Colts, Rams eye No. 1 pick, but 'Lose for Luck' a historical farce
On Dec. 18, 1988, the Green Bay Packers took the field to play the Phoenix Cardinals (yes, they weren't always the Arizona Cardinals) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., knowing exactly what their fate was. The two teams in competition with Green Bay for the top three picks of the draft, Dallas and Detroit, lost earlier in the day. So the Lions now stood at 4-12 and Dallas at 3-13.
Green Bay, 3-12, took the field knowing if they lost, they'd be tied with Dallas for the worst record in the league. But because the Pack would own the draft tiebreaker -- their foes would have a lower winning percentage than the Cowboys' -- a loss in Tempe to the 7-8 Cards would hand the Packers the first pick in the 1989 draft ... and mean Green Bay, in need of a long-term quarterback with Don Majkowski starting, would almost certain pick UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman. The Cowboys already were drooling over Aikman.
The Packers couldn't even lose right. Ron Pitts, then Green Bay's return man and now FOX analyst, returned a first-quarter punt 63 yards for a touchdown to start the scoring. Clint Didier, the former Redskin tight end, finished the scoring with a TD catch from Majkowski, and the Pack won, 26-17.
The Packers lost the number one pick. The top five picks in the draft the following spring:
1. Dallas, Troy Aikman, QB, UCLA
Five picks. Four Hall of Famers and Mandarich, one of the biggest busts in draft history.
Imagine how history would have been changed if the Packers just did what they should have done that day in Tempe and lost. Aikman a Packer. Barry Sanders, most likely, a Cowboy. And who knows what happens with the rest of the draft. But think further. With Aikman, the Packers likely wouldn't have been the pathetic team that hired Ron Wolf late in 1991 to be the GM. And Mike Holmgren likely wouldn't have been hired. And surely Brett Favre wouldn't have arrived in trade early in 1992.
"Wow,'' Jacksonville interim coach Mel Tucker Thursday afternoon. "Amazing. I never knew that. That makes you think."
Most amazing about the whole story is what would have happened to Favre. Wolf loved him. The first thing he did after hiring Holmgren was trade for Favre. At the time, the Falcons were fed up with their 1991 second-rounder. He'd ballooned to 248 pounds after a rookie season on the bench and out on the town. Is it possible that he'd have stayed on the bench behind Chris Miller and Billy Joe Tolliver, and maybe a couple of years later behind Bobby Hebert when he was acquired ... or would Jerry Glanville and offensive coordinator June Jones have given Favre a shot at some point to win the starting job?
So here we are, 23 years later, with three teams vying for position in the top three of the 2012 draft ... with as much or more at stake than there was back then.
And with no one playing the games Sunday seeming to care.
If the Colts (2-13) lose at 4-11 Jacksonville Sunday, Indianapolis will hold the first pick in April's draft, with a franchise-changer, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the likely number one pick. If the Colts win and the Rams (3-12) lose at home to the 12-3 Niners, the Rams get the number one pick. If the Colts and Rams both win, Indianapolis gets the top pick.
That makes the Indianapolis-Jacksonville game this week's Long-Term, Historic Game of the Week.
"I have not heard one mention of anything about the number one pick all week, except when I talk to the media,'' Tucker said from his office after Thursday's Jaguars practice.
I asked Tucker if GM Gene Smith or owner Shad Khan has mentioned anything to him this week about who to play, or how to approach this game ... my inference being that the Jags, in the same division as Indy, wouldn't want the Colts to be in position to draft another superb quarterback prospect.
"Absolutely not,'' he said. "Unequivocally not.''
In fact, Tucker said he'd just presided over a particularly spirited practice. "A hard practice, a tough practice, with players getting their assignments right,'' he said. "These guys will go out and play hard and play well Sunday. If I told them the game was in a parking lot, they'd go play in the parking lot. They want to play. They love to play.''
Now for the Colts. I tried to reach coach Jim Caldwell, but he was not made available to me. So I called Vice Chairman Bill Polian. He said he has "no conversations whatsoever'' with Caldwell about who to play, or how to play this game, in order to somehow pull out a loss at Jacksonville.
"I am proud to be part of an organization and part of a league where players and coaches give 100 percent effort in every game,'' Polian said. "Maybe that's why we're such a popular sport.''
I've been opposed to the NFL putting in a draft lottery, like the NBA, because I've never heard a credible account of a team tanking late in the year to improve its draft standing. Said Polian: "From what I've read there have been egregious and grievous violations in terms of the effort teams gave in the NBA, which I guess led to the league adopting a lottery. But there's never been a case of the NFL that I know of, and I can assure its' not going to start Sunday in Jacksonville.''
I told Polian fans want to know why. Why wouldn't the Colts even consider playing backups, or altering the game plan to not play their best game, if the reward was the most valuable draft choice in the NFL in years -- maybe decades?
"How can you build an organization with a culture of winning and look players in the eye and tell them to give their best effort every day but this one?'' Polian said. "And I'll remind you it was about 13 years ago, maybe midway through the  season when Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning were rookies, that Leaf was the second coming and Peyton was the bust. In other words, like Brian Billick says, 'Nobody knows anything about the draft.' I'm in the middle of scouting this year's prospects, and I can tell you I don't know anything -- yet.''
Now for the rank-and-file.
Maurice Jones-Drew, who is a football fan and a bit of a historian, has two bits of motivation Sunday. He hates the Colts; they passed on him to draft Joseph Addai in the first round in 2006, and he's been determined to make them pay for it every time they play. And he's playing for his first rushing title. (Jones-Drew enters Sunday with a 128-yard lead on LeSean McCoy.) If you don't think that means something to him, you don't know Maurice Jones-Drew. That plus he wants his offensive line -- "They get no credit whatsoever, and I want them to get the attention for being the great players they are,'' he said -- to hear the applause that the lines of rushing champs get.
"Players, I can tell you -- the last thing they're thinking of is the draft,'' Jones-Drew told me Thursday. "Let me ask you this: How can a competitive person lay down for a guy so a team can draft a guy a few months later they don't even know? You're not even going to be here next year if you lay down. The 'Suck for Luck' stuff ... it's crazy. No player ever would agree to not go hard in a game, and I can't imagine any coach would ever ask him to do it.''
So: I like the Colts to win, and blow the first pick. But if they lose, Indy fans will be able to forever thank the player who hates the Colts unlike anyone in the league does, Jones-Drew, for making sure Luck plays in the division for the next 15 years.
Other than the Rams or Colts winning the first pick in the draft, of course.