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Don’t Tank, Part IV: Studies show that awful is awful

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Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Raiders Photo by Owen C. Shaw/Getty Images

First read Part I and Part II and Part III. It’s required only in that the concerns, comments, and questions you have may have already been addressed. In Part I, I looked at the first overall pick and quarterbacks. In Part II, I talked about all top-3 picks. And in Part III, I researched the recent history of trading down from a high position.

All of which is just how teams reacted to being awful but today I am focusing on the most obvious sin of 3-13 or worse: awful teams don’t tend to bounce back so there’s almost no reaction that will excuse “tanking” from 3-8 to lose your last five games.

The fact is that 3-13 teams rarely bounce into becoming championship teams and when they do, it’s probably going to be long after they were that terrible. Since they switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978, there have been 82 instances of a team going 3-13 or worse.

These are the teams that won a Super Bowl within 10 seasons after they went 3-13 or worse:

  • Rams (1991: 3-13, 1999: Championship)
  • Saints (2005: 3-13, 2009: Championship)
  • Cowboys (1988: 3-13, 1989: 1-15, 1992: Championship)
  • Colts (1997, 1998: 3-13, 2006: Championship)
  • 49ers (1979: 2-14, 1981: Championship)
  • Patriots (1992: 2-14, 2001: Championship)

That is all, folks. And let’s be serious, the ‘91 Rams had nothing to do with the ‘99 Rams, and the same goes for the ‘92 and ‘01 Patriots. That leaves just four franchises in the last 40 years to go from 3-13 or worse to a Super Bowl ring within 10 years, and only three within five years.

Out of 82 instances of 3-13 or worse, there are three cases (3%) of a team rebounding to win a title within five years.

New Orleans’ 2005 season initiated the Sean Payton/Drew Brees rebuild of 2006. That’s what sparked them, not the selection of Bush. The Saints could have gone 6-10 and still done the exact same thing with Payton and Brees.

As great as Manning was, it took him a long time to first win a playoff game, then win a Super Bowl. The Colts had to rearrange a ton during that decade in order to finally land on a decent enough defense and coaching staff.

The 1980 49ers selected Earl Cooper and Jim Stuckey in the first round of the draft. They had selected Joe Montana in the third round in 1979. They did also pick Ronnie Lott eighth overall in 1981, when things got good. The selection of lot came after a 6-10 season.

Remember, this was out of 82 seasons. In 82 seasons, I could find this many examples of how a 3-13 season “helped” a franchise get better to the point of winning a Super Bowl: the late 80’s/early 90’s Cowboys. The 2006 reinvention of the Saints. The selection of Peyton Manning and James in the ‘97 and ‘98 drafts. And perhaps if they’re lucky, the Garrett-Mayfield-Denzel Ward moves of recent will move the Cleveland Browns into contention.

But what about on the other end of this spectrum? How often do teams win Super Bowls when they hover around .500? If you’re 3-8, would you rather win five in a row or lose five in a row? Here’s some recent examples of when 8-8 isn’t a death knell for next year:

The 2017 Eagles won the Super Bowl one year after going 7-9.

The 2013 Broncos went to the Super Bowl two years after going 8-8 and won it two years later on

The 2013 Seahawks won the Super Bowl two years after going 7-9

(The Patriots of course bash their way into the other three years being the Patriots)

The 2012 Ravens won the Super Bowl when they were 10-6

The 2011 Giants went 9-7 and the 2007 Giants won the Super Bowl one year after going 8-8

The 2010 Packers won the Super Bowl two years after going 6-10

The 2009 Saints won the Super Bowl a year after going 8-8

The 2008 Steelers won the Super Bowl two years after going 8-8 and the 2005 Steelers won the Super Bowl two years after going 6-10

The 2001 Patriots won the Super Bowl one year after going 5-11, then they went 9-7 in 2002. Then they won the Super Bowl two more times.

An 8-8 team has always proven to be in contention in the following seasons. That team could also suck, it could also meander around the same record for a long time. But a 3-13 team almost never contends within that era of their franchise again. It is hard to go 3-13. Everything has to go wrong.

If you’re rooting for your team to lose out to get the top pick instead of winning out to prove you’re capable of something, you’re rooting for everything to go wrong. Everything.

You’re rooting for everything to go wrong. For your favorite team, the one you want to see win in the near future presumably, you’re rooting for everything to go wrong.

For your favorite team.

You’re rooting for a disaster.

You’re rooting for everything to go wrong.

