The NFL can’t reconcile the importance of convincing everyone that every team always plays to win with the reality that, for non-playoff teams in December, it pays handsomely to not win. So the NFL doesn’t try to.
Taking it one step farther, the NFL refuses to even consider something that would become a major offseason tentpole for the league, gathering millions of TV viewers and potentially becoming another traveling roadshow that would bring thousands of fans into the streets of one of the cities that is in play for the top pick. The only logical explanation for the league’s flat-out failure not only to entertain the possibility but to steadfastly ignore that it even exists underscores the league’s position on tanking: Act like the temptation doesn’t exist, even when it clearly does.
An NBA-style lottery would be weighted, with the worst teams getting more balls in the machine. By embracing that contest, the league would be sending the message that it’s good to be bad. Which would undermine the “you play to win the game” vibe that the league feels compelled to infuse throughout the full regular-season schedule, especially after Thanksgiving, when the 20 non-playoff teams become increasingly clear — and when ownership’s urge to bench the starters for undrafted rookies becomes increasingly strong.
But there’s a way to do a lottery that both creates another offseason phenomenon while eradicating the phenomenon of tanking. The bottom 12 spots in the first round would be determined by playoff exits and regular-season records, culminating in the Super Bowl teams at No. 31 and 32. The top 20 spots, reserved for the non-playoff teams, would determined by a straight lottery: One ball per team, 20 balls.
Why should the worst of the non-playoff teams get a bigger reward than the best of them? The NFL has become the ultimate haves (playoffs) and have-nots (no playoffs) pass/fail proposition, and the have-nots should all get the same chance to have the first pick. This necessarily would kill the tanking temptation, because an aspiration to pick first could be tied only to an aspiration to not make the playoffs. And every team and fan base always wants to make the playoffs. (If there’s any doubt, watch or listen to any of the shows aimed at convinced every fan base that their team has a chance to make the playoffs this year.)
Consider the concept as it relates to 2019. Plenty of Dolphins fans (and possibly the fan who signs the checks) would prefer to see the team take its lumps this year, with the reward being the best quarterback ever coached by the guy who used to coach the Dolphins. A lottery that makes the chances of getting the first overall pick equal for all non-playoff teams would scuttle that chatter, with the sole goal always being to make it to the postseason, and with the consolation prize being three months or so of hope and wonder that maybe this is the year that the ping-pong gods will smile on a forsaken franchise.
The league loves hope, generally. It abhors hope when the hope is tied to the incentive to lose, especially in this new age of legalized gambling. In one fell swoop, the league could end that temptation forever, while also creating an event that would join the Scouting Combine, free agency, and the draft as the major moneymaking and ratings-generating events of the offseason.