Both teams earned their records, and both had moments that defined those seasons. For the Lions, it was Dan Orlovsky scrambling to make a throw and running out of the back of the end zone. For the Browns, it was either Carl Nassib lining up offside and negating a defensive touchdown by Myles Garrett or Sammie Coates jumping up after a rare catch and emphatically gesturing first down when he was clearly a yard short.
What would happen if these two teams played each other? Who would win? And who would earn the honor of being the worst of the NFL's only 0-16 teams?
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Rothstein in Detroit and Pat McManamon in Cleveland take a look.
What was the strength of each team?
Rothstein: The Lions did have a couple of strengths, starting with a potential Pro Football Hall of Famer in Calvin Johnson, who had 78 catches for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008. It was his second year in the league, the first of his seven 1,000-yard seasons and the first of his four double-digit touchdown seasons. He tied for the NFL lead in touchdown catches and was fifth in yards. It was actually the only time in Johnson's career he led the league in touchdowns. Detroit had some other nice pieces, including then-rookie defensive end Cliff Avril, who the Lions took in the third round of that year's NFL draft. Ernie Sims was a decent linebacker. Kicker Jason Hanson, who endured a lot of losing in his 327 career games with the Lions, had a fantastic season -- making 21 of 22 field goals, including all eight attempts from 50 yards or more; it was the second-best season, in terms of percentage of kicks made, of his career. The offensive line had some decent players in Dominic Raiola and Jeff Backus, but Backus was the only Lions lineman to start every game that season. Otherwise, the team had some major, major holes that took years to fill. Overall, it was not a very strong roster.
McManamon: The only Hall of Famer on this roster is left tackle Joe Thomas, but he would miss the season's final nine games after rupturing his triceps tendon. The other few strengths on the team are smothered by the weaknesses. That being said, the Browns' defense did feel good putting first overall pick Myles Garrett on defense with end Emmanuel Ogbah and linebacker Jamie Collins. That trio had five minutes together against the Lions on Nov. 12. It was only five minutes, but it caused all kinds of problems; then Collins hurt his knee at Detroit and was lost for the rest of the season. Ogbah and Garrett carried on and were a tough end tandem, until Ogbah hurt his foot the following week against the Jacksonville Jaguars and was lost for the remainder of the season. Linebackers Chris Kirksey and Joe Schobert have more than 100 tackles each and stay on the field, but their impact plays have been scarce. There is no single position group that screams out for notice.
What was the weakness of each team?
Rothstein: There were a lot of weaknesses on the 2008 Lions, from a beat-up offensive line to a quarterback carousel that saw five guys take snaps in a game -- way worse than this year's Browns. Some of that had to do with a season-ending injury to quarterback Jon Kitna; and some players I've spoken with think that if Kitna hadn't gotten hurt, the Lions would not have been a winless team that year. But Detroit still couldn't stop anyone, allowing more than 32 points a game and scoring just about half that. So any issues with that Detroit team started on defense, where there were too few playmakers in the secondary, especially considering the Lions intercepted four passes all season. That's just poor.
McManamon: Like the miserable Lions, the Browns have a lack of impact talent throughout the roster. The plan devised by executive vice president Sashi Brown was to go young, emphasize the draft and live with the lumps until the team would really start to build something in the 2018 draft. He followed the plan masterfully. Former Browns quarterback Josh McCown compared this teardown to taking apart a house past the studs and all the way to the ground. He should have compared it to digging to China. The team is lacking in the secondary and at receiver. Combine that with a shaky quarterback situation and it's not a good combination, especially in a passing era. Teams need playmakers. The Browns lack them.
How would the Lions or Browns approach winning a game against each other?
Rothstein: Considering Cleveland's strength -- and working on the assumption the Browns have Jamie Collins and the Lions have Jon Kitna for this mythical game -- would be its run defense, the Lions would need to throw the ball. Two of the five 100-yard games Calvin Johnson had in 2008 came with Kitna at quarterback, so Johnson could have a pretty productive day. The Lions also could have in this game wideout Roy Williams, who was traded to the Dallas Cowboys in October 2008. Between Williams and Johnson, Detroit would have two strong receiving options. Defensively, the Lions would struggle. But much like teams have done during the 2017 season, the Lions would likely make DeShone Kizer beat them by loading up to stop running backs Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell; the Lions' front seven in 2008 was decent enough that the strategy would be reasonable. But could the 2008 Lions, with a rough secondary, have success doing that? That's the ultimate question.
