Unfair in the Fairest Way Possible: A Modest Proposal for the NFL Draft

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The Jets and Titans played two very different football games in Week 3. In New York, a roster of 52 largely competent football players found themselves hostage to the whims of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s throwing arm. They played good football and lost because their quarterback threw three interceptions. In Tennessee, a roster of 52 largely incompetent football players found themselves leading a defending AFC finalist for most of the day on the arm, legs, thorax, and pretty much everything else of Marcus Mariota. The difference between having a star like Marcus Mariota and a substitute teacher like Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback is hugely significant. But the difference between the Jets and Titans during the 2014 game that determined their draft position? Only five points.

There’s something arbitrarily cruel about the NFL Draft. It usually comes down to basic math. There are 32 teams in the NFL. Those teams only play 16 games. Barring ties, there are therefore only 17 possible records those 32 teams can have. That leads to quite a few ties. Sometimes, those ties are irrelevant, like when they determine the winner of the NFC South. Occasionally, they swing the history of the league forever.

The 2011 Colts and the 2011 Rams both finished 2-14. In many ways the Rams were actually the worse of the two teams. Their point differential of -214 remains the worst an NFL team has produced since and falls almost four full touchdowns below the -187 Colts. One of their two wins came against a 4-12 Browns team quarterbacked by Colt McCoy and two of their 14 losses came in a pair of 17-point blowouts to the Tarvaris Jackson-led Seahawks. Brandon Lloyd led the team with 51 receptions.

The Colts picked first because they played an easier schedule. Scratch that—the Colts picked first because they had an easier strength of schedule, a statistic that ignores fairly relevant context such as the Rams playing their final two games against the combined 25-7 Steelers and 49ers but facing their backup quarterbacks. Coincidentally enough, that metric had the Rams playing the hardest schedule in the league in 2011. The Colts were fourth by the same metric and led the AFC. The difference came largely within their divisions. The AFC South went 24-24, excluding the Colts. The NFC West went 28-20, featuring the No. 2 seeded San Francisco 49ers, and didn’t have a team besides St. Louis finish worse than 7-9. Geographic proximity to bad teams gave the Colts Andrew Luck.

On its face this seems extraordinarily stupid. But it happens all of the time. Four of the last five No. 1 picks (Tennessee in 2016, Tampa Bay in 2015, Kansas City in 2013, and Indianapolis in 2012) were determined by tiebreakers. The 2004 draft had a four-way tie for the No. 1 pick with the Giants, Chargers, Raiders, and Cardinals all finishing 4-12 and a seemingly impossible six-way tie after that with the Falcons, Texans, Jaguars, Redskins, Lions, and Browns all ending up with 5-11 records. One game separated the first and tenth picks.

When franchise quarterbacks are on the line, the difference between even first and second is enormous. Imagine a world in which the Rams magically had an easier strength of schedule than the Colts in 2011. Either the Rams stay put and grab the best quarterback prospect in decades, or they stick with Sam Bradford and the Redskins trade up. In both cases, a new contender is created out of thin air and the Colts are a drastically different team all because of one fairly subjective number. There has to be a better way to do this.

***

The great irony of the NBA Draft lottery is that, if you assume that there is an exact correlation between record and merit, basketball rarely needs it. An 82-game season is such a large sample size that the odds of the two worst teams sharing a record is relatively slim. The last time it happened was the 2002-03 season. Since then there have been three cases of the worst team finishing at least five games lower than anyone else.

But that’s precisely why the draft lottery works. There isn’t an exact correlation between a team’s record and how good or bad they are. Over a full-season, circumstance is going to influence record almost as much as talent. The lottery combats that by fighting randomness with randomness. It acknowledges that record matters but that it is an imperfect measure of performance, and, therefore, record-based outcomes should reflect that same imperfection. A 13-win team probably does deserve a better chance in the draft than a 25-win team, but the lottery allows for the realistic possibility that there isn’t all that much separating bad teams at that level.

There probably wasn’t much separating the 5-11 2003 Houston Texans and the 4-12 2003 New York Giants, and a draft order that says otherwise is irreparably flawed. A 16-game sample is far more random than the NBA’s 82. Record is a far worse measure of performance in football than in basketball. So why not let the draft order reflect just how small the difference between bad teams at that level really is?

My proposal is relatively simple. The NFL should institute a lottery that gives each team at a certain record the same odds of winning, with those odds weighted towards what the record was. If the worst team finished 1-15 and the next finished 4-12, the odds favor that 1-15 team heavily. If five teams are tied at 3-13, tiebreakers go out the window and all five of those teams get the same lottery odds. Lower the odds in that fashion until you’ve run out of non-playoff teams, let the lottery determine the top five picks before moving back to tiebreakers, and bam, we have ourselves a lottery.

The system isn’t inherently fair in the sense that it automatically rewards the most deserving team with the top pick—quite the opposite, in fact. It is fair because it acknowledges we have no idea who the most deserving team is, so it gives every candidate a chance at the top pick.

More than that, it gives every team and fan base hope for the first pick. This system might not be perfect, but it eliminates those 5-11 or 6-10 seasons that are horrible enough to dread but keeps your team in that quarterback-free limbo of the mid-first round. This system, like the NBA Draft lottery, is unfair in the fairest way possible.

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