Getting the 1st overall pick in the NFL Draft and other exercises in futility
I’m sticking on the topic of quarterbacks and the top of the NFL draft with this post, but we’re looking at it from a different angle. Cam Newton was the topic of my last blog, because he’s going to be highly drafted with middling, at best, NFL expectations. That’s not always a bad thing. This article will look at the science of being so bad as to have the worst record in football, and receive the first overall pick.
This is significant for the following reason: I believe that any team that projects poorly enough as to have a realistic (lets say 15% or better) chance of having the worst record in football in 2011 should avoid a quarterback in the upcoming draft because this team will be able to draft Stanford’s Andrew Luck in 2012, who certainly looks like the guy with the best NFL draft profile to come out of college since, at the very least, Matt Ryan, and probably even before him. The big question is: how do we know terrible teams are going to be terrible? This is an understudied pro football topic because bad teams don’t draw ratings except around draft time, but: can we look back at teams with the first overall pick and see a common thread? Were all teams of the sort awful, or is their an element of luck involved. I remember the 2007 Dolphins being a pretty unlucky 0-7 team until Ronnie Brown’s torn ACL — which made them a bad team — but was, in itself, a stroke of poor luck.
I’m looking at the last 15 teams to finish with the worst record in the NFL, which includes the 2001 Carolina Panthers and the 1998 Philadelphia Eagles, neither of whom actually got the first overall pick thanks to NFL expansion.
1996 New York Jets
Offensive DVOA rating: -15.9% (25th); Defensive DVOA rating: 6.2% (26th)
The 1-15 Jets were probably the worst team in the NFL, but they weren’t hopeless on either offense, defense, or special teams (well, maybe special teams). There were no real dreadful teams in the NFL in 96. They didn’t get to actually use the first overall pick the next season, as the Rams got Orlando Pace with it.
1997 Indianapolis Colts
Offensive DVOA rating: -12.4% (24th); Defensive DVOA rating: 4.2% (25th)
This really wasn’t too poor of a roster: it had Marvin Harrison and a rookie Tarik Glenn on it, not to mention Marshall Faulk. Jim Harbaugh and Paul Justin did a really underrated job of quarterbacking this team. The defense was pretty close to average. You can blame nearly all the problems on this team on 83 terrible dropbacks from Kelly Holcomb, and a rushing attack that couldn’t succeed even with Marshall Faulk (perhaps a little too much Zack Crockett). With the first pick the next year, and no obvious need at quarterback, the Colts drafted some guy named ‘Manning.’ Is he still around?
1998 Philadelphia Eagles
Offensive DVOA rating: -26.8% (27th); Defensive DVOA rating: 5.7% (25th)
Now this was a bad offense. The only passing game worse than these guys was the Ryan Leaf-led Chargers. The best offensive player here was Duce Staley. Leaf is rightfully remembered as an epic bust, but Bobby Hoying was a far worse NFL quarterback. Rodney Peete also made an appearance in this offense. It’s important to remember that while Donovan McNabb may have been wildly overrated by conventional wisdom, he and Andy Reid built the Eagles of the last decade out of absolute rags.
My favorite part of this exercise so far is that every one of these horrible offenses had players end up on the no. 1 rated offense in 2002, the Oakland Raiders.
1999 Cleveland Browns
Offensive DVOA rating: -17.3% (26th); Defensive DVOA rating: 17.4% (31st)
Lots of teams on this list played like expansion teams, but this is the only group that actually was one. You don’t need me to remind you how Tim Couch’s career ended, but he was a lot better of a player than you probably remember him as. This is the first team on the list to be 2-14 mostly because the defense was dreadful. Offensively, the Browns were bad, but not bottom of the barrel. Tim Couch started all the team’s games, and lest you feel that Jimmy Clausen’s career is already over, Couch: 1) outperformed Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith as the QB of an expansion team, but 2) did not outperform Bears rookie Cade McNown. He would do that easily in 2000 though. On the other side of the ball though, yeah, the Browns needed help. They drafted for need and took DE Courtney Brown with the 1st pick and he didn’t solve the teamwide problems on that side of the ball.