Do you see what I’m saying about the “rooting” and the “everything” and the “going wrong”? A 3-13 team might get the first overall pick, but everything has just gone wrong. Do you see? Within the parameters of “everything” and the category of “going wrong” you’d see a perfectly aligned Venn d.

Because everything has gone wrong.

If the 2019 Seahawks are 3-8, something isn’t going right. But maybe a few things haven’t gone wrong. A 3-8 team is almost always certainly a few plays away from being at least 5-6. And a 5-6 or worse team makes the playoffs virtually every season. For that 3-8 team to now go 3-13, let’s ask another question:

What went wrong?

Let me answer it:

Everything. See above diagram.

Was Russell Wilson good? No he was “Awful” and/or “Hurt” probably.

Did the defense maintain a level of respectability? That’s doubtful! Yes, the Cardinals actually finished eighth against the pass by DVOA in 2018, but because they were so terrible overall the defense still allowed a passer rating of 96.1, 21 touchdowns/7 interceptions, and teams just ran, ran, ran the football anyway: Arizona faced the most rushing attempts, gave up the most rushing yards and the most rushing touchdowns.

So if Seattle starts 3-8, you’d rather watch teams run the ball on them successfully for five weeks in a row? You’d rather just tune out for five weeks? You’d be rooting for the Seahawks to become the 2018 Cardinals?

If they went 3-13, were the Seahawks watchable? No! I mean, The Room is watchable. Do you want your favorite football team to embody the worst movie ever made as a way to remember them? Do you remember the 0-16 Detroit Lions? Yes. What did 0-16 get the Lions? They fired Rod Marinelli, hired Jim Schwartz, drafted Matthew Stafford, went 2-14 during his rookie season, then drafted Suh, he left after a little while, and Detroit is 0-3 in the playoffs over the last 10 years since 0-16.

The Browns went 1-31 over two seasons, adding Garrett, Mayfield, then using high second round picks to move up for David Njoku in 2017 and staying put in 2018 to take Austin Corbett. This is an example of a team that like Detroit went full incapable mode for two years to start from virtual scratch and has come away with good-great-maybe-elite players at quarterback and defensive line. And like the Lions, the Browns showed some improvement once they had those two in place, going 7-8-1 last season.

Now everybody likes Cleveland and that makes sense because they’re now a .500 level team, not a team that tanked a third time so that they could draft another elite prospect. Instead they wound up with a mid-first rounder and it was still good enough to acquire Odell Beckham, Jr., signaling a similar move to one Seattle has been known for under their current regime.

Pete Carroll and John Schneider also gutted the roster from 2010 on. They took over a team that was 29th in DVOA the year before they arrived and was 30th in their first season with the team. There wasn’t much talent to work with when the Seahawks made the regime switch. But instead of going 1-31 or 2-30 so that they could select Cam Newton and Matt Kalil or Von Miller and Andrew Luck, they went 14-18, picked James Carpenter and Bruce Irvin, and soon after won a Super Bowl title.

Seattle didn’t need Cam, Luck, Kalil, or Miller to win a Super Bowl and there’s no guarantee that any of those players would have helped them win a Super Bowl in the way that later picks like Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman did. The picks didn’t matter but why should we assume that the wins in those first two years didn’t?

Part of the issue for Marshawn Lynch in Buffalo, as it is with all players in Buffalo, is the losing. Do we believe that the Seahawks would have been able to extend Lynch in 2012 if he had just experienced a loss in over 90% of his games with Seattle?

People also like to point to Luck as a “David Robinson/Tim Duncan” number one pick, implying that the Colts were actually good but they only picked first because Peyton Manning missed the entire season, just as Robinson did for the Spurs when they miraculously landed the top pick to pair him with Duncan.

But was Indianapolis actually “good” and can you find examples of decent teams that went 3-13 or worse?

The 2011 Colts were 31st in DVOA, including 27th on offense and 26th on defense. They started Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter, and Dan Orlovsky at quarterback. They had a relatively young defense except for pass rushing veterans Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. They had Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne. They lost a handful of games by single digits but also lost 62-7 to the Saints, suffering more blowouts than close calls.

But Luck came onto the same team and saved the day and they became perennial title contenders immediately, right? No.

A) There was nothing precluding the Colts from retaining Manning. In fact, had they gone 6-10 instead of 2-14, they likely keep Manning — a QB who has won a Super Bowl since 2012.

