The NFL should have a draft lottery. The NFL, obviously, doesn’t have one.
An NFL draft lottery would become a major offseason tentpole. It would fill the dip that often occurs between the early days of free agency and the final countdown to the draft. It would generate attention and, more importantly, money.
So why won’t the NFL do it? My theory, as expressed in Playmakers (I think), was and is that the NFL wants to avoid doing anything that will acknowledge the inherent temptation to tank. If the NFL were to create a system that, for example, gave more lottery balls to teams that finish lower in the standings, the NFL would be admitting what everyone currently knows — bad is good.
Bad is good.
That’s already the way it is, without ping-pong balls bearing team logos.
Bad is good. The temptation is there. Sometimes, teams act on it.
The Buccaneers did it in 2014, in order to nail down the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The Eagles did it in 2020, benching Jalen Hurts for Nate Sudfeld in the second half of a winnable game against the then-Washington Football Team in order to secure a higher spot in every round of the draft.
Perhaps most notoriously, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross tried to do it in 2019, in order to win the Joe Burrow sweepstakes. Ross allegedly offered then-coach Brian Flores $100,000 per loss that year. Ross avoided punishment by persuading the NFL it was a joke. (We’re still looking for the punchline.) The NFL had a good reason to accept Ross’s explanation, since the NFL presumably didn’t want to shine a spotlight on someone giving in to the very real temptation to tank.
There’s a way to craft a draft lottery that actually eliminates the temptation to tank. And it’s surprisingly simple. The 18 non-playoff teams enter the lottery, and each of them have one ball in the machine.
The 18 non-playoff teams have an equal chance to secure the No. 1 pick. That means there will be no incentive to lose games.
The only potential temptation under that model would come from an owner who would rather have a one-in-18 chance to secure the right to a generational talent over a ticket to a snowball’s chance at a Super Bowl win. But if a team were to make curious roster decisions in advance of a Week 18 game that had a playoff berth on the line, it would be more conspicuous. It would attract more attention and scrutiny. It would be very hard to get away with it.
Chris Simms and I argued about it today. He believes it’s good to reward bad. I don’t like the idea of consistently handing to a dysfunctional team prime real estate in the draft. What’s the incentive to truly change things if one of the hidden benefits of being bad is being in position to eventually stumble into a franchise-altering talent like Joe Burrow?
A non-weighted lottery including the non-playoff teams is the right way to go. It would allow the NFL to have a compelling event in late March or early April.
It also would address one of the lingering concerns regarding the gambling space, where clear proof of tanking could spark criminal prosecutions and/or civil litigation regarding the integrity of games on which people placed wagers under the assumption that both teams were actually playing to win.