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Tanking it

Posted by Chase Stuart on October 25, 2006

If you don't live in Oakland, Arizona, Tennessee, Houston, Miami, Cleveland, Buffalo, Green Bay or Detroit, you probably would be surprised to know that some people are already discussing the 2007 draft. Any debate about that draft will inevitably result in the mentioning of Notre Dame star Brady Quinn, just like a year ago USC stars Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart were at the center of draft discussions. And then, one of my biggest pet peeves will be suggested: teams should tank the season to draft collegiate star X, a can't miss prospect that will surely take moribund franchise Y to Super Bowl glory.

Maybe it's because I had to handle watching my favorite team win four games over two years in the mid-90s, but I treasure every win my team gets. Every one of them. I get angry when I hear fans discuss the idea of tanking a game, and generally only fair-weather fans talk like that. On some levels, this makes sense. If you're a fair-weather fan, you don't care whether your team is 1-15, 4-12 or 7-9. You just want to root for them in the playoffs, and you figure that getting Brady Quinn and being 2-14 is better than being 8-8; after all, the losses don't really bother you.

I maintain that fans that want to see their teams tank don't really feel significant amounts of despair when their teams lose 13 or more games in a season. It stinks. On the other hand, a good number of hardcore fans that I respect (when they aren't spewing this gibberish) have wanted their teams to tank at various times.

We could debate all day what the merit is of this argument, and how "true" of a fan that person is. But I've got much more important things to present -- some empirical evidence to dispel the notion of tanking games.

The 1989 Cowboys are the typical example used of how you can go from worst to first. That team went 1-15 just a few years before the great run that ultimately saw Troy Aikman win three rings in four years. Additionally, the 1978 49ers went 2-14, and won the Super Bowl three years later. The 1979 49ers went 2-14 as well, and of course won the Super Bowl two years later. Those are the only three teams to win less than 20% of their games in a season and win a Super Bowl within three years of that season. Think about that for a minute. And then realize that they have something else in common: none of them had a high first round pick after that miserable year.

The goal of tanking, of course, is to get a high draft pick. The '89 Cowboys lost their first round pick by drafting quarterback Steve Walsh in the supplemental draft the previous year. The Cowboys missed out on the top RB in the draft -- Blair Thomas, number two overall -- but settled for Emmitt Smith. I'm not sure why the '78 49ers didn't have a first round pick to ease their fall, but they drafted James Owens (19 catches in his 49ers career) with the top pick in the second round. The following year the Lions had the top pick and grabbed Billy Sims, but the 49ers didn't have the second pick. Perhaps someone more knowledgeable of the situation can explain in the comments, but for whatever reason the 'Niners didn't pick until the thirteenth slot. They selected Earl Cooper, who had a strong rookie year but barely contributed after that.

To sum up, the three teams to go from the basement to Disneyland in three years or less, can't attribute any of that turnaround to their high first round pick.

So what does it all mean? It's time for a table. The Steelers won the 40th Super Bowl this February, which means we have 40 Super Bowl winning teams to look at. The chart below shows how the group of 40 performed the prior year to winning the Super Bowl (denoted as N-1) all the way to their winning percentages five years earlier (N-5).

Let's use the 1991 Redskins as an example. Washington went 10-6 (.625) in 1990, so they are one of the 32 teams to post a greater than .600 winning percentage in the season before they won the Super Bowl. Since 21 teams -- over half -- of all Super Bowl winners had a winning percentage above .700, we can say the 1990 Redskins had similar records to those of 11 other teams in the year before they won the Super Bowl. (10-6 was also the most common record of Super Bowl winning teams in the previous year, as six teams had that record; 12-4, done four times, was the second.) In 1986 -- five years before the franchise would win the Super Bowl during the 1991 season -- the 'Skins went 12-4, and eight teams in total had winning percentages in the .700s five years out from winning it all.

I'll let you guys digest the table for a minute.

WPct. N-1 N-2 N-3 N-4 N-5
>.900 2 1 0 3 2
>.800 10 6 7 9 4
>.700 21 14 11 13 12
>.600 32 24 22 18 18
>.500 37 32 26 25 27
>.400 37 34 32 29 30
>.300 39 39 36 36 34
>.200 40 39 38 38 37
>.100 40 40 39 39 39

Maybe not surprisingly, but 37 of the 40 teams had a winning record the year before winning it all. It's pretty clear that the tanking it philosophy isn't going to help you win the next year. You probably remember two of the three teams, the 1999 Rams and the 2001 Patriots, who were helped by an undrafted QB and a sixth round QB respectively. The other team, the 1981 49ers, went 6-10 in 1980. San Francisco did draft Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott, but it was with the 8th pick, not a top-three spot. In the next couple of rounds the 49ers drafted Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright. Both defensive backs would make the Pro Bowl in 1984 and 1985, and Wright also had an interception to help San Francisco win the Super Bowl during his rookie season.

