"WELCOME TO THE DREAM," declares the sign overhead as we approach MetLife Stadium. Our Formula One shuttle driver slams on the brakes and dumps us at a place that seems appropriate for this game between the 4-8 New York Jets and 3-9 Miami Dolphins: directly in front of a row of overflowing Royal Flush port-a-potties. It is Week 14 of the NFL season, and with less than a month to go, 19 teams sit at or below .500. That number has hit 20 in a season only once since the league reached 32 teams. So the idea behind my current predicament is to visit the five worst teams in a span of seven days -- code name: Tour of Sadness (stronger language wasn't permitted) -- to explore the dreadful side of the NFL that is largely ignored this time of year. And for good reason, it turns out. I might not fully comprehend, just yet, what this time of year is like for players, fans and their hopeless franchises in New York, Miami, Washington, Cincinnati and beyond, but an hour before the Jets and Dolphins are set to kick off, as I stroll toward MetLife to a parking lot soundtrack of AC/DC's "Big Balls," I now know exactly what football futility smells like: a thick, sour mélange of charcoal smoke, port-a-potty leakage and cannabis.
You can hardly blame Jets fans for taking the edge off after watching their team become the first in NFL history to lose to two teams that were 0-7 or worse in a single season. This will be the ninth year in a row the Jets fail to make the playoffs. Accordingly, inside one of those Royal Flush toilets, the urinal is clogged by an empty Crown Royal bottle, and someone has used a Hobby Lobby-style glitter paint pen (an interesting weapon for an anarchist) to scribble "FIRE GASE" on the wall. It's a fitting tribute for a supposed offensive genius like Adam Gase, who brags about skipping major family events to devour game film but somehow still can't find a way to utilize Le'Veon Bell, among the most gifted, dynamic backs in the game. Meanwhile, the Dolphins, who have even found a way to screw up tanking for the No. 1 pick and face the Bengals on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) in perhaps the sorriest game of the year, have amassed a point differential so spectacularly bad (-194), it looks like my ATM balance in college.
No wonder, then, with kickoff approaching, that so many fans of both teams are still hovering around the parking lot trying to postpone the inevitable as long as possible. They nibble on $13 Italian sausages. They stand in line for lottery scratch-offs. They muster the softest, slowest "J-E-T-S" chants you will ever hear outside of a nursing home. And they chat about the next draft, the wellspring of hope for every disgruntled football fan.
I hover right along with them, daydreaming about what I'm sure is an electric atmosphere in New Orleans for the epic 49ers-Saints battle later today. Here in Jersey at the start of my road trip, where for the next seven days I'll chronicle what I like to call the Washington Generals Conference of the NFL, the pregame vibe feels like a guy needing a root canal, sitting in his car outside a dentist's office, praying for an extinction-level asteroid strike.
It never comes.
Welcome to the Dream.
EARLIER IN THE week at the Jets' facility, it was reported that the team's inflatable Santa had sprung a leak and was slumped, flaccid, over a garbage can in the locker room. For a moment, I considered making this the official logo of the Tour of Sadness. But the truth is, the universal symbol for the bottom third of the NFL -- even more than actively bad owners, injuries, wasted draft picks and fans protesting with brown paper bags over their heads -- is an empty stadium seat. This trend should truly alarm the NFL, which is on pace for the lowest average attendance of the past 10 seasons and watches weekly social media feeds fill up with empty stadium shots in Jacksonville, Atlanta, Washington, Cincinnati, Detroit and, now, even New Jersey.
At kickoff in the upper deck of MetLife, just above a sign commemorating the Jets' Super Bowl III win, 62 fans are sitting in a section that's supposed to hold 600. It's even less crowded in the lower bowl at the 50-yard line. Think about that for a sec: These primo seats can go for as much as $30,000 each. Fans have skipped vacations and kitchen renovations to afford these seats. Yet the product the Jets and Dolphins are putting on the field today is so substandard that they would rather light that pile of cash on fire than sit and endure it.
