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Re-thinking the “logic” of tanking, part I: A franchise quarterback at 1

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Indianapolis Colts vs Seattle Seahawks - October 15, 2000 Photo by Joseph Patronite/Getty Images

On Friday, I looked at the Seattle Mariners current state of affairs and then posted this poll on Twitter about the Seahawks: Would you rather they finish 3-13 or 8-8? The immediate response was “The answer to this is too easy” as many responded that Seattle should tank their final five games, but slowly started to edge closer to even as the poll continued and I made some points about the 2010 Seahawks. Still, 3-13 was the clear winner.

More so than arguing that 8-8 is the right move, I’ve been arguing that 3-13 is far from the “obvious” move. It’s anything but obvious. Yes, drafting in the top-3 is better than drafting 18th (and every subsequent round, I know) but that only matters when looking at the draft in a vacuum.

One thing that that line of thinking ignores are the implications of being 3-13 vs being 8-8, most importantly: the 8-8 team might be worth salvaging and the 3-13 team might fire its head coach, GM, cut many players, and start over. And while that might be the best move for a team at 3-13, it often means they’re shutting down competitive football for a couple years.

And after doing a lot of research in the matter, I’ve come to find that while competitive football could be on the horizon for those teams, championship-caliber football is often off the table for decades.

Right now, the Arizona Cardinals are in this position. They’ve fired Steve Wilks after one season, hired a rather radical offensive mind to replace him in Kliff Kingsbury, traded away their “franchise QB” from only one draft earlier, and may be settling into a reality that not only are they two years from competing but if Kyler Murray is a bust, they’re more like five or more years away. Had they gone 6-2 in the second half of the year instead of 1-7, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they would be a “healthier” franchise than the one with Murray; Arizona’s offense was so bad that it would be fair to deem it “totaled.” The talent wasn’t there. But so much is now hinging on that first overall pick, which we’ll get to briefly.

Conversely, the 2010 Seahawks won their final game, went 7-9, made the playoffs, saw their biggest highlight in franchise history happen, had the 25th overall pick instead of picking either 7th or 8th. (I believe that they would have been in a coinflip with the 49ers, who picked 7th, had they lost to the Rams in Week 17 instead of winning.) Seattle picked James Carpenter, went 7-9 again in 2011, and then became a dominant team beginning in 2012.

Had they lost to the Rams, Seattle may have selected seventh or eighth, which puts them in position to draft one of these players perhaps: Aldon Smith, Jake Locker, Tyron Smith, Blaine Gabbert, JJ Watt, Christian Ponder, Nick Fairley, Robert Quinn, etc.

On one hand you’re saying “JJ Watt!!!” but on the more likely hand, the Seahawks may have taken a stab at one of those awful quarterbacks. This was 2011, so Pete Carroll and John Schneider were still on the QB hunt. I don’t put it past Carroll to be, like any other coach, looking a fool after selecting a “franchise QB” in the top-15 of a draft because it happens all the time. It especially happened in 2011.

With Locker right around the corner and fitting the profile in some terms for what a Carroll QB might look like, the 6-10 Seahawks might have looked a lot more like the Titans offense to come than the Russell Wilson-led offense that began in 2012 only because they didn’t find anything worth starting a year earlier.

The idea that they would take Watt — or Tyron Smith, who doesn’t make a lot of sense since the team was a year removed from drafting Russell Okung — seems to be the fantasization of an ideal Seattle football world. Not reality. The one we got for sure, even if Carpenter was not an exciting player, is not one I’d butterfly effect because the Seahawks were the most exciting Seattle-based sports franchise ever during the 2013 season.

(The 1995 Seattle Mariners can sign up when they reach the World Series in 1995.)

The other thing is that while we know that teams build their rosters and accumulate arguably its most important talent through the draft, we don’t know that teams with higher draft picks necessarily do that on a consistent basis. For the most part, the draft is still a gigantic crapshoot with countless variables and endless disappointments and surprises.

The Seahawks exemplify this spectacularly with their 2013 roster that featured two first round picks of their own doing on the offense (Russell Okung, 6th / James Carpenter, 25th) and two on defense (Bruce Irvin, 15th / Earl Thomas, 14th).

Out of approximately 22 starters (more than that obviously when including key rotational pieces), that’s zero top-five picks, one top-10 pick, three top-20 picks, and four first rounders. The only other first rounder on either side was Marshawn Lynch, a player acquired by Seattle for mid-round picks. Each side of the ball featured just as many undrafted free agents as they did first round picks made by the Seahawks. They lived on the backs of mid-to-late rounders like Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and KJ Wright.

This does not mean that higher picks aren’t better picks, even when you’re just using them to accumulate more picks like the highly-successful New England Patriots (a franchise that has picked in the top 20 just once since 2009 and in the top 10 just twice since 2001) and Seahawks do. It just means that the value of a higher pick vs the value of a better record has to be weighed fairly and not just squarely focused on the draft alone.

Now let’s talk top picks.

The NFL draft took a rather dramatic turn in 1998 — not that they knew it back then — when the Indianapolis Colts took Peyton Manning first overall and the San Diego Chargers selected Ryan Leaf at two. The media hype surrounding these two quarterbacks was so massive and unlike anything NFL draft related before it that it seemed to signal a shift in philosophy that we’ve now come to know as church: franchise quarterbacks are everything.

It could be the 90s dominance of players like Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway, Troy Aikman, and Jim Kelly, but the proof that there was a shift in philosophy is right there in the record keeping at Pro-Football-Reference:

16 of the last 22 number one overall picks have been quarterbacks, which is nearly as many as the number of quarterbacks drafted first overall all-time prior to Manning in 1998. (That number is 20.)