B) They don’t fire Jim Caldwell, which seems fine to me. Outside of his 2-14 season without Manning, Caldwell’s record is 60-36 with a winning season in five of his other six years as a head coach. Chuck Pagano feels like a coach who didn’t advance the franchise forward.

C) Any quarterback improvement would have mattered and the Colts were starting from the lowest possible point at the position. They acquired Luck through the draft but had they selected Wilson or Nick Foles in round two or three, made a play for a veteran, or even just went a year with a replacement level QB, regression naturally should have improved them above the absolute worst.

D) They also added TY Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, and were going into the second year of left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

E) We all know by now that Indy wasn’t actually that good. They went 11-5 in 2012 but were still 25th in DVOA including 31st on defense. They improved to 13th overall in 2013 but still failed to crack the top-10 in either offense or defense. They went 11-5 for a third year in a row in 2014 and reached the AFC championship, but were again 13th in DVOA, dropping to 17th on offense after being 13th a year earlier. In all three of these years, the Colts were blown out of contention in the playoffs, proving they were never really all that close to success.

The 2-14 Indianapolis Colts team that some people may want to pretend is a comparison to the San Antonio Spurs of the ‘90s was in fact nothing of the sort. They were just an awful team that fell apart without an elite quarterback because yes, that’s what generational QBs can do, but Manning must have also been aware by then that the supporting cast around him was not of championship quality if they could be that bad without him. It would also help defend the lack of Super Bowls Manning finished his Indy career with and another reason to believe that good franchises simply don’t go 3-13 very often.

If your team is going 3-13, you might want to find a new team. Not just for that year but forever.

It’s not as though immediate turnarounds are impossible. The current Rams that just went to the Super Bowl are only two seasons removed from 4-12 and 2017 was their first winning season since 2003. The Chicago Bears went 3-13 in 2016 and 12-4 last season. The Jacksonville Jaguars went from 3-13 to 10-6 and a trip to the AFC Championship in 2017.

The Jags turned their 3-13 season into the selection of Leonard Fournette and they re-collapsed one year later. The Bears selected Mitchell Trubisky, a quarterback who has yet to prove himself as the main reason for Chicago’s turnaround — not compared to using a handful of quality picks to acquire Mack. LA did pick first and select Jared Goff in 2016, but that trade up cost them the fifth overall pick in 2017 which the Titans ended up using on Corey Davis. Woo. Corey Davis.

The Rams turned their franchise around from 4-12 to a two-time division winner without even using the first round pick they would have had on a player in that year’s draft. In fact, LA hasn’t had a first round pick in any of the last three years. They seem to be doing fine.

More than anything else, can you point to terrible teams who did become championship teams because they had awful seasons? The closest example you could find is the late ‘80s Cowboys, who went 3-13 in ‘88 and selected Troy Aikman in ‘89. Dallas went 1-15 in Aikman’s rookie season but didn’t have a draft pick in ‘90 because they used it in the supplemental draft on Steve Walsh. Yep, Dallas had to forego the first overall pick in 1990 because of Steve Walsh, a quarterback who started five games for them and was traded to the Saints for three picks.

Two of those picks helped them trade up to number one in 1991 to select Russell Maryland, a very good defensive tackle. In the ‘90 draft they landed Emmitt Smith at 17, one of the eventual results of the famous Herschel Walker trade.

You could argue that the Cowboys going 4-28 over the ‘88-’89 seasons helped them win three Super Bowl championships in the ‘90s, but even Smith and Maryland were mostly acquired through clever deals via Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, while Walsh was a complete dud for them and every other team he played for.

So how about instead of hoping the Seahawks follow the model of the late ‘80s Cowboys and get extremely luck, why not focus on the many, many other Super Bowl champions in the last 40 years and how most of them got there: by remaining in contention year after year until finally one season you’re just dealt pocket aces after pocket aces.

Because I believe that’s how winning championships tends to work most often.

If Seattle starts 3-8 this year, we know by now that it could have had something to do with the suspension to Jarran Reed, an early season absence of Ziggy Ansah, or an early season schedule that includes games against the Saints, Steelers, Rams, and Ravens. And the Seahawks typically start slow. It is unlikely that 8-8 would sneak them into the playoffs, but perhaps there are goals that go beyond just making the postseason. Sometimes you just want to prove to your fans, to your coaches, to your general manager, to the owner, to prospective free agents, and most importantly to yourself, that you’re almost there.

At 3-13, you’re not. At 8-8, you might be.

Tank if you want to be excited for one single moment on draft day. Fight if you want to be excited for next season.