Injuries are a part of this mess, for sure. The Jets have used 71 players so far in 2019, second most in franchise history (not accounting for player strikes). And what Gregg Williams has been able to do with the defense under these circumstances is remarkable. Not to be outdone, the Dolphins now hold a league record, according to Elias Sports Bureau, with 80 players seeing the field this season. They're so beset by injuries and roster turnover that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says they were having trouble communicating on offense, where players seemed to be introducing themselves in the huddle.
The Tour of Sadness is just more proof that in 2019 the NFL has a product too violent for the human body to survive and too fast to referee with any real consistency. Not exactly a recipe for quality football.
As far as I can tell, the league's only plan to remedy all this is to give away more T-shirts. There seems to be a direct correlation between how awful a team is and how many free T-shirts that team hands out. It's a brilliant PR sleight of hand that uses a $4 shirt to trigger an endorphin rush that distracts you from the atrocities unfolding on the field. And, let's just say, over the past nine years the Jets have become masters of the T-shirt cannon.
I could be wrong. I may have blacked out or dozed off during this 10-field-goal yawner. We'll never know since 11 of the 12 seats to my left in the press box were empty.
But the box score for this game should read:
Punt, injury, T-shirt, field goal, turnover, flag, T-shirt giveaway, field goal, flag, blown play, T-shirt cannon, punt, fumble, punt, field goal, Hey: T-shirts!, Fitzpatrick scramble, interception, flag, field goal, T-shirt contest, Jets game-winning field goal, final horn, Here, OK, everyone just grab a handful of T-shirts on your way out.
THE MONDAY NIGHT game in Philadelphia is over, thank god, and the New York Giants -- having just dropped their franchise-record ninth game in a row by surrendering a 14-point lead in the most meager and inevitable way possible -- are now at rock bottom. New York now has more losses since 2017 (35) than any other team in the league; Eli Manning is below .500 as a starter (116-117); and the Giants' defense, which has given up a league-high 14 plays of 40 yards or more, was just carved up by a team without a single fully functioning wide receiver. At this historic moment in franchise history, I turn to enter the Giants' locker room and, in a single snapshot, catch a glimpse of the human toll this kind of season extracts. Hunched over a chair inside his cramped office, coach Pat Shurmur is rubbing his pale, bare, frozen feet, trying to bring those wrinkled old dogs back to life after four hours of freezing rain.
The Linc can be a brutal place for feet and family. Years ago, Eli Manning's wife, Abby, vowed never to step foot in Philadelphia again. "Fans can be kinda rough in there," Eli explained. Abby toughed it out for one last Monday night game, though. "Why? I haven't played in three months, and I don't know if I'm ever gonna play again," Eli says. Afterward, as Monday turned into Tuesday inside the Linc, the Manning family seemed to sense the end of an era as they lingered together in the hallway outside the locker room, where the red digital clock on the wall remained stuck at 5:10, frozen in time just like this franchise. The next week at home, Eli will get a heartfelt and much-deserved salute from teammates and fans as he leaves the field at MetLife for perhaps the last time.
While I admit that bit of nostalgia feels really good, for the Giants' purposes it was probably two years too late. The Giants are victims of the timeless management (and fan) blunder of heart over brain: trying to wring a few more years out of a (mostly) beloved franchise QB with a roster duct-taped together with costly fixes and ill-conceived deals. The truth is, if the Giants' brain trust of president John Mara and GM Dave Gettleman had been a touch more ruthless, proactive and, shall we say, Belichickian, this rebuild might be already done instead of just starting.
Instead, the current mood inside the Giants' locker room remains that of Shurmur's feet: frozen and lifeless. Dressed in all black, Saquon Barkley sits sideways in front of his locker as if trying to hypnotize the New York media with his giant dangly diamond No. 26 earring. It doesn't work. Star players on terrible teams are extremely guarded this time of year. The raw emotions and pent-up frustrations are dangerously close to the surface and could blow at any second. The thing is, for the most part, the players aren't to blame for the sad state of these franchises. Like the fans, they're innocent victims in all of this, to some extent. Still, no one wants to be that guy -- OBJ 2.0 -- the doofus pointing fingers, airing the team's dirty laundry or letting the outside world know just how much this all stings.
