The ugliest winning seasons in NFL history – Touchdown Wire

Folks, the Pittsburgh Steelers just keep winning ugly. In their 23-19 Sunday win over the Green Bay Packers, Mike Tomlin’s team continued its streak of being outgained by every single one of its opponents. This time, the Packers gained 399 net yards to Pittsburgh’s 324. The Steelers are now the only professional football team since at least 1933 to be outgained in every game and still have a winning record.

Impressive? In a perverse way, yes.

Despite this lack of offensive firepower, and a point differential of -26, the Steelers stand at 6-3 on the season, which got us thinking — what are the worst winning seasons in NFL history? Those seasons in which you think to yourself, “There’s no WAY these guys can be winning,” but they are anyway?

As it turns out, the Steelers are nowhere near the worst winning teams in these categories. But it is notable that in all three seasons of Matt Canada’s tenure as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, the Steelers are either on this list, or in the discussion.


Ted Marchibroda coached the Baltimore Colts from 1975-1979, presiding over the fabulous Bert Jones/Lydell Mitchell/Roger Carr era, before moving on to an offensive coordinator role with multiple NFL teams, and landing back with the Colts in Indianapolis in 1992. The Colts hadn’t made the playoffs since 1987, and they didn’t make the playoffs in the first season of Marchibroda’s return, but they certainly did put together one of the most improbable winning seasons in pro football history. Not only did the 1992 Colts get outscored by 86 points, they were also outgained 5,074 to 4,368. This Colts team was shot out in three different games by a combined score of 92-0 before putting together a five-game win streak at the end of the regular season. Quarterback Jeff George threw seven touchdowns to 15 interceptions,

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

This was the end of the Jon Gruden era with the Raiders — he was forced to resign after racist, sexist, and homophobic e-mails were revealed in the process of investigating former Washington Redskins/Football Team/Commanders owner Daniel Snyder. Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia gave the team a bit of a spark down the stretch, and after a 6-7 nadir, this Raiders team turned it around enough to make the playoffs, where they were beaten by the Cincinnati Bengals in the wild-card round. Owner Mark Davis went out and hired Josh McDaniels instead of retaining Bisaccia as head coach, because… well, some teams can’t get out of their own way.

(USA TODAY Sports)

Hall of Fame head coach Chuck Noll was nearing the end of his time with the Steelers — 1989 was his third-to-last season in a 23-year tenure. Noll had the beginning elements of what became the great “Blitzburgh” defenses of the 1990s, but when Bubby Brister and Todd Blackledge are your quarterbacks, that’s a problem. Still, these Steelers held fast even after an opening day 51-0 blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns, and they made it all the way to the divisional round of the playoffs, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Sean McDermott’s first season as the Bills’ head coach was certainly the start of a rebuild for a franchise that hadn’t made the playoffs since 1999, and that year’s Bills reflected that. This was another team that was massively outgained in yards — 5,682 to 4,842. The offense, led by Tyrod Taylor and (you’ll pardon the expression) Nathan Peterman scored fewer than 20 points in eight of their regular-season games, and they allowed more than 20 points in seven of those games. But winning three of their last four games put them in the wild-card round of the playoffs, where they lost to a Jacksonville Jaguars team that came within one half of the Super Bowl.

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The first of three teams involved in this list with Matt Canada as its offensive coordinator, the 2021 Steelers featured the final decline of Ben Roethlisberger, and his final NFL season. A 41-10 loss to the eventual AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals in Week 12 put the team at 5-5-1 but they managed to limp into the playoffs, helped quite a bit by T.J. Watt’s 22.5-sack season, and Cameron Heyward demolishing every offensive lineman that Watt wasn’t. This Steelers team lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card round.

