I started thinking about it, though, and I feel like back-to-back losing seasons aren't enough to invoke feelings of futility in the fan base. There's still a hope that the team is about to turn it around (after all, it was only two seasons ago you were competing for a playoff spot). But three straight losing seasons ... that's when you start to wonder if your investment in a Tim Couch jersey was really a good idea. So I decided to track when each NFL team last had three losing seasons in a row. I debated back-and-forth whether .500 should be considered part of the futility, but in an era where 8-8 (or even below!) can win a division and make the playoffs, I feel like most fans won't get depressed too much with the occasional 8-8 season.
THE ALMOST FUTILE
The Chicago Bears are the only franchise that are not considered futile by this metric that will be if they finish with a losing record in 2016. At 2-7, it appears futility is in reach.
For the record, the last time the franchise experienced futility was in 2004.
THE CURRENTLY FUTILE
The following teams have had three straight sub-.500 seasons heading into 2016:
New York Giants
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Oakland is only one win away from escaping futility, and the Giants need only two wins to do so. Tennessee at 5-5 can still escape. Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland, however, look to continue their streak (I'm not counting Cleveland as futile in 2016 yet because there's still a scenario where they make the playoffs, believe it or not).
THE ONCE AND CURRENT FUTILE FRANCHISE
When the Los Angeles Rams left town in 1994, they were in the middle of a futility streak. When they left St. Louis in 2015, they were also in a futility streak. So by themselves the Rams have left two city's fanbases with feelings of football futility.
The following teams ended their futility streak between 2010 and 2013 (no team ended their streak since):
Detroit Lions (2010)
Washington Redskins (2011)
Carolina Panthers (2012)
Miami Dolphins (2012)
Buffalo Bills (2013)
For fans of these franchises, the feelings of futility still linger. That said, there's cause for optimism in most cases, and they don't appear to be heading back to futility any time soon.
THE FUTILE PLAYOFF TEAM
The Seattle Seahawks technically were futile until 2011 ... but it's kind of hard to consider them as such since they made the playoffs in 2010 despite having a losing record. So you'll have to keep reading to find out when they were last truly futile.
The Carolina Panthers were not in a futile streak when they won the division with a losing record in 2014.
FUTILE THIS MILLENIUM
These teams ended their futility streak since 2000:
Atlanta Falcons (2001)
Cincinnati Bengals (2002)
Dallas Cowboys (2002)
Chicago Bears (2004)
Arizona Cardinals (2006)
Houston Texans (2006)
San Francisco 49ers (2008)
Kansas City Chiefs (2009)
This ends up being a weird list, because as an NFL fan some of these franchises have been associated with losing so long (Cincy, Arizona, Houston) that they haven't escaped that label despite not having endured a recent streak of futility. But if you're a fan of one of these franchises (excepting the Bears, as noted above) you've had a good stretch of optimism.
HAVEN'T BEEN FUTILE SINCE HAMMER PANTS
There's a good number of teams that were last futile in the 90s, including one surprise (in fact, some of you may have already noticed their exclusion):
San Diego Chargers (1991)
New England Patriots (1993)
Seattle Seahawks (1994)
New York Jets (1996)
Baltimore Ravens (1998)
New Orleans Saints (1999)
Philadelphia Eagles (1999)
That's right: it's been twenty years since the Jets have been futile. Granted, they haven't been remarkably successful, but they've been competitive often enough that they haven't had three losing seasons in a row.
It feels like the Chargers have the most bad luck of this group, although some Eagles fans will disagree. For the Eagles, 1999 was their first season under Donovan McNabb; they haven't been futile since. That was also the year that the Saints traded their draft for Ricky Williams, and while it wasn't the best of times, it ended up being the end of their last futility streak.
The Patriots were also a team who last experienced futility in the rookie season of a new QB: Drew Bledsoe was chosen #1 overall in the 1993 draft.
WHAT DOES FUTILE EVEN MEAN?
And here are the 5 most blessed franchises in the NFL when it comes to competiveness.
5. Green Bay Packers (1988)
The '80s were rough as a Packers fan. But 1989 and Majik Man was still probably my favorite season as a fan, despite the Super Bowl victories since.
4. Indianapolis Colts (1986)
It almost seems unfair that a city that stole a team from another city could go so long without losing hope, but the Colts have somehow done so. They've had some bad stretches (including back-to-back 3-13 seasons in the late 90s) but never three seasons in a row.
3. Denver Broncos (1972)
Here's exhibit B on how playoff success defines your franchise; the Broncos hadn't been futile for over 20 years when the Simpsons made fun of them in the mid-90s, but their constant issues in the postseason (including some spectacular Super Bowl blowouts) defined their pop culture identity. For fans of the team, tho, it's been a very good run despite the losses (and of course, the jokes stopped once they won they started winning Super Bowls).
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (1971)
Not a surprise; the team has had only 3 coaches in over 45 years and even with the occasional down season, the Steelers pick themselves right up and get competitive again. And while you'd think they'd be #1, they're not, for the team that has gone the longest without a futility streak is ...
THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS
And here we have Exhibit A on how playoff success defines your franchise: the Vikings, despite never winning a championship, have also never had three losing seasons in a row since their first three years in the league: 1961-1963. Over 50 years of optimism! That's insane. Granted, they've had some runs where they couldn't reach double digits, but even if you include 8-8 in your futility assessment, you'd have to go back to 1985 before they'd be considered futile.
So kudos to the Vikings fans! You may not have picked a perennial winner, but at least you have had hope almost since the start.
Final Thoughts: Some may argue with my methodology of determining "futility", but I feel like it's a solid one. There are other viable metrics, of course, including the alluded-to playoff success. If you wanted to do deeper analysis you definitely could; for example, you may want to look at when a team was eliminated from playoff competition (because that way hope is incremental within the season, not binary).
But I think this is as far as I will go with this analysis. Thanks for reading!