Barkley quietly acknowledges that the current Giants are one of those cursed teams that always find a way to lose. "I don't know why it doesn't work the way we would like it to work," he says. But he's certain things will turn around eventually.
"It's the Giants," he says. "It's one of the best organizations in the world."
It used to be. And maybe someday it will be again.
But not right now it's not.
AT NOON ON Wednesday, when Redskins rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins strolls to the podium for his weekly news conference, the outside world's only glimpse into Redskins Park is through the narrow lens of a TV camera focused on a polished wooden podium in front of a large hi-def TV. Pan those cameras just a few feet in either direction, however, and the reality of the Redskins' situation comes into much clearer focus.
The scene reminds me of that great old John Clayton "This is SportsCenter" spot. What looks like a corporate auditorium to the outside world is actually a cramped garage straight out of "Hoarders." Just out of frame to the left are boxes of sports drinks stacked halfway up the wall, next to a row of steel dead-lift bars, burgundy laundry carts, random piles of electronic equipment and postal boxes. To the right is a blue floor-cleaning machine the size of a pony parked between red metal dollies, another tangle of electric cords and several restaurant-size soda canisters.
Inside the 22-year-old Redskins Park, the hallways are lined with orange pleather liquidation-sale couches, while upstairs, the lobby features white leather furniture that I swear I sat on while interviewing Norv Turner in the late 1990s. When the team's slogan, "Everything Matters," appears on the back wall, I involuntarily start giggling -- until I realize, oh, they're serious.
Imagine what this looks like from Haskins' perspective, though. At Ohio State, the quarterback spent all his time at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, an immaculate, state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot facility with a players lounge, nutrition center, barbershop, arcade, cryotherapy chamber and sleep pods. And that is just the east wing. After realizing his lifelong dream of making it to the NFL, Haskins, 22, the Redskins' first-round pick, was then forced to put his professional development, and hundreds of millions of dollars in potential earnings, in the hands of a franchise headquartered in a place that looks like it should be selling CBD oil.
The Washington Post was being generous when it called this place outdated five years ago. And it hardly matters that owner Dan Snyder is probably waiting to upgrade the team's facilities as part of a new stadium deal. If an owner can't even correct the simple, nonmoving parts like infrastructure, what possible hope does he have at the really vital, complex stuff like hiring a coach or GM, developing a franchise QB and building a culture and roster around him? You simply can't own a team worth $3.4 billion and continually promise to spare no expense in order to build a winner and expect your fan base, free agents or franchise quarterbacks to believe you when there's a sign on your locker room door that reads, "HOT TUB DOWN."
When reporters close to the team say that a deep sense of hopelessness has infected the franchise and finally begun to erode a steadfast fan base, it's remarkable just how much the Redskins' headquarters begin to resemble the current state of the franchise, and vice versa.
To put it in HGTV terms, this franchise needs a down-to-the-studs rebuild that, by my count, will be the 10th makeover in Snyder's 20 years as owner. His reign has been a nonstop comedy of errors that has reduced the value of Redskins tickets down to single digits while fluctuating between laughable choices at head coach (Jim Zorn, Steve Spurrier), grossly overspending on free agents well past their prime (Jeff George, Bruce Smith, Albert Haynesworth, Donovan McNabb), public relations disasters (suing season-ticket holders who could no longer afford their tickets during the recession) and letting the best young coaches in the biz (Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan) walk -- or, more likely, run -- away from Redskins Park. The absolute best thing that could happen is Snyder experiencing a kind of Jed York-meets-George-Constanza-meets-the-Grinch-style epiphany and realizing, Oh, it's me. I'm the problem. Maybe I should, ya know, detach and let someone with some actual football expertise make the decisions. You see this fatal flaw in the NFL's business model all over the Tour of Sadness. Why would Snyder ever do that? Why would he or Jerry Jones or Mike Brown in Cincinnati or the Ford family in Detroit step aside from football operations when, in the NFL, you can run a franchise into the ground for two decades while simultaneously increasing its worth by nearly $3 billion?