This is important to note because it means that the consensus number one pick — i.e. the most valuable product in the draft in a given year — is most likely going to be a quarterback in the current era. This is sort of similar to the Heisman trophy in that eventually that award became a given: a quarterback or a running back and nobody else. Other positions aren’t even taken into consideration which is a little crazy to think about when you consider the number of positions on a football team and that only two can become the Heisman. Not saying its necessarily wrong but it is interesting.

It’s not running back in competition for the number one pick though, it’s defensive ends and offensive tackles. Which, if you wanted to be really nitpicky, is even sort of the same position just opposed to one another and only important because these two positions have diametrically opposed objectives: sack or protect the quarterback.

This is the National Quarterback League.

But quarterbacks picked first overall haven’t necessarily been all that spectacular. Let’s avoid the question “Was this pick a bust?” as well as “Was this pick a good player?” and instead focus on: Did this pick make the team better?

Start at the QBs because that’s what you’re most likely looking at if you end up with the first overall pick.

Peyton Manning - Yes

Tim Couch - No

Michael Vick - Yes

David Carr - No

Carson Palmer - Yes

Eli Manning - Yes

Alex Smith - No

JaMarcus Russell - No

Matthew Stafford - Yes

Sam Bradford - Yes

Cam Newton - Yes

Andrew Luck - Yes

Jameis Winston - Not yet

Jared Goff - Yes

Baker Mayfield - Yes

Asking if they helped them “get better” is a bit ambiguous though, right? Bradford was never that good to me, but the Rams were always so bad that he did make them better. Let’s try a new question:

Did this number one overall pick QB make his team GOOD? Let’s quantify this as something that seems easy if you’re the first overall pick at QB: one playoff win in his first four seasons.

Peyton Manning - No (Haha)

Couch - No

Vick - Yes

Carr - No

Palmer - No

Eli Manning - Yes (Haha ha)

Smith - No

Russell - No

Stafford - No

Bradford - No

Newton - Yes

Luck - Yes

Winston - No

Goff - Yes

Mayfield - Not yet

It’s a much different outcome, right?

Out of 16 quarterbacks selected first overall since 1998, only five even won a playoff game over their first four seasons. If you remove Mayfield, that makes it 33% who are winning a playoff game and the rest have fallen short. Yes these are bad teams but that was also kind of the point in the beginning — a 3-13 team is a bad team!

Two out of every three teams that have selected a QB first overall in the post-Manning world have ended up with a QB who is bad or haven’t become a playoff-winning team or both. Out of these 16 quarterbacks, only Eli won a Super Bowl in the next four years, and only Goff made it to the Super Bowl. (Cam was year five and the Panthers are 0-1 in the playoffs in the three years since.) And as of now, nobody is really giving that much credit to Goff for LA’s Super Bowl trip and recent success. Of course, the Rams also traded up for that pick — they weren’t the worst team in the league the year before they acquired Jared Goff, they were 7-9, and the acquisition of Goff actually cost them a top-5 pick a year later. So they didn’t even benefit from their 4-12 record in 2016.

Most teams that pick first overall are exactly where you expect them to be in subsequent seasons: near the top of the draft. Even when a team selects a high quality quarterback, like Stafford for example, they often struggle to do the rest of the job and meander between 6-win seasons and wild card losses. There are already three QBs in contention for the first overall pick in 2020, making it even more likely that we’ll see the 17th QB to go first overall since Manning. And when you expand out to the top-5, because sometimes 3-13 isn’t the worst record, the ratio doesn’t improve.

1998-present busts include Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Vince Young, Blake Bortles, and Robert Griffin. Mark Sanchez went fifth overall to a New York Jets team that traded up after going 9-7 a year earlier and lucked his way into some postseason berths. Marcus Mariota is in danger of having a career as starter that doesn’t go much longer than Sanchez. Sam Darnold and Mitchell Trubisky are too young to know. Carson Wentz is a Super Bowl winner who has zero career postseason snaps. That leaves three other QBs in the last 20+ years to go in the top-five.

Donovan McNabb went to a team that had gone 3-13 and helped them contend for a decade. His arrival coincided with Andy Reid’s. Philip Rivers went to a team that had gone 4-12, sat behind Drew Brees for two years, then took over a team that was already a title contender. The Chargers have yet to enjoy much playoff success either way. Matt Ryan went to a 4-12 team, is an MVP, a future Hall of Famer, and it’s still surprising he went third.

Overall, out of 29 QBs to go in the top-five from 1998-2018, there is a total of nine first-team All-Pro nods (seven for Manning, one for Cam, one for Ryan), 10 Super Bowl appearances (four Manning, two Manning, one each for Cam, Ryan, Goff, McNabb, plus Wentz* and Alex Smith* as backups/injured), four championships (the Mannings), and infinite words that could be used to describe the disappointment compared to the expectation of what happens after your team goes 2-14 and winds up with the sexiest pick in the draft.

But we know Seattle doesn’t need a quarterback and we haven’t yet discussed the positions besides quarterback, the trade possibilities, or the implications and consequences of losing 13 or more games in a given season. That’s next time.

This was meant to be a single article but it eventually stretched into 5,000+ words so I’ve broken it up into a series. I hate to break it up because you will want to leave comments on issues that I will have already addressed in an upcoming part of the series, but this is the most logical way to do it and I’ll drop every part of the series around the same time. In the next part, we’ll talk about the Seahawks specifically and why you don’t want to see them become a 3-13 team.

PART II