McManamon: Well, isn't this special? Detroit's game plan as you described presents a challenge for the Browns, who were built to win by running the ball and playing defense. The Browns have a decent defensive front but a weakness at cornerback. That means Calvin Johnson could exploit a secondary whose corners are not that talented. To beat Detroit, the Browns would have to commit to the run and maintain the commitment -- and hope that Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah would be able to keep enough pressure on Jon Kitna to prevent him from getting into a rhythm.
How much difference would the head coach make?
Rothstein: Coaching would not help here. Rod Marinelli has proved to be a very good defensive coordinator -- and not a good head coach. By the end of the 2008 season, Marinelli said, "I believe in the invisible," when explaining that he had faith in his team. That faith, though, did not lead to any wins. He hunted for positives continuously during the 2008 campaign, but they just didn't come. Defensive coordinator Joe Barry went on to have some success with the Washington Redskins in the same role, but it wasn't working for him in Detroit. Jim Colletto, the team's offensive coordinator, was a good line coach whose offense didn't work in 2008 -- the final season he coached in professional football. The conservative playcalling, perhaps in part because of the defense's issues, was a major problem. All in all, the staff would have likely been a hindrance against the Browns.
McManamon: Based on his experience with the Cincinnati Bengals, it would seem like head coach Hue Jackson could help, but not much has gone right for him with the 2017 Browns. Against the Green Bay Packers, he called a run on a key third-and-short and Crowell tripped. Jackson called a slant later in the same game on third-and-1 to get the ball to his best player and Josh Gordon couldn't get off the line. Against Detroit, he told his signal-caller he had the option to run a quarterback sneak near the goal line if he was sure he could score, and the quarterback ran a sneak into an impossible front. Jackson didn't always help himself with his playcalls and use of timeouts, but his players also rarely backed up his decisions. In Cincinnati, with better players, Jackson was a respected offensive coordinator. In Cleveland with a lesser roster, he's doesn't look as smart.
Which key player or players on either team would matter most?
Rothstein: The key here is Calvin Johnson. It's still young Calvin Johnson versus you-need-three-corners-to-deal-with-him Calvin Johnson, but he was a clear asset for whoever was at quarterback for Detroit. He managed a dozen touchdowns in 2008, despite five different players throwing him the ball and his second offensive coordinator in as many seasons. Later in his career, Johnson would end up setting the all-time single-season receiving mark with 1,964 yards. As good as Myles Garrett might become, Johnson would be the best player on the field when these two teams play; it would likely not be a close comparison, either.
McManamon: This is a tiny problem. The Browns don't have a key player who forces the other team to adjust. The roster lacks impact players throughout. DeShone Kizer is barely above a 50 percent completion rate. Josh Gordon, the star receiver back from suspension, has had a negligible influence. The running backs, while good, are not carry-the-team kinds of guys. Defensively, Myles Garrett and a healthy Emmanuel Ogbah and Jamie Collins would help. However, the Browns simply do not have a player on offense who demands immediate attention from the other team.
OK, time to take a stand. Which 0-16 team wins this game, Detroit or Cleveland?
Rothstein: The Lions have Calvin Johnson, who is the one player on the field who has shown in the past he can completely wreck a game. Not sure Cleveland, as deep as its safeties might play, would be able to handle that. If the safeties played too deep, Johnson could slant all day on this defense. Provided Jon Kitna was healthy and available, the Kitna-to-Johnson combination would be really hard for Cleveland to handle; although the Browns could make the Lions one-dimensional, because the front seven would likely be able to handle Detroit running back Kevin Smith. Detroit's offensive line would have some problems too, particularly with rookie Gosder Cherilus at right tackle. The biggest concern for the Browns would be their inability to score, averaging fewer points per game than the 2008 Lions did. It would be a close game. There would be a lot of turnovers. But Johnson would be the oh-so-small difference, catching a touchdown late to beat Cleveland 24-20, causing yet another memorable Johnson moment and a That's So Browns moment, simultaneously.
McManamon: Mike nailed it: The Browns simply could not compete with Calvin Johnson. And Jon Kitna would be far better than what DeShone Kizer could produce. With so much attention on the quarterback, the Browns' struggles on defense have gone largely ignored. The Browns have given up a league-high 44 touchdowns, 27 via the pass (sixth highest in the league). Cleveland has forced only 11 turnovers. The 382 points the Browns have given up ranks second highest in the league. This is simply not a defense built to hold down a capable quarterback (which Kitna was) and a standout receiver such as Johnson. The Lions win this game, making the Browns the worst of the NFL's only 0-16 teams.