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The NFL once had a draft lottery (and should have one again)


Last week’s debate regarding whether being drafted by a pro sports team is an honor (along with the broader question of whether the NFL draft has outlived its usefulness) caused me to forget about one of the other arguments that appears in this space from time to time: The NFL should have a draft lottery.

Like every pro sport, there’s a temptation among NFL teams to tank in order to improve draft position. No one connected to the NFL ever discusses that temptation other than to dismiss it, arguing that players and coaches would never do anything other than try to win. And while that’s true of the players who are on the field, coaches, General Managers, and owners have the ability to determine who will be on the field -- and the strategic removal of the best players during meaningless games can help a non-playoff team become a playoff team by delivering a higher cut of rookies the following April.

Regardless of whether teams act on the temptation, the temptation is there. In Week 17 of the 2014 season, with the Buccaneers and Titans “vying” for the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the Bucs led the Saints by double digits through three quarters. Then, with key players like Lavonte David and Mike Evans exiting at halftime and most starters gone for the final fifteen minutes, the Saints came back and won, and Tampa Bay acquired a clear path to quarterback Jameis Winston.

“Yeah, we didn’t have some of our best players right at the end but the guys we had in there we felt like we could move the ball and be able to win with,’’ former Bucs coach Lovie Smtih said at the time.

Although most players said all the right things, nose tackle Akeem Spence came very close to calling it what it appeared to be.

I mean it didn’t sit well with me, I’ll be honest,” Spence said. “But at the same time, it wasn’t my decision to make. It was a decision that came from up top so therefore . . . I mean I’m going to play with the guys that are out there. . . . But it’s tough when you don’t have your Lavonte David’s out there.”

For whatever reason, the apparent tanking didn’t become as big of a story as it arguably should have been. If it had, the NFL could have been compelled to consider bringing back a lottery concept to the draft.

According to the 2015 Official Record & Fact Book, a lottery was indeed used from 1947 through 1957. But it wasn’t aimed at eliminating tanking, per se. The lottery randomly gave one team the No. 1 overall pick before the start of round one. Which meant that one team each year actually had two first-round picks.

The first lottery winner was the Bears, who drafted Bob Fenimore from Oklahoma A&M. Ten years later, the Chicago Cardinals won the last bonus pick, taking quarterback King Hill of Rice. In January 1958, the NFL scrapped the process.

A new draft lottery would operate more like the NBA’s lottery, shuffling the draft order of the non-playoff teams for one or more rounds based on the outcome of a random process that could be (would be) televised and hyped and watched by millions.

From that perspective, it’s somewhat amazing the NFL hasn’t already done it. Although most of the milk has been squeezed out of the American udder, a draft lottery would give pro football one more offseason night for eclipsing the various sports that are actually, you know, in season.

Regardless of the revenue potential, a lottery reduces the temptation to tank. Regardless of whether another team does what the Bucs may have done (apparently, did do) to cap the 2014 season, why wouldn’t a team that already is out of the playoffs at least consider diving as deep as possible in the standings -- especially since it’s no longer financially crippling to sign an unproven player at the top of the draft?

Here’s the part where plenty of you will insert comments calling the idea stupid or impractical, arguing that NFL teams don’t tank. Regardless of whether they don’t (and regardless of whether the Bucs did), the temptation is there. A lottery wouldn’t completely eliminate it, but the temptation would indeed be minimized.

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