Stop Winning Pointless Games, Start Winning Championships

Professional sports promote parity in their annual drafts by rewarding early picks to bad teams and late picks to good teams. In MLB and the NHL, it can take a while for those early draft picks to start making a major impact on the team, while in the NFL those impacts can often be felt immediately. Either way, there’s no denying the process promotes parity to some extent. There’s a problem with the system though. Take a look at the two lists of players below:

Group AGroup B
Joe BurrowIsaiah Simmons
Chase YoungCJ Henderson
Jeff OkudahJedrick Wills
Andrew ThomasMekhi Becton
Tua TagovailoaHenry Ruggs
Justin HerbertTristan Wirfs
Derrick BrownJavon Kinlaw
Kyler MurrayTJ Hockenson
Nick BosaEd Oliver
Quinnen WilliamsDevin Bush
Clelin FerrellJonah Williams
Devin WhiteRashan Gary
Daniel JonesChristian Wilkins
Josh Allen (Edge)Chris Lindstrom
Baker MayfieldRoquan Smith
Saquon BarkleyMike McGlinchey
Sam DarnoldJosh Rosen
Denzel WardMinkah Fitzpatrick
Bradley ChubbVita Vea
Quenton NelsonDa’Ron Payne
Josh Allen (QB)Marcus Davenport

Which groups of players stands out as the stronger group? Is it even close? Group A has eight starting QBs and star edge rushers like Nick Bosa. Group B is solid. It certainly isn’t bad. Devin Bush and Roquan Smith are good linebackers. Isaiah Simmons and CJ Henderson should be strong defensive players in the year’s ahead, but the only QB in the group is Josh Rosen and the overall star power is a notch lower. There’s little doubt Group A is better.

So what do the groups represent?

Group A are players selected with one of the top 7 picks of the NFL draft. Group B are players selected with picks 8-14 of the NFL draft.

Group A

PlayerPickDraftTeamTeam’s Record
Joe Burrow12020Cincinnati2-14
Chase Young22020Washington3-13
Jeff Okudah32020Detroit3-12-1
Andrew Thomas42020NY Giants4-12
Tua Tagovailoa52020Miami5-11
Justin Herbert62020LA Chargers5-11
Derrick Brown72020Carolina5-11
Kyler Murray12019Arizona3-13
Nick Bosa22019San Francisco4-12
Quinnen Williams32019NY Jets4-12
Clelin Ferrell42019Las Vegas4-12
Devin White52019Tampa Bay5-11
Daniel Jones62019NY Giants5-11
Josh Allen (Edge)72019Jacksonville5-11
Baker Mayfield12018Cleveland0-16
Saquon Barkley22018NY Giants3-13
Sam Darnold32018NY JetsPick acquired
Denzel Ward42018ClevelandPick acquired
Bradley Chubb52018Denver5-11
Quenton Nelson62018IndianapolisPick acquired
Josh Allen (QB)72018BuffaloPick acquired

Group B

PlayerPickDraftTeamTeam’s Record
Isaiah Simmons82020Arizona5-10-1
CJ Henderson92020Jacksonville6-10
Jedrick Wills102020Cleveland6-10
Mekhi Becton112020NY Jets7-9
Henry Ruggs122020Las Vegas7-9
Tristan Wirfs132020Tampa BayPick acquired
Javon Kinlaw142020San FranciscoPick acquired
TJ Hockenson82019Detroit6-10
Ed Oliver92019Buffalo6-10
Devin Bush102019PittsburghPick acquired
Jonah Williams112019Cincinnati6-10
Rashan Gary122019Green Bay6-9-1
Christian Wilkins132019Miami7-9
Chris Lindstrom142019Atlanta7-9
Roquan Smith82018Chicago5-11
Mike McGlinchey92018San Francisco6-10
Josh Rosen102018ArizonaPick acquired
Minkah Fitzpatrick112018Miami6-10
Vita Vea122018Tampa BayPick acquired
Da’Ron Payne132018Washington7-9
Marcus Davenport142018New OrleansPick acquired

With the NFL’s expanded 14-team playoff, there are 18 teams that miss the playoffs each year. If you estimate about four of those teams will be in-contention for a playoff spot late into the season, that leaves 14 teams that have no real hope of reaching the Super Bowl (hence the breakdown of the first 14 NFL draft picks above instead of a nice round number). This general notion is confirmed by looking at their records. All teams that used their own top 14 pick in the last three NFL drafts were below .500.

This is where the “worst record = best pick” model creates perverse incentives. There’s a disincentive for teams not in playoff contention to fight for additional wins. The only difference between winning three games and missing the playoffs and winning seven games and missing the playoffs, is the long-term benefit of getting a top 7 pick with a 3-7 record.

In 2019, the Atlanta Falcons were 3-9 and mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with four games remaining. They inexplicably won their last four games of the season. They still finished outside the playoffs, but with the 16th pick in the next year’s NFL draft. The 3-13 Redskins picked #2 in that draft. They selected DE Chase Young. Between him and the Falcon’s #16 pick, CB Jeff Okudah, DT Derrick Brown, and CB C.J. Henderson were selected. The Falcons took the third cornerback off the board with AJ Terrell from Clemson.

Terrell is a solid draft choice (my analysis). This certainly isn’t a knock on the selection made at #16. Rather, it is a call for NFL to fix a broken system, and until then, a call for fans and owners to stop rooting for pointless wins that undermine their future championships hopes.

When the Falcons beat the Panthers on December 8th, 2019 to improve to 4-9, Falcons fans celebrated on social media. But what were they celebrating? Certainly there was no benefit for the Falcons that season. They couldn’t win a division or make the playoffs as a wild card. All they did by winning that game was hurt their draft slot and thus their future odds of winning the Super Bowl.

Of course, it would be unethical for players or coaches to intentionally throw games to improve their draft picks, but owners forcing coaches to sit banged up players or even give extra minutes to rookies seems reasonable.

MLB doesn’t have this issue because the success of highly drafted first year players is both delayed (they play in the minor leagues for several years) and uncertain (early picks bust far more often than in other sports). The NHL and NBA partially avoid the problem through their draft lotteries which make it so the worst team isn’t guaranteed the best pick and thus lessen the incentive to lose.

The NFL could implement a lottery, which would help, but a more compelling idea might be a system that rewards the teams for earning wins after being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The worst teams are generally eliminated first, which would give them the most opportunities for post-elimination wins.

Using the 2019 Falcons as an example again, after they lost to the Saints on November 28th they dropped to 3-9 and were eliminated from the playoffs. They still had four games left and thus four chances to earn post-elimination wins. Since they won all four of those games, they’d be rewarded with a better draft pick (perhaps those wins count as -1 wins). Imagine how much more “right” their season finale against Tampa Bay, a game they won in overtime, would have felt if the victor got the (draft) spoils.

The NFL should consider ways to change the system so abject failure isn’t directly rewarded. Until they do, fans of any NFL team that is mathematically or logically eliminated from playoff contention, should stop cheering for pointless wins and start cheering for championships.




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