2000 San Diego Chargers
Offensive DVOA rating: -27.3% (29th); Defensive DVOA rating: -11.1% (11th)
The year 2000 might well be known as the year of the awful football team, as the teams at the bottom of the league were simply pitiful. Atlanta, Cincinnati, Arizona, and Cleveland were all 12+ loss teams, all maybe among the worst in recent memory. So, then, how did a team that wasn’t nearly as epically horrible land the first overall pick? Timely special teams gaffes, perhaps? The Chargers were horrible on offense, really bad at passing, and far worse at running. That’s a really good defensive rating though, particularly for a team with just one win. Leaf would finally flame out this year, cementing his status as one of the worst picks of all time (he was still a lot better than Akili Smith), and opening the door for the Chargers to take Michael Vick, which of course they wouldn’t do. A trade with Atlanta would net the Chargers the backfield duo of LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees. It’s possible both could be Canton-bound, someday.
2001 Carolina Panthers
Offensive DVOA rating: -29.6% (31st); Defensive DVOA rating: -0.9% (21st)
The 2001 Carolina Panthers were yet another team that managed one win despite a defense that certainly wasn’t inept at preventing yards and points. Blame a league’s worst offense for this one: the Panthers were both the worst rushing and passing team in football (the more things change…). Chris Weinke dropped back 571 times this season. He was pretty much Jimmy Clausen as a rookie. The difference: Clausen didn’t turn 23 until December of the 2010 season. Weinke was 29 before the season. The team actually opted for a defensive star, Julius Peppers in the next draft over Joey Harrington at quarterback. It paid off: Carolina was in the super bowl 2 years later, and though Jake Delhomme has become a punchline of late, he was a super bowl quarterback while Harrington was struggling in Detroit. Chalk one up for best player available.
2002 Cincinnati Bengals
Offensive DVOA rating: -2.4% (21st); Defensive DVOA rating: 14.9% (28th)
This is a team that broke the mold. The head coach of this team was Dick Lebeau. The Steelers have won super bowls in recent years with lower rated offenses than this Bengals one. The defense was the problem. While dreadful teams such as Arizona, Detroit, and Houston combined for 12 victories, the offensively competent Bengals had just two wins. This would have been recognized as Jon Kitna’s breakout season had the Bengals not lost so many games. By virtue of going 8-8 the next season, 2003 is widely regarded as the Kitna coming out party, but in reality, he was already there in full post-Seattle form. This was also a strong rushing year for Corey Dillon, who somehow got the ball 315 times on a team that lost 14 games. The only thing the 2002 Bengals couldn’t do at all was stop the pass. Maybe the game had passed their aging coach by? Yeah, that was probably it.
2003 San Diego Chargers
Offensive DVOA rating: 2.2% (12th); Defensive DVOA rating: 11.0% (30th)
Drew Brees lost his job to Doug Flutie this season, and Flutie played well. They beat some horrible teams, if only because they couldn’t stop anyone else. The Chargers competency on offense was masked by poor (but not horrendous) defensive play. LaDainian Tomlinson was already an all-pro caliber back by his third season. The Chargers were a team with the first overall pick just waiting for a breakout. As luck would have it, the player they would receive with the pick, Philip Rivers, would not see the field in the Chargers’ breakout 2004 season. Like the Bengals of the prior season, these guys couldn’t stop the pass, but otherwise this team was a pretty good team who ended up with 12 losses and the first overall pick.
2004 San Francisco 49ers
Offensive DVOA rating: -20.2% (29th); Defensive DVOA rating: 21.4% (31st)
The 2004 and 2005 49ers might have been the worst football teams of the decade. They were both probably worse than the 0-16 2008 Lions; the other team that comes to mind when you mention the very worst teams there have been in the last 15 years. The culprit on the 2005 team was obviously the offense, almost twice as bad as this teams, but here the horrible offense and defense were equally to blame. Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey took most of the meaningful snaps, so this team absolutely needed a quarterback. Just not Alex Smith. Kevan Barlow came into the year an exciting young runner who would be the natural replacement for Garrison Hearst, and he left as Kevan Barlow, the guy we currently know.
