This week there has been a vocal segment of Redskins fans bemoaning Washington’s win in Seattle. Every win at this point of the season, the logic goes, is actually hurting the team because it drives the Redskins down the draft board. I’ll admit to having mixed feelings at times. I mean, I want to get a franchise quarterback like everyone else. But I also like to watch the Redskins, you know, win.
The Redskins can finish anywhere from 4-12 (if they lose out) to 9-7 (if they win out). This means that they will likely end up picking anywhere between No. 4 and No. 19. So what is more valuable, the wins or the higher draft position? Should I root for the Redskins to lose? I did the research.
Well, actually it turns out that someone else already did the research (*phew*). Scorecasting, a book that analyzes sports conventional wisdom, took a look at the work done by economics professors Richard Thaler and Cade Massey on the NFL draft. The conclusion? NFL teams overvalue high draft picks.
Thaler and Massey analyzed the value of each draft position based on historical data, such as probability of making the roster, the number of starts, and the likelihood of making the Pro Bowl. Not surprisingly, players drafted earlier outperformed players drafted later. But the unexpected part was that the earlier picks weren’t significantly better. For example, the economists found that the consensus top player at a position only performed 5 percent better than the consensus third best player at that position. Yet teams might pay four or five times as much in salary for that top player, or trade multiple picks in order to get into position to make the higher pick.
So, looking at the Redskins situation, the difference between picking fourth and picking 19th in the draft is that difference between the top player and the third player at a position of need. That third best player is likely to perform almost as well, and you didn’t have to sit through a string of depressing losses the previous season.
The ideal strategy, based on these numbers, is to trade down and assemble numerous draft picks. In fact, while doing their initial research, Thaler and Massey met with Dan Snyder and the Redskins front office, and provided the brain trust with this recommendation. The Redskins, of course, did the exact opposite, which is one of the many reasons they have struggled over the years.
In contrast, look at what the Redskins did in last year’s draft. They traded down numerous times, amassing lots of picks, and then picked well enough that most of the players drafted have actually played in games this year.
So, if improving your position on the draft board isn’t all that valuable, how important are wins once your team is effectively eliminated from playoff contention? (Yes, the Redskins are technically still in the hunt, but, c’mon.)
The fact is, each win creates the perception of a stronger, more effective, well run franchise. That perception makes the team more attractive to free agents, prevents coaching staff turnover, and builds a culture of winning in the organization. These may be more psychological factors, but in the NFL, perception has a way of becoming reality.
In the end, there are only 16 Redskins games each season, and there have been plenty of losses to deal with over the years. The numbers say that we shouldn’t deny ourselves the joy of witnessing the late season Redskins win. The key for success in the draft has less to do with the position of the picks and is more about the smarts of the people making the picks.
So let’s root for the Redskins to beat the Jets and the spawn of the evil Buddy Ryan. If they win, the sun will shine brighter, your food will taste better, and birds will sing a happy tune. And most importantly, each win moves the franchise forward in the right direction.
Trust me, it’s the right thing to do.
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Sports Bog: Rex Grossman still thinking playoffs