(DAVE CRUZ, AZR-D via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

This marked the Cardinals’ first winning season as a franchise since 1984, back when they were the St. Louis Cardinals, so it probably didn’t matter to anybody that this team had to back into the playoffs with no rearview mirrors. Quarterback Jake “The Snake” Plummer threw 17 touchdowns to 20 interceptions, the defense allowed 30 or more points in seven games, and this Cardinals team was 6-7 after a Week 14 loss to the New York Giants. But they got themselves together, won their last three regular-season games, and beat the Dallas Cowboys in the wild-card round before getting trounced by a Minnesota Vikings team in the divisional frame that had one of the greatest offenses in NFL history — and were one game away from their own unique brand of postseason heartbreak.

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The good news: The 1962 Steelers ranked sixth in the NFL in points scored, and 11th in points allowed. The bad news: The NFL was a 14-team league at the time. Pittsburgh had seen just five winning seasons in its history before the 1962 season, through, so Buddy Parker’s team was going to take those victories any way they came. This season started inauspiciously with a 45-7 loss to the Detroit Lions, and there were two other games (Dallas Cowboys in Week 6 and the Cleveland Browns in Week 7) in which the Steelers’ opponent was gifted more than 40 points. 36-yard-old Bobby Layne threw nine touchdowns to 17 interceptions, and one of the few saving graces was a secondary, led by safety Clendon Thomas, that picked off 28 passes. The Steelers won six of their last seven games, but failed to make the postseason.


One season after the infamous “Grits Blitz” defense allowed just 129 points in a 14-game season and put up 42 quarterback takedowns, the 1978 Falcons hoped to get a credible performance out of an offense under 1975 No. 1 overall pick Steve Bartkowski. But Bartkowski was not quite ready for prime time as he was in 1980 when he led the NFL with 31 touchdown passes; he threw just 10 in 1978 to 18 interceptions while completing 50.7% of his passes — a very 1970s stat line. The defense fell off a little bit from 1977’s frenetic pace, the offense scored nine or fewer points in five games, but even after a 1-3 start, these Falcons managed to get into the playoffs, beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round, and hung with the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round in a 27-20 loss.

(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Hey, remember after a few mediocre seasons with the Denver Broncos when the Texans gave quarterback Brock Osweiler a four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed? We sure do. Houston’s new franchise guy had a three-fumble game against the Broncos in Week 7 and a three-interception game against the San Diego Chargers in Week 11, and he was benched in a Week 14 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars after throwing two MORE interceptions.

So, that didn’t help. The ostensible contenders did have some talent with DeAndre Hopkins as their primary receiver, and some good defensive players, which is how you transcend quarterback performance like that. The Texans won three of their last four regular-season games, beat the Oakland Raiders in the wild-card round (because Derek Carr was injured and Connor Cook was their quarterback), and lost to the New England Patriots in the divisional round.

As for Osweiler, he was traded to the Cleveland Browns in March, 2017, and he was out of the league by 2019.

(USA TODAY Sports © Copyright 1989 by USA TODAY Sports)

The 1989 Oilers had Warren Moon at quarterback, an embryonic version of the Run-and-Shoot offense whose principles you now see as the usual in every NFL game, an evolving receiver corps, and a secondary coach by the name of Nick Saban. And head coach Jerry Glanville certainly kept things interesting. The defense was the problem, as shown in a 61-7 Week 15 demolition at the hands of the Cincinnati Bengals, and a 47-41 overtime shootout loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 3. Still, this Oilers team managed a 9-5 record through the first 14 games before losing their last two, and then losing in the wild-card round to the aforementioned 1989 Steelers.

(Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports)

We started with Matt Canada, so we might as well end there. The post-Roethlisberger era began with Mitch Trubisky as the starting quarterback before rookie Kenny Pickett made his debut in Week 4. Pickett had seven touchdown passes to nine interceptions in Canada’s vertically-challenged offense, which was one reason why the Steelers finished 26th in points scored. They finished 10th in points allowed in pass-rusher Alex Highsmith’s breakout season, and Minkah Fitzpatrick’s six interceptions. These Steelers won their last four games to finish 9-8 and keep Mike Tomlin’s streak of winning seasons alive, but very little about this season will make the Steelers’ Hall of Fame.

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