2005 Houston Texans
Offensive DVOA rating: -17.0% (27th); Defensive DVOA rating: 19.9% (32nd)
With all due respect to the Texans, who were a horrible team in 2005, it’s mind boggling that the 2005 49ers beat anyone, let alone won 4 games. Mike Martz and the Rams somehow managed to lose to them twice. And sure, they outlasted the Texans in overtime in Week 17 which certainly has to be a nominee for the worst football game ever played. But they also beat the Bucs, and the Bucs went to the playoffs this year. The 49ers did not score a touchdown in that game, instead, Joe Nedney kicked five field goals, Cadillac Williams rushed for less than 1.5 YPC, Chris Simms threw two picks, and Cody Pickett completed a pass in this game for SF. Awesome.
Back to the Texans. David Carr struggled immensely in spite of completing 60% of his passes. The Texans defense was terrible because they have always been terrible. The offensive line was bad as well, and no improvement was evident until a QB change after the 2006 season. Dominick Davis had a mediocre year, changed his name to Dominick Williams, and then in one of the great NFL mysteries of all time, was never heard from or seen again. The Texans did bad the right way, by struggling on both sides of the ball. They righted the ship with DE Mario Williams as the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, though competent defense has proven elusive still.
2006 Oakland Raiders
Offensive DVOA rating: -36.5% (32nd); Defensive DVOA rating: -8.1% (8th)
As horrible as you remember the ‘Team of the Decades’ being in this particular decade, only the 2006 Raiders managed to have the worst record in football (though in 2003, 4-12 was tied for the worst record). I mean, this was a dreadful team, but it was a very, very good defensive team. It’s likely the best defensive team ever to land the first overall pick. This was Nnamdi Asomugha’s 8 INT year. Warren Sapp had 10 sacks. Kirk Morrison probably should have gone to the pro bowl. Aaron Brooks and Andrew Walter spearheaded the offense for head coach Art Shell. Neither had a chance. What’s probably worth noting is that 2006 was a remarkably poor year for specialists Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler, and neither was nearly this bad prior or ever again. Lechler has 10 well above average years in his career, and then 2006.
2007 Miami Dolphins
Offensive DVOA rating: -5.3% (27th); Defensive DVOA rating: 14.7% (31st)
Miami would probably be my vote for the best 1 win team of all time, and I don’t think they would have a close second. They are the best or second best team on this list, because even the 2003 Chargers won 4 games. This team looked pretty darn strong in the preseason. Trent Green didn’t stay healthy. Ronnie Brown was great, then eventually had the knee injury. The best move might have been the midseason trade of Chris Chambers to the Chargers. Cleo Lemon played considerable time and did okay. John Beck was a pretty horrible rookie. This team wasn’t that deep, but if you looked closely, the 2008 11-5 season wasn’t all that surprising when you understand how easy that schedule was the next season, and how difficult it was for Miami in 2007.
2008 Detroit Lions
Offensive DVOA rating: -20.6% (30th); Defensive DVOA rating: 29.2% (32nd)
This was quite possibly one of the five worst defenses of all time, and at the time, probably featured the worst secondary in NFL history (though it certainly has competition now from the 2010 Texans and Broncos). And, of course, they wouldn’t win a game. But the offense had bright spots. Calvin Johnson went to his first pro bowl, Dan Orlovsky proved competent at quarterback (minus a play), and Kevin Smith was effective as a rookie. This wasn’t a good offense by any stretch, as the entire line struggled, and no pieces of this team were major contributors on the 2010 Lions except Johnson, Jeff Backus, and Dominic Raiola. But offensive competency in bits and pieces probably keeps the losing-est team of all-time from being the worst team of all time.
2009 St. Louis Rams
Offensive DVOA rating: -26.4% (32nd); Defensive DVOA rating: 20.3% (31st)
This really wasn’t a terrible team either, but I thought they gave up on their season really early, and the performance measures reflect a team that was playing some true non-NFL talents at key positions. Keith Null at quarterback, for example. This was a banner year for Steven Jackson, who was rewarded with a pro-bowl nomination…a year later after a down 2010. Rushing the ball was the only skill of this team, and the only team they beat was the Lions. I though they had the talent to do better and a year later, they were able to get to seven wins, albiet as a still terrible team in an all-time weak division. Sam Bradford looks like a promising selection at no. 1.
