Gene Frenette: Trevor fever should convince NFL owners to adopt draft lottery

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
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Fans of the Jaguars and New York Jets find themselves rooting hard for their teams to lose so they can draft Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, seen here throwing a pass in the ACC Championship win over Notre Dame. The awkward situation should compel NFL owners to adopt a 5-team draft lottery, a different model from the NBA version.

They say timing is everything, and there’s no doubt this forthcoming proposal would be received far more enthusiastically by Jaguars’ fans if I unveiled it last week or around Thanksgiving when the idea first came to mind.

But since the previously winless New York Jets pulled off that stunning 23-20 win over the Los Angeles Rams, making the Jaguars the new clubhouse leader based on schedule tiebreaker for presumptive No. 1 NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence, this is going to get a big thumbs down from the black-and-teal faithful.

So be it, here goes: the NFL owners should take a page from the NBA book and hold a draft lottery. In other words, don’t automatically give the top pick to the team with the worst record, followed by the next 19 spots going to non-playoff teams in inverse order (strength of schedule being the tiebreaker).

Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, who won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, is skeptical about an NFL lottery being implemented, but admits there are potential abuses (a.k.a. tanking) that could be avoided if it was in place. More on that later.

Given the NFL normally has 20 non-playoff teams, I’m not proposing that many teams have a chance to land the No. 1 pick. The 35-year-old NBA lottery process has been adjusted multiple times, all of it designed to keep teams from purposely losing games as an incentive to gain the top selection. It now uses a weighted lottery system where the top three worst teams each have a 14 percent chance to obtain the No. 1 pick, down to 0.5 percent for the 14th-worst team.

Once the ping-pong balls determine which four teams draft 1-4, the remaining teams just fall in order, so the team with the worst record can draft no lower than fifth and no other lottery participant can pick more than four spots below its seeding.

My proposal for the NFL lottery is far different, starting with only teams owning the five worst records (schedule tiebreaker still applies) being eligible. Of course, the NFL would turn the lottery into a two-hour TV show, maybe on a Wednesday night in late March (avoid NCAA tournament conflict) or early April (before the Masters) that would give the league prime-time exposure.

Don’t tell me NFL owners wouldn’t at least be intrigued by the idea, especially a TV event sure to attract major advertisers and put more revenue on their bottom lines.

Here’s how it would work: index cards with the names of those five teams are put inside 25 different envelopes in a spinning bin and shuffled thoroughly. The numerical breakdown of envelopes is 10 (40 percent) for the team with the worst record, six (24 percent) for the No. 2 team, 4 (16 percent) for No. 3, three (12 percent) for No. 4 and two (8 percent) for No. 5.

Applied to how the NFL draft order currently stands, the Jaguars and Jets, both 