It’s Time to Kill the NFL Draft

Apr 25, 2013; New York, NY, USA; A general view of the stage before the 2013 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Lotteries are fueled by the currency of hope.  In a twisted bastardization of Horatio Alger’s American dream, poor people across the country disproportionately purchase lottery tickets as a hard work replacement get rich quick scheme.  But despite that hope, these people have a better chance of being crushed to death while purchasing Skittles from a vending machine than they do actually winning a typical lottery.  It doesn’t take an MBA published in the field of opportunity cost economics to know that the poor would be better served taking the money typically spent on their lottery tickets and investing it in something tangible that could realistically improve their lives—whether that be a three piece suit, a new tie, or even just a professional haircut.  Without question, a lottery is an effective way for a state to raise money, but one should not ignore reality: a significant portion of the profits stemming from lottery ticket purchases are a de facto regressive tax on the poor—directly taking advantage of an individual’s social class, education, and intelligence.  Is it just for a state to engage in such behavior?

Unlike the NBA and NHL Drafts, the NFL draft does not have any literal characteristics of a lottery, per se.  The team with the fewest wins gets the first draft selection, and so on and so forth from there.  Ties are broken via strength of schedule; and if that doesn’t work division wins/losses; and if that doesn’t work conference wins/losses; and finally via coin flip—in the unlikely event that it gets to that point.  But despite the absence of any explicitly implemented lottery elements, professional football franchises participating in the NFL draft frequently exhibit classic, irrational lottery participant behavior.  In 2014, if a team has a likely ceiling of seven wins—at least two wins outside the probable floor of playoff qualification—then that team will almost assuredly forgo the yeoman’s work involved in overachieving and stealing a Wild Card playoff berth from a more talented team in favor of tanking and securing a better draft pick.  In other words, rather than focus on maximizing current talent and creative a culture of winning, a team would instead metaphorically drive to the gas station and purchase a Mega Millions ticket.

Have you ever tried explaining to a child why your favorite team stinks?  If so, did the kid actually comprehend the logic behind strategically losing as a means of gambling on future success?  Children are supposed to be taught the virtues of effort, dedication, and always giving it their all—not the habituation of shortcuts and the allure of snake oil.  Could you imagine explaining to your son or daughter why you were spending the remainder of the family’s weekly food budget on the Powerball instead of milk and cereal?  A six-year-old could organically tell you that such a decision is stupid and irresponsible; meanwhile, grown men in charge of NFL franchises valued on average at $1.17 billion consistently are lured into such silly decision making.  

It is important to keep in mind that tactically throwing away a chance at a competitive season in exchange for a better draft pick is hardly a guarantee that the drafted player will be a beneficial edition to his team.  Many fans, members of the media, and front office employees often presuppose that merely obtaining a top draft pick is the equivalent to procuring a franchise changing talent.  In 2004, the Oakland Raiders drafted Robert Gallery with the number two pick, one spot ahead of eventual first ballot hall of famer Larry Fitzgerald—with the hopes that Gallery would be penciled in as a dominant starting left tackle for at least the next decade.  Gallery notoriously could not handle the left tackle position professionally, then struggled mightily at right tackle, and finally became a serviceable left guard for the Raiders.  Needless to say, the Raiders were hoping for something more than an average at best guard with the second pick in the draft.

Even with millions of dollars worth of scouting available to a tanking team, and even with virtually unanimous praise for a prospective draft selection, strategically losing games in exchange for a high draft pick could net a franchise the next Robert Gallery—a bust.  But even if a tanking team manages to proverbially strike gold on a first ballet hall of famer with its top pick, that in and of itself does not guarantee future success for the franchise.  In 2007, the Cleveland Browns selected left tackle Joe Thomas with the third overall pick in the NFL draft.  Thomas has been nothing short of spectacular.  He has made the pro bowl every season he has been in the league, seven times in seven years.  A bust of his face will undoubtedly be on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio five years after his eventual retirement.  But despite the individual accolades, it would be an overstatement to label Thomas a transformative, franchise changing draft selection.  The Cleveland Browns did not make the playoffs before drafting Thomas, and they have yet to make the playoffs with Thomas on the roster.

Perhaps the greatest indictment against the concept of tanking is the fact that a shitty team can draft a hall of fame talent like Joe Thomas and still be a shitty team for seven years and counting.  And despite this troubling scenario—let alone the equally horrifying Robert Gallery potential—tanking remains the smart thing for any NFL team that is not at the very least a fringe contender to do.  The Miami Dolphins finished 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs.  But even if they had made the playoffs, their chances at a super bowl victory would have been about as high as the chances Bruce Jenner has zero plastic surgeries in 2014.  The same can be said for the 7-9 Tennessee Titans.  And the 7-9 St. Louis Rams.  With apologies to Steelers fans, don’t you honestly wish that your team just gave up after starting the season 0-4?  Congratulations, you finished the year 8-8 and are rewarded with a middling draft pick.  And what business did the New York Giants have finishing the year 7-9 after after starting 0-6?  Teddy Bridgewater would have made a fine understudy to a rapidly declining, and secretly never all that terrific, Eli Manning.  Let’s not forget about the Baltimore Ravens.  Savvy general Manager Ozzie Newsome should have known that the Ravens would not be repeating as Super Bowl champions after the retirement of Ray Lewis, the excommunication of Ed Reed, the unconscionable failure that was refusing to pay Anquan Boldin, and the $120.6 million albatross of a contract given to Joe Flacco, who may or may not be a rich man’s Trent Dilfer.  Good job, Ravens: you fought all season long and in the end were penalized for it.

