By Noah Trister
AP Sports Writer
DETROIT — Detroit long snapper Don Muhlbach was with the Lions back in 2008, when they became the first — and so far, the only — NFL team to go 0-16.
This season, as the Cleveland Browns approach that mark of infamy, Muhlbach would rather not see a sequel.
“That was a brutal year,” Muhlbach said. “As a football player to another football player, I hope no one else has to go through that.”
The Browns have three more chances to avoid a winless season, starting with this weekend’s game at Buffalo. If Cleveland does finish 0-16, those 2008 Lions would have company in that pitiable club, but Detroit isn’t exactly buzzing with anticipation.
“Can we wait for them to go 0-16 before I pop champagne?” joked Dominic Raiola, who played center for the Lions from 2001-2014.
All kidding aside, it’s not like an 0-16 season in Cleveland would change what the Lions had to endure eight years ago.
“I haven’t been following what they’ve been doing and I don’t really care if they win a game or not,” said Raiola, now an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the Lions.
The Browns actually have a chance to surpass the 2008 Lions in one measure of futility. Cleveland also lost all four of its preseason games this season. Before Detroit’s 0-16 nightmare under Rod Marinelli eight years ago, the Lions managed to win the four games that didn’t count.
Of course, even that may have come with a cost.
“We were 4-0 in the preseason and showed our whole hand,” said Roy Williams, a wide receiver for that team. “We used all our plays and didn’t change anything when the season started.”
Williams got off easy that year. He was traded in October to Dallas. But he has some, well, interesting tales.
“What really sums it up is what happened in Atlanta in our first game,” Williams said. “We were about to score and (quarterback Jon) Kitna was gesturing to the sideline to let them know that he wasn’t hearing a play in his headset. Rod says into the headset, ‘Come in Jim! Jim! Colletto!’ And Colletto finally answered and said, ‘Sorry, coach. I must’ve dozed off.’”
Colletto, who was Detroit’s offensive coordinator that year, says he doesn’t remember any incident like that. He says in their Thanksgiving loss to Tennessee, the Lions were penalized for a delay of game immediately after a timeout, and he had to apologize to Marinelli because he’d drawn a blank on what play to call.
“There wasn’t anybody dozing off,” Colletto said.
Colletto can certainly empathize with what Cleveland’s coaches are facing now.
“I know (Browns coach) Hue Jackson. There’s a lot of good coaches there,” Colletto said. “It’s hard. It’s really hard. I know what they’re going through.”
The 2008 Lions had their chances to win a game. During one stretch, they dropped games to Minnesota, Houston, Washington and Chicago, all by eight points or fewer. Detroit was even tied in the fourth quarter of the season finale at Green Bay before falling 31-21.
“Every week, it just kept building and building,” Muhlbach said.
Muhlbach and quarterback Dan Orlovsky are the only current Lions players who were with the team in 2008. Needless to say, it’s hard to stay hopeful during a season like that, and players — both in Detroit in 2008 and Cleveland this year — are put to an unenviable test.
“Be a pro. You have a job to do,” said Tampa Bay offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus, who played for the Lions in 2008. “Every day you wake up, don’t look at the record. Know you’re a big part of the team and every time you have a chance, you want to be a part of the reason they’re winning — not part of the reason why they’re losing. At the end of the day, not everyone’s going to give you their best, but you want to be one of the good guys.”
If there’s any solace for the Browns, it’s that the Lions actually recovered from 0-16 rather quickly. That awful season netted them the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, which they used on quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Calvin Johnson was in his second season when the Lions went winless, and he went on to become one of the greatest players in franchise history. Team president Matt Millen was fired during that 2008 season, and Marinelli met the same fate when it was over. The Lions moved on with Martin Mayhew as general manager and Jim Schwartz as coach.
Neither of them is still with the organization, but they helped the Lions recover from depths no team had ever reached. In 2011, Detroit made the playoffs — and Stafford is a big part of this year’s NFC North-leading team .
“Yeah, but we could’ve won one game and still got Stafford,” Muhlbach said.
Plenty of teams have hit rock bottom and then returned to respectability. Only one of them went 0-16.
The memories of that season linger for those who experienced it.
“Sometimes when you keep hearing how much of a loser you are, you start to believe it and you accept it. Don’t you ever accept that, regardless,” Cherilus said. “A lot of people think you win in the National Football League just on talent, but it takes so much more than that. If you look at the Browns, they’re just as talented as other teams in the league. That tells you how hard it is to win.
“But I’m rooting for them, because I don’t wish for that kind of thing to happen to anyone else.”
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage and Fred Goodall contributed to this report.