With that much money, maybe the Redskins will spring for a new hot tub.
AS I HEAD WEST, I am haunted by the trail of zombified visages -- Fitzpatrick, Shurmur, Manning, Barkley, Haskins et al. -- I've seen on the Tour of Sadness. Knowing how reluctant they are to open up about their current situations, though, my mind shifts to former Browns great Joe Thomas. The future Hall of Fame tackle broke down and cried in his car after yet another blowout loss in Cleveland late in his career, and if the Giants and Redskins don't get their act together soon, this could be the torturous ignominy awaiting Barkley, Haskins and other young stars. (I also decided the Browns franchise needed to be represented in some way on the ToS.)
Before retiring in 2018, Thomas was named All-Pro six times in 11 seasons in Cleveland, and he is, in my mind, the best NFL player to have never made the playoffs, as well as one of the most stand-up guys I've ever covered. So I reached out to him, figuring no one could better explain, in his own words, just what it's like to play on one of these hopeless teams this time of year. When the newly svelte Thomas, now an (outstanding) NFL Network analyst, called that Friday, we were both at home on our Pelotons. I stopped to take notes. He kept on pedaling and processing that dark day in 2016 when the Browns fell to 0-5 after losing 33-13 to the Patriots. It would be the 13th double-digit losing season in Cleveland over the past 17 years.
"It was my 10th season, and you're still trying to convince yourself you have a chance, and we played the Patriots at home and we got smoked," he said. "And I remember going into the parking lot with my wife, Annie, in the car and I just started crying. I am really crying, and she looked at me and said, 'Are you OK? Did you have a bad game?' And I was like, 'No, actually I had a perfect game.' And she was like, 'Well, what's wrong?'
"I told her the losing had just gotten to me, and it had just mentally broken me down. Going into every game and every season, you have to find a way to get into the headspace to convince yourself you have a chance to win. You do that over and over and over again, and you get to that point where you realize you can't fool yourself anymore. You get to a point where it just hurts so much to put in that effort on a daily basis and deal with the pain and the injuries you have to deal with to get yourself back out on the field, only to get walloped each and every week.
"Every man has that breaking point, and I got to it.
"It's easy to say this is all very important to you when you're in a playoff race or it's the first game of the season. But [on losing teams] it's that old quote about what you do when no one's watching, because really, when you're not a playoff team, nobody's watching you and unfortunately it does bring out the worst in players. I had plenty of teammates that would have already cashed in their chips and were already checked out for the season. As soon as practice was over, they wouldn't even shower. They were back in their cars and back home.
"So you find out a lot about your teammates' character and professionalism and their commitment to the craft. It's easier for offensive linemen, in a way. If I'm in the Super Bowl or 0-16, my job doesn't change. I have to block the guy in front of me and prevent him from killing my quarterback. In the NFL, on a losing team this time of year, you have to be self-motivated. If you're used to playing in front of 80,000 people every Saturday in college, you have to basically retool how your mind works and how to get ready to play the game in the NFL.
"You can't fool yourself anymore. You get to a point where it just hurts so much to put in that effort on a daily basis and deal with the pain and the injuries you have to deal with to get yourself back out on the field, only to get walloped each and every week."
"The funny thing is, this time of year, for a losing team, it's way better to be on the road than playing at home. Because typically the only people who are showing up to home games at the end of a bad season are the ones who really want to tell you directly how much you suck. And you can absolutely hear the fans at these late-season games when they're harassing you and yelling how we ruined this guy's fall because he spent all his extra money on season tickets and we sucked.