Professional football exists in a bizarro world where intentionally losing to maximize draft pick potential is both the right thing to do and the stupidity equivalent of a poor person playing the lottery.  And just as the hypothetical poor lottery winner might literally be murdered if he so happens to win, the tanking NFL franchise might experience the figurative shot through the heart that is drafting the next Robert Gallery.  Tanking is hardly the issue; the real problem is the NFL draft itself.  States shouldn’t institute a lottery scheme that is a de facto tax on the poor.  Likewise, the NFL should not have ever implemented a draft that incentivizes both bad and decent teams alike to intentionally lower their competitive standards in favor of hope for a franchise saving draft selection.

The problem with the draft is ultimately one of opportunity cost. Whereas in a lottery, the poor ticket purchaser would be better off spending her money elsewhere, in the National Football League, unrealistic Super Bowl contenders intentionally losing for better draft position yields the greatest possible value out of all other alternatives.  Such a reality is maddening, and it is time to do something about it.  It is time to kill the NFL Draft.

Goodbye, National Football League Draft, a.k.a. annual Player Selection Meeting.  Hello, Roger Goodell’s Realpolitik!

Regardless of one’s personal views regarding welfare, it is impossible not to understand the intended logic of the system.  In the broadest of senses, the federal government takes a portion of its budget and invests that money into disadvantaged citizens across the country.  Then, these aforementioned men and women utilize this newfound capital on various things that can theoretically get them out of whatever financial trouble afflicts them.  In other words, the American welfare system is theoretically not just an altruistic gift to the poor; rather, it is a reinvestment into the economy at large.

The status quo NFL Draft is, quite literally, a welfare system.  At the end of each season, the NFL first takes inventory of which teams were successful and which teams were unsuccessful, and second invests better draft picks in the teams that performed the worst during the season.  The underperforming teams will then ideally choose players in the draft that will help turn around their respective franchises.  And because the NFL is most profitable when the greatest possible number of franchises are competitive, the welfare system that is the NFL draft functions as a reinvestment into the health of the totality of the league. But as the front offices in charge of the Robert Gallery pick, the Joe Thomas pick, and countless other high level draft selections can tell you, the supposed reinvestment is failing.  Too many teams squander their draft opportunities and never actually get around to transforming the cultures of their franchises.  The professional football welfare system is broken, and it’s time to fix it.

So how does the proposed “Roger Goodell’s Realpolitik” draft revision work?  At its core, this new version of the annual player selection meeting would eliminate all welfare elements from the logic of the NFL draft.  Welfare might make sense when the government is investing in its poorest of citizens, but the concept of welfare is foolish for the National Football League.  Owners of professional football franchises are playboy billionaires—hardly the type of people generally worthy of either elicited sympathy or professional aide.

With welfare stripped from the logic of the NFL Draft, the Super Bowl champion would now be awarded both the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the number one pick in the NFL draft.  The runner-up would receive the second overall pick, and so on and so forth from there.  Those Houston Texans, preparing to select first overall in this year’s draft, would now pick last.  How is it fair that a 2-14 team be forced to pick 32nd overall?  Because had the Texans been incentivized to win instead of tank, a roster featuring J.J. Watt, Andre Johnson, and Arian Foster/Ben Tate would have won at least six games—despite their injuries.  To be sure, if losing was disincentivized, former inept Texans head coach Gary Kubiak would have been fired long before Houston lost eleven straight games.

Just as the Texans were clearly better than their 2-14 record reflected during the 2013 season, so too were the 4-12 Browns, the 4-12 Jaguars, the 4-12 Raiders, and the 4-12 Falcons.  If the Browns not only wanted but also needed to win, would abysmal quarterback Brandon Weeden ever have taken the field?  Would the Jaguars have continued the Blaine Gabbert experiment into the regular season?  What about the Oakland Raiders questionable decision to roll the dice with undrafted quarterback Matt McGloin?  Surely, an out of shape Vince Young dragged out of bed and inserted into their starting lineup would have made for a more potent offense.  And how could a preseason Super Bowl contender like the Atlanta Falcons only manage four wins for an entire season?  If properly incentivized, any Matt Ryan led squad could win more than four games—regardless of the possible head coaching handicap that is Mike Smith.

