they passed on an AFL spot and continued to pursue games via an independent schedule.

When the Reds’ organization gave up their franchise, this suddenly meant the NFL would become an odd number of teams. Plus, there were still three more games left on the schedule and in those days, game attendance money meant the difference between a continuation for several teams or folding just like the Reds were forced to do.

After the Eagles mauled the Reds 64-0 on November 6, 1934, Cincinnati folded after the game. Later that day, the NFL announced that the sale of the Reds to St. Louis had been approved. And in doing so, the Gunners would assume the Reds’ final three games of the current season. The Gunners ended up playing six more games, three as a member of the NFL and then three games they had already scheduled while as an independent club. For 1934, the Gunners would finish 1-2-0 in the NFL with the Reds’ final games.

St. Louis Gunners

Their final game was against the Kansas City Blues, who were titleholders of the AFL’s first year of existence. The Gunners won 7-0 and claimed they were “Champions of Missouri.” However, there was a problem after the contest. Several clubs the Gunners had played in St. Louis made a claim of non-payment of the gate share. The club had funds for expenses, but with the $20,000 payable to the NFL they were now financially-strapped. When the Gunners had made the original offer to purchase the Reds in August prior to the 1934 season, it was with the notion that they would be playing against NFL franchises located in large cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and New York. And with a visitor’s cut of 40%, that alone would allow the team’s owners to be able to end the year in the black.

Instead, the Gunners spent most of the year against smaller city teams with attendance usually around 2,000-5,000 patrons per game instead of 20,000-50,000. Even if they only garnered 10,000 for their own home games and with the home team cut of 60%, a game in Boston with 40% of the gate was perceived as a more financially-feasible outcome at season’s end. Plus, the Reds final three contests were two home games and only one on the road; which meant two smaller gates and only one visitor’s percentage to finish out the year.

Even though the Gunners had obtained their dream of existence as an NFL club, their finances were in shambles by season’s end. They were over $9,000 in debt and owned the government $1,700 in unpaid taxes. At the winter owner’s meeting, the league forfeited the St. Louis franchise for financial reasons.

No longer a member of the NFL for the 1935 season and still in debt, the Reds-now-Gunners disbanded completely and never played another game. And the AFL? Most of their clubs had lost a lot of money and would not be able to continue a second season. The league made an announcement that they would take a one-year hiatus in order to reorganize, but simply faded away.

Comparing Apples to Apples

So how do the winless Browns, Lions and Buccaneers stack up statistically with the 1934 Reds?

The Reds were shut out six games and only scored one TD, one PAT and one FG all season. The Reds still hold an NFL record: most rushing yards allowed per attempt – 6.4. The next closest is 5.63 by the 1950 New York Yankees.

From the Reds’ 35-man roster, when the Gunners took over they only hired five of their players.

With the tables below, the Browns and Lions played a 16-game schedule, the Bucs had 14 games while the Reds only played eight contests.

Legend:

**=last in the league

#=of 32 teams

@=of 28 teams

^=of 10 teams

Offensive Rankings

Category 2017 Browns# 2008 Lions# 1976 Buccaneers@ 1934 Reds^
Category 2017 Browns# 2008 Lions# 1976 Buccaneers@ 1934 Reds^
Offensive Ranking 32** 30 28** 10**
Total Yds-Game Avg. 311 268.2 214.7** 122.4**
Passing Yds-Game Avg. 201.8 185 107.4 31.0**
Rushing Yds-Game Avg. 107.1 83.2 107.4 91.4
Passing TDs 15 18 9 0**
Rushing TDs 13 10 5 1**
Field Goals Made 15** 21 8** 1**
INTs Thrown 28** 19 20 14
Average Pts-Game Avg. 14.6** 16.8 8.9** 1.2**
Total Pts (Season) 234** 268 125** 10**
Sacks Allowed 50 43 50 N/A

Defensive Rankings

Category 2017 Browns 2008 Lions 1976 Buccaneers 1934 Reds
Category 2017 Browns 2008 Lions 1976 Buccaneers 1934 Reds
Defensive Ranking 32** 32** 26 10**
Total Yds Allowed Avg. 328.1 404.3 342.9 313.5
Passing Yds Allowed Game 230.2 232.2 160.1 109.6**
Rushing Yds Allowed Game. 97.9 172.1** 182.9 203.9
Passing TDs Allowed 28 25 19 11**
Rushing TDs Allowed 14 31** 23 19**
Interceptions 7 4** 9** 5**
Average Pts Allowed Game 25.6 32.3 29.4 30.4**
Total Pts (Season) 410 517** 412 234**
Sacks (Season) 34 30 24 N/A

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.