The NFL Needs a Draft Lottery

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Eagles coach Doug Pederson swears he was not trying to lose his team’s Sunday Night Football game against the Washington Football Team in the National Football League in the Land of Football. As proof, Pederson can point out he never asked his punter to hide the ball under his jersey and run backward through his own end zone on first down.

The NFL’s problem is not that the Eagles tanked Sunday. It was a ridiculous game anyway, with a bad team (Washington) trying to grab a playoff spot ahead of another bad team (the Giants) by beating an even worse team (the Eagles). There is no nobility in the NFC East this year. It was a season-long game of mud football.

The NFL’s problem is bigger than whether the Eagles tanked: It’s that the Eagles had good reason to tank. The league’s structure incentivized them to do it. Let’s do the math for Philly here. Win the game, and so what? But lose, and the Eagles improve their draft position from No. 9 to No. 6 in the first round—and they move up in subsequent rounds, too.

Three spots might not seem like a big deal to the 11 remaining Americans who do not care about the NFL draft. But last year, the Dolphins gave up a fourth-rounder to move from No. 30 to No. 26. The 49ers traded fourth- and fifth-rounders to move from No. 31 to No. 25. Moving up earlier in the draft is more costly, because the talent there is so coveted. Last year, the Bucs traded a fourth-rounder (and got a seventh-rounder back) to move up one spot, from No. 14 to No. 13.

It is possible the value of losing this game for the Eagles was equivalent to a second-round pick.

To understand the stakes, the NFL should look at that in reverse: Does it really want to dock a team a second-round pick for trying to win a game?

Tanking is not a widespread problem in the NFL, but it probably will be soon. The NFL would be wise to head that off before something even more embarrassing happens. All the league needs is a little humility (not the NFL’s strong suit), some forward thinking (the league has a mixed record there) and a desire for more revenue (hey now!).

The NFL should institute a draft lottery. This would require two painful admissions: that some people in the league might actually try to lose; and that the NBA (and NHL) had a great idea long before the NFL. But a lottery would radically change the conversation around the league’s worst teams every year, and … well, this is a crazy idea, just hear me out, but maybe the league could find some sort of television partner to broadcast the lottery. The ratings would probably dwarf most playoff games in other sports.

For most of its existence, the NFL did not need a draft lottery. The league’s once-a-week, every-game-matters ethos was dominant, and the structure of so many contracts means that players are perpetually trying to earn the next year’s salary. They are what they put on tape, and they knew it.

But now the best front offices make cold, math-based decisions. It is no coincidence the Eagles, celebrated for incorporating analytics on their Super Bowl run three years ago, are the team that appeared to tank most brazenly.

Four teams have gone winless in the Super Bowl era. The 1976 Buccaneers had minimal talent because they were an expansion team. The 1982 Colts played only nine games because of a strike. The 2008 Lions were, believe it or not, built to win—they went 7–9 the year before, had a veteran general manager, head coach and quarterback, and believed they were on the cusp of something good. They were just built very poorly.

None of those teams tanked. The league is different now. Organizations tank. Players don’t, but organizations do. The 2017 Browns were built to lose, and they went 0–16. The 2019 Dolphins were a complete tear-down operation that surprised everybody by winning five games. This year’s Jets intentionally butt-fumbled away the season when they decided to hoard cap space and trade star safety Jamal Adams.

There is a logic to trading veteran talent and accruing draft capital, and the NFL can’t and shouldn’t stop that. There is also logic to bad teams trying to finish with the worst record when a rare quarterback talent like Trevor Lawrence or Andrew Luck is at the end of the rainbow, and the NFL should stop that, because it makes a mockery of games like Washington-Philadelphia on Sunday night.

The conversation around tanking is unfair to players, who are trying to win, and to coaches who—unlike Pederson—are trying to save their jobs. It’s also just a terrible look for the league.

The league would have to figure out the details. It’s a delicate exercise, because a lottery is designed to limit, but not completely negate, the purpose of the draft: to reward the worst teams. Giving every non-playoff team an equal chance at No. 1 would be insane—a 10–6 team could end up with the top pick. But there are ways to do this. Maybe set it up so no team can move up more than six spots. The league needs to jumble the chances just enough so that the marginal benefit to losing a game goes down.

We can argue about who has actually tanked. But the system now rewards tanking, and the NFL—a multibillion-dollar entity with rules covering everything from cleat colors to sideline markings to practice schedules—is relying on the honor system to stop it. That is risky and illogical. In sports, unlike in life, playing a lottery just makes mathematical sense.