"The farther I am away from the game, though, I do wonder more about how cool it would have been to experience something different, like a playoff game or a Super Bowl run. A part of you will always wish and wonder."
THEY APPEAR IN my binoculars with about four minutes to go on Sunday. The stands behind the north end zone in Cincinnati had begun to thin out moments after Andy Dalton heaved his fourth interception of the day against the Patriots. Three brave fans in winter coats, about halfway up the section, are engaged in one of the oldest and most powerful fan protests in sports. With the Bengals about to drop their 13th game of the year, their seventh game in a row without a second-half touchdown, in their 28th consecutive season without a playoff win, this trio dons brown-paper-bag masks, hand-painted in Bengals stripes -- the universal symbol of football fan frustration and shame. I'm surprised, frankly, that more fans inside the stadium don't have them on. Because of the numerous guardrails the league puts in place to help ensure parity -- draft order, salary cap, strength of schedule, to name a few -- the Bengals' unrelenting futility is in many ways far more extraordinary than the Patriots' dominance.
"The Cincinnati Bengals are bad. Historically bad, in fact," proclaimed The Cincinnati Enquirer in a recent editorial that noted the team's status as a "national embarrassment" and the massive cost to taxpayers of the "worst stadium financing deal in American history."
"The empty seats at Paul Brown Stadium on Sundays speak louder than words," the paper said.
Bengals coaches and players had certainly voiced their frustrations on Sunday. Just before halftime, an assistant coach jogged through the press box on his way down to the locker room, chanting "f---, f---, f---" with each step. After the game, the first thing I heard out of head coach Zac Taylor's mouth was, "We got bullied." Inside the Bengals' nearly silent locker room, there was that look again: the blank, dazed, dead-eyed stare of a lost season. And Joe Thomas was right. The players saw every last "Bleaux for Burreaux" sign, and they heard every last taunt. But it sounds like the "Brady! Brady! Brady!" chants late in the game hurt the most. Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard described it as "pretty painful," and his teammate Carl Lawson called it "disgusting."
For fans, though, nothing is as effective as the time-honored protest of the paper bag, which dates back to the 1980 New Orleans Aints -- so I guess it works. In Cincinnati, the original brown baggers leave the stadium in disgust before the two-minute warning. But by the time I get to their seats, the guy behind them, Kyle Gray, a glasses-wearing 25-year-old Bengals fan from Columbus, has picked up one of the bags and put it on, like some kind of Bengal Baton of Sadness handoff ritual.
As a lifelong Bengals fan, Kyle has rehearsed his Santa wish list many times. What he wants more than anything is a real live general manager to prevent Mike Brown's legendary cheapness from short-circuiting yet another rebuild. (An agent recently told me that Brown is in an "alternative reality in terms of player compensation.") Brown is 84. At this point, I don't know what the Bengals are waiting for: Hand over control to Brown's daughter, Katie Blackburn, a sharp, no-nonsense attorney, former college hockey goaltender and Bengals exec. Numerous studies have found that the simple (and obvious) act of diversifying an organization's decision-making process is bound to improve its fortunes.
The last time I talked to her, Blackburn said there was no reason women couldn't fill football front-office roles as well as the men currently running the NFL.
I told her she should probably set her goals a little higher.
Continuing my public service in Cincinnati, I do my best in our short time together to persuade Kyle to jump ship and become a Patriots fan like the rest of the people in his group.
"There's no shame in it, Kyle," I say.
"You realize you've never witnessed a single playoff win in your entire lifetime -- the Jaguars have seven," I say.
"Nah," Kyle finally responds from behind his paper-bag mask while we pose for a selfie. "I'm sticking with 'em. I'm young. It'll happen sometime before I die."
But after a week on the Tour of Sadness, immersed in the worst the NFL has to offer, I know better.
Time is relevant in this sad, lonely, hopeless corner of the NFL.
"It's the Bengals, Kyle," I warn him.
"You aren't that young."