Luck of the Draw?
Issue   |   Tue, 10/23/2012 - 23:56

When Andrew Luck was taken first overall in the NFL draft last year, I thought it would be tough to come up with a better name for a quarterback. But as it stands, he’s been outdone in the nickname department, as well as nearly every statistical category, by the man known as RG3. With a quarterback rating exceeded only by Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, opponents and teammates alike gush about the abilities of Robert Griffin III. And to think that all the Redskins had to give up for the first man in the NFL with Roman numerals on the back of his jersey (so says Wikipedia) were four draft picks.

After finishing 5-11 in 2011, Washington was slated to pick sixth in the first round of the 2012 draft. But they traded that pick and their second-round pick in 2012 to the St. Louis Rams for the second overall pick. Let’s remember that the Redskins were fortunate to even have a chance to give up the NFL’s equivalent of an arm and a leg to draft the quarterback of their dreams.

The St. Louis Rams, after all, were already set at QB after drafting Sam Bradford first overall a few years ago. Once RG3 started shooting up draft boards, the Rams found themselves with a chance to draft a quarterback who had the rest of the NFL drooling and no interest in pulling the trigger. Safe to say the Rams made a killing.

But now, we might say that both the Rams and Redskins won big. The difference in value between different picks in the same round can have massive ramifications for a franchise. As proof, one needs look no further than the draft value charts NFL general managers use to make their draft-day calls. These charts assign relative values to each of the 262 picks in the draft, and help teams keep in mind how much their picks are really worth. For instance, in the most popular iteration of this chart I found online, the first overall pick in the draft is valued at 3,000 points, the seventh overall at 1,500 points, the 23rd overall at 760 points and the 32nd overall pick at 590 points. Lest I mislead you, it’s important to keep in mind that the points in and of themselves have no meaning, only the relative difference in value between the first and last pick in the first round. Moreover, it may very well be that a second-round pick outplays a player taken in the first round. But again, the chart shows that the drafting in the second round is inherently less valuable than drafting in the first.

Using the aforementioned chart we can see that, the Redskins parted with 2,110 points in trading away their first- and second-round picks in the 2012 draft. But keep in mind that, if the Redskins finish in the middle of the pack and land the 15th pick in the draft in each of the next two years, then we can tack on another 2,100 points for the value of the two first-rounders they traded away. In total, that brings us to 4,210 points, more than what the first pick is worth in this chart. But, of course, if the Redskins outperform the average NFL team and thus end up with a pick in the 20-32 range, the value of their first-round picks would plummet. In fact, if the Redksins manage to finish with the NFL’s best record for the next two years, the value of the picks they traded to St. Louis drops to 3,290 points — pretty close to the value of a top overall pick. So maybe it’s not so far-fetched to bet the farm on a single player.

Sometimes, that’s what it costs. The bottom-feeders, teams that excel in the “race” to the bottom of the standings could be guaranteed excellent draft position. The key word there, of course, is excellent. The top pick is the crown jewel, but the top three picks generally are in a league of their own; the fourth overall pick is only worth 1,800 points on our chart, while the first three are worth 3,000, 2,600 and 2,200, respectively. In light of this, would “tanking” (deliberately underperforming) be all that hard? A missed field goal, a fumble here or a missed tackle there isn’t so hard to fathom.

But I don’t know of a professional team that hasn’t summarily denied tanking. “A team built to win can’t be made to lose,” they say, “And it would be a betrayal of our fans.” I don’t have much trouble doubting that first point — just think back to the 1919 Black Sox. And when it comes to betraying the fans, I have trouble believing that it would factor in here. But the point is worth examining. Might a Redskins season ticket-holder, for example, have been willing to sit through a litany of stinkers last year in exchange for the team’s thrills this year? In other words, is it any more unfair to force fans to pay to watch a losing team try to lose rather than win?

If it does, there’s little evidence of such a trend in ticket receipts. Last year, the Redskins averaged just under 77,000 fans per home game. Definitely a decent-sized crowd, but in terms of filling up the seats, those fans occupied just about 84 percent of the capacity of cavernous FedEx Field — good only for 30th in NFL attendance, by proportion of capacity filled. This year’s high-flying Redskins? They pull in just under 78,000 fans per home game, leaving FedEx Field at 85 percent capacity, and leaving the team once again mired in 30th in terms of the capacitive attendance metric.

Reputation, however, is necessarily more than the sum of ticket stubs. I suspect it’s tough to recruit employees for any organization that actively encourages underperformance, let alone trying to recruit athletes for a professional sports team. Even if it seems sensible, properly tanking requires a perfect storm of unmotivated players, cooperative competition and the timing to pull it all off in the right year. That sounds just about as daunting as winning; teams that consistently contend for championships are probably far more familiar with that sort of formula. A team that aims to win but comes up empty can be forgiven. A team that aims to lose, even if they’re better losers than they are winners, isn’t worth watching in the first place.