NFL Analysis: Improving Draft Position Versus Winning Late Season Games

By Jason Lisk
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This week, with the Kyle Orton news, there was a discussion about why Kansas City would make such a move, when they aren’t likely to make the playoffs. Jason McIntyre and myself are on opposite sides here, because I am for giving Orton a shot with Cassel out, while Jason, and plenty of others feel it is not a good move.

I’m going to address one aspect, though. Not trying to win, or losing to improve draft position when the team is eliminated from the playoffs. I cannot tell you that no team has ever tanked, or intentionally did things to lose to get a draft spot in the NFL. I can tell you that it is not a systematic problem in the NFL (losing teams actually have just as good a record late as early when you look back), and teams often win games late in the season that hurt their draft position.

This is not the NBA, though, where one player swings the future of a franchise, and where teams often do act in ways to lose games now to win in the future. The esprit in the NFL is to win games. It is difficult to tell 53 players to go all out, play hurt in key moments, and risk bodily injury, if you as an organization do not believe in establishing a winning mindset. You cannot worry about draft position. In my view, the Kyle Orton move says, “we can upgrade a position after an injury, in a rare occasion when there is a starter available”. To not make that move would say that the organization does not believe in winning. It would set the tone that mediocrity was acceptable.

But do teams that win meaningless December games hurt their franchise? Do they cut off their nose to spite their face? I looked at a decade’s worth of teams that had losing records after 10 games, and then measured how much their draft position changed from what it would have been after 10 games to where it ended up based on their late performance. I used 1998 to 2007, so that I could then measure the three years afterward, to see how our teams did in the future, depending on whether they cost themselves draft position or gained it by losing late.

There were 135 teams with losing records at the ten-game mark from 1998 to 2007. None made the playoffs, and the range of outcomes ranged from winning all 6 games (Miami in 2005) to winning no more and improving draft position.

I’m going to give you the data on how teams did in the future, but sometimes, simpler statements are worth a 1,000 data points.

The best franchises at “improving” their draft position by losing rather than winning meaningless games during this period: Cleveland, Detroit, Arizona, and Oakland.

The dumb franchises that kept winning despite being virtually eliminated (each of these cost themselves at least 10 draft slots during this period): Carolina, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Tennessee and Green Bay.

You probably have a sense of where this is going after just looking at the names, but here is a summary of all 135 teams over the following three seasons, sorted by draft position lost or gained by late season performance, for all teams with losing records after 10 games.

Draft Position Win Pct PO Pct Champ Gm
Lost 5 or more 0.566 0.544 0.140
Lost 2.5 to 4.5 0.485 0.373 0.160
Lost 0.5 to 2.0 0.452 0.227 0.093
Stayed the Same 0.436 0.231 0.051
Gain 0.5 to 2.0 0.449 0.286 0.063
Gain 2.5 to 4.5 0.441 0.283 0.083
Gain 5 or more 0.403 0.278 0.028

Let’s break that down if you don’t like to look at numbers on a chart. Teams that cost themselves draft position by winning meaningless games performed substantially better across the board over the next three seasons. They won more games, made the playoffs a much higher percentage of the time, and advanced to conference championship games a much higher percentage of the time in the future.

The difference between the biggest losers of draft position and biggest gainers in draft position is quite stark. The draft position sliders won 16.3% more of their games. They made the playoffs twice as often. They advanced deep in the playoffs 5x more frequently.

Now, the causes for this are multiple and complex. The teams that won games late, despite being virtually eliminated from playoff consideration at the ten game mark, were likely better teams. The winning of games late could also have been the sign of an improving team. I still think, though, that establishing a winning mindset as an organization, and not settling for losing when “there is nothing to play for” is a component as well.

People overvalue draft picks, and the importance of one pick in a team’s success. There is probably also an element where teams that win late are correlated with teams that are run better, and draft better given their circumstances. Dallas “cost” themselves 6 draft spots in 2004 by going 3-3 down the stretch after a 3-7 start. They had to settle for DeMarcus Ware as a result. Pittsburgh “cost” themselves 5 slots in 2003 by going 3-3 down the stretch after a 3-7 start. They settled for Ben Roethlisberger as a result.

Good franchises try to win. Period. They don’t settle for having slim chances, and packing it up.

[photo via Getty]

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