Under this draft modification, imagine the New England Patriots winning Super Bowl XLVIII, Tom Brady kissing the Lombardi Trophy [and then Gisele Bündchen], and owner Robert Kraft salivating over getting the number one pick in the 2014 draft.  As head coach Bill Belichick hypothetically drafts Johnny Manziel out of Texas A&M to be the heir apparent to Tom Brady, would teams genuinely needing a quarterback like the Browns, Texans, Jaguars, Raiders, Vikings, and Titans be angry as Manziel, UCF’s Blake Bortels, and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater went off the draft board as assets to top teams with aging quarterbacks?  Perhaps, but their efforts under Roger’s Realpolitik would instead be better served scouting for the next Colin Kaepernick, taken 36th overall; Russell Wilson, taken 75th overall; or Tom Brady, taken 199th overall.

As the NBA ponders a nuanced, incredibly convoluted draft modification to rid professional basketball of tanking by virtue of an alternating draft position wheel scheme, the NFL should take a more militant, straightforward approach.  Roger Goodell’s Realpolitik would automatically prevent league franchises from even thinking about losing games on purpose.  It would encourage and maximize competency from the fringe practice squad player all the way on up to the entrenched general manager.  Due to literally every game having intrinsic meaning for both teams, Roger’s Realpolitik would undoubtedly make the league even more competitive than it is today.  And perhaps most importantly, such a draft alteration would make the National Football League significantly more transparent than it is now.  No longer would we have to wonder whether the Browns were losing on purpose or instead just a genuinely atrocious football team.  Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where NFL teams stopped taking into consideration the cost benefit analysis of winning and probably not making the playoffs anyway versus losing and getting a better draft pick?

Roger Goodell’s Realpolitik would return the game to its rawest of states: players would play, coaches would coach, and general managers would manage every game with a “win at all costs” childlike naïveté.  We all deserve that much.

Topics: 2014 NFL Draft, NFL Draft

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  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    You lost me at “the”.

  • Ronald A Adams

    Yeah… the NFL is should just drop/modify a multimillion dollar venture and the 3rd most media interest creating venture it has next to the regular season games and the playoffs. “Its not broke, don’t TRY and fix it.”

    • Phil Daniels

      Thanks for the comment, Ronald. The obvious counter to this is the sheer detriment tanking has had on individual franchises. Fans are much savvier today than ever before, and in turn, many fans would rather lose and get a good draft pick than try to win against the odds. Consider the Green Bay Packers, who at the time of this reply have 11,000 unsold tickets for their playoff contest at Lambeau Field. At this point, a television blackout is realistic for the state of Wisconsin! The Packers simply weren’t good this year, and Green Bay fans don’t even care about the playoffs. In fact, many would rather their team did not qualify for the wild card in the first place. This is a problem that needs fixing, regardless of overall NFL profits. On another note, the “if it ain’t financially broke, don’t fix it” logic is the very reason the NFL failed to remedy its concussion problem for all these years. Concussions very well might be the death of professional football; Roger Goodell should at the very least ensure that tanking does not develop into an even greater threat to the league’s vitality.

      • Ronald A Adams

        Have you ever played football at the high school level and or above? This is not the don’t play hard and you get your @ss handed to you! There is no tanking in football, just bad teams. I just think you are looking at a phenomenon that is an issue in the NBA and applying it to the NFL and there is no match. Completely different situation. In the NBA, one player (does not matter the position) can make your franchise. While in the NFL, you can say that for the QB position, however if that QB is not surrounded by additional talent, does not matter if it is Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, that team will suck. Chemistry is also a factor to winning that is underrated by most fans and writers. The NFL draft, as presently situated, is extremely fan friendly, a media firestorm,and if you have a front office that has a clue,a way for teams regardless of where they pick, to restock their team every year. It’s not a process that is broke. It is well written, easy to read article I must say, but don’t agree with.

        • Phil Daniels

          I actually agree with almost everything you just said. However, we will have to agree to disagree on the overall presence of tanking in professional football. To say that there is no tanking in football would mean that teams never give away wins. The Trent Richardson trade, amongst a myriad of other transactions, in my eyes proves this to be untrue. I am on record as saying that Richardson is not a great player, and I endorsed the Richardson trade as intelligent building for the future. But giving up Richardson was literally a tactical downgrade in overall team talent/running back depth in exchange for future draft picks. I will never believe that a professional sport has reached its ideal structure when winning is not always the best strategy.

          • Ronald A Adams

            LOL…Nobody can say you are not an intelligent young man, Phil. Just remember that Richardson was not drafted by this Browns brain-trust and he surely did not do anything special with the Colts so I don’t get you calling it a down grade for the Browns. I think is was a smart move by the Browns and a panic move by the Colts. Like I said, the success of teams in the draft and or trades depends on how well your front office does its job. I enjoyed reading your article and our little back and forward. Godspeed.

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