2010 Carolina Panthers
Offensive DVOA rating: -31.9% (32nd); Defensive DVOA rating: 1.8% (16th)
The Panthers are just the second team to be picking first overall twice in the last 15 years, a shocking accomplishment for a franchise that has been “up” most of its existence. Their spot atop the NFL draft board also breaks a 3 year run of awful defenses producing the team with the top pick (which is then immediately spent on offense, of course). This year could produce the opposite effect. The Panthers had an average defense last year to go with a league-worst offense, but the only offensive player valuable enough for the top slot is WR AJ Green. The Panthers probably will not consider a receiver with the top choice. Perhaps they’ll take a quarterback? Unlikely, still. Maybe the biggest shock about the ineptitude of the Panthers in 2010 is that they were the worst team in football in terms of running the ball. The Panthers. Who built their 2005, and 2008 playoff teams on the strength of the run. Worst in the league. They were not the worst passing team in football under Clausen, but they were too close to that distinction for comfort.
What we’ve seen in the last ten years is that teams that end up with the first overall pick do so because of general incompetence on one side of the ball or the other (if not both). 15 years ago, this wasn’t the case. You could be bad, equally, on both sides of the football without being terrible at any one thing, and win just 2 or 3 games all season. Now, teams with weaknesses get them exploited week after week by any and all opponents. Teams that are terribly deficient on either offense or defense can’t expect to win an average amount of games, and will therefore be in play for the first overall pick in 2012.
That’s a good thing for those teams, as far as I’m concerned. Rebuilding may be a multi-offseason process, but this next season is a good year to take a tumble in the standings, thanks of course to Andrew Luck’s decision to stay in school one more season. Can we use historical baselines to project which teams in the top ten are likely to remain there next year? Well, one possible starting point is to look at teams without established passers in a secure starting role. That’s generally a reliable negative indicator of performance.
The Carolina Panthers are probably the team worst off by these historical measures, as we cannot reliably conclude that their offense will be noticibly improved in 2011. All teams in the NFC West are probably exempt from consideration from the first overall pick, but Arizona figures to be dreadful once again unless they find a veteran to improve their quarterback situation. After that, I would say that Cincinnati is probably the team in the league most likely to sharply decline
The Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins round out my list of teams most likely to earn the first overall pick in 2012, because both franchise will take on significant losses this offseason (Tennessee is turning over its entire coaching staff). The AFC West will offer two candidates for the first overall pick. Denver should improve a bit on offense under Tim Tebow, but was one of the league’s worst defenses and could lose it’s best player, Champ Bailey, to free agency. Still, I’d imagine the return of Elvis Dumerville may be enough to win more than 4 games next year. Kansas City may not be so lucky because they have no real defensive line outside of Glenn Dorsey, just watched their quarterback melt down in epic fashion in the final regular season game, their playoff game, and the pro bowl (yes, the pro bowl). They are a potential first-to-worst candidate. The eighth team I would suggest has a chance to wind up with the first overall pick would be the Miami Dolphins, who I project to finish below the Buffalo Bills next season in the AFC East.
Lastly, the Minnesota Vikings will be competent on defense, but risk being the worst team in football on offense, which we have seen is enough to land a team with the first overall pick the next year.
That leaves four teams in the top ten picks who do not figure to project as the worst team in football next year under any stretch of the imagination: Buffalo, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Dallas. Buffalo and San Francisco are the two teams who require quarterbacks. These are the two teams who should be looking to take one of the available quarterbacks in this draft, as they will not be in position to draft Andrew Luck next season. Other teams who need quarterbacks: Carolina, Cincinnati, Arizona, Tennessee, Washington, Minnesota, and Kansas City are very much in the draw for the first overall pick next season, based only on historic trends for teams.
Only one team can post the worst record in the league next year, but for teams who figure to be picking higher next year, patience with adding a quarterback would be the preferred methodology as opposed to impatience and adding the best available player at the position of need.