Tanking it just won't cut it for winning right away. I think the idea is to get an elite talent and win the Super Bowl in a few years. But 39 of the teams that would win the Super Bowl in two years posted winning percentages above .300, which means a modern day 5-11. I don't know what the standards are for tanking it, but if a team goes 5-11, that doesn't seem to be it for me. And only one team (besides the 1998/1999 Rams, covered earlier) has ever gone worse than 5-11 and won the Super Bowl in either of the next two years: the 1979/1981 49ers. We've probably talked about that 1981 San Francisco title team more than anyone cares to, but as I wrote earlier, that '79 team didn't even have a top ten pick the next year. And like any of you need a reminder, but that '81 team had a pretty darn good QB in place (who was the last pick in third round I might add).

Giving a bad team an additional year to win it all doesn't seem to help much either. The worst records of teams that would win it all three years later are: 1-15 (1989/1992 Cowboys, but remember no first round pick), 2-14 (1978/1981 49ers), 3-12-1 (1983/1986 Giants) and 3-10-1 (1969/1972 Dolphins, also no first round pick). As I wrote earlier, San Francisco drafted Earl Cooper. The Giants drafted linebacker Carl Banks. Almost anyone in NFL history would have been the third best LB on those Giants teams, as future HOFers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson made the Pro Bowl a combined 19 times. Banks was a good player, and went to Hawaii once in 1987. Banks did record ten tackles in the Giants first Super Bowl win, and started many games for Big Blue. But somehow I'm left with the feeling that when teams tank their season, it isn't to get a player like Carl Banks and to win the Super Bowl three years later.

Even going out four years, only 10% of eventual Super Bowl winners had really bad seasons. The '69 Dolphins are on this list again, because Miami won it all in both '72 and '73. The '89 Cowboys are on it for the same reasons, as Dallas won the Super Bowl in '92 and '93. The '88 Cowboys also went 3-13, and that IS the team that drafted Troy Aikman first overall. The Cowboys actually won their second to last game of the season in '88, and almost had to settle for Barry Sanders (#3), Derrick Thomas (#4), Deion Sanders (#5)... or Tony Mandarich (#2).

There's one other team on this "terrible four years out" list, and it's the 1996 Ravens. They selected Peter Boulware, who would win the defensive rookie of the year award in 1997. Boulware was an excellent pass rusher before injuries robbed him of his tremendous athleticism, and was an impact player for Baltimore. But still, I don't think he's the type of player you tank a season for in the hopes of winning a Super Bowl four years down the line. Put it this way: nobody argued that Green Bay should have lost their last five games in order to select A.J. Hawk, to pave the way for the Packers Super Bowl in 2010.

Six teams -- including the '88 Cowboys and '79 49ers -- had fewer than five wins five years before winning a Super Bowl. The 1969 Steelers went 1-13, and drafted Terry Bradshaw with the first pick. The '91 Packers went 4-12 but only had the fifth pick, as four teams won three or fewer games. Green Bay grabbed Terrell Buckley, who grabbed only ten of his 50 career INTs wearing the Green and Gold, and wasn't a member of the 1996 Super Bowl team. The 1994 Rams were 4-12, but picked sixth because of the expansion Jaguars and Panthers. St. Louis drafted Kevin Carter, who had 52 sacks his first five seasons, and his 17 sacks helped him make the Pro Bowl in 1999 when the Rams won it all. The 1967 Dolphins went 4-10, and drafted Larry Csonka with the 8th pick in the draft.

The 49ers had a bad year, selected Ronnie Lott with the 9th pick, and won the Super Bowl the next season (and several more). The Giants took Carl Banks with the third pick, and would win it all three (and seven) years later. The Cowboys went 3-13 and grabbed Troy Aikman first overall, and of course won a Super Bowl four, five and seven years later. The Ravens drafted Peter Boulware with the 4th pick, and won a SB four years later. (Additionally, the 5-11 Browns the year before had the 4th pick, and drafted Jonathon Ogden.) The Rams took Kevin Carter with the sixth pick, and won a Super Bowl five years later, and the Dolphins selected Larry Csonka at eight overall and won a few Super Bowls a few years after that. And finally, the Steelers took Terry Bradshawn with the first selection, and won the Super Bowl five, six, nine and ten years after a miserable 1-13 season.

Of course, if you go through the list of any Super Bowl winning team, you'll see lots of successful high draft picks. The Steelers hit on Troy Polamalu at 16, the Ravens with Ray Lewis at 26, the Broncos with Trevor Pryce at 28, the Cowboys with Emmitt Smith at 18, and the 49ers with Jerry Rice at 16; of course, even more star players come out of rounds two through seven.

When talking about tanking a season, no one thinks of Peter Boulware or Carl Banks. They think of that superstar quarterback. Throughout the 40 NFL Super Bowl teams, only twice has a team had a miserable season and then drafted a QB that would help them win the Super Bowl. Curiously enough, Bradshaw and Aikman account for seven of those 40 rings. And while both QBs are HOF players, neither won immediately, and they played on two of the most talented teams ever. Almost inevitably, the team that will win the next Super Bowl is a team that contended for the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. It's not a team that tanks a season.

And when you consider The Loser's Curse, a theory claiming that high first round draft picks are less valuable than lower first round draft picks because of the disproportionately high salary paid to those picked at the top, the idea of tanking a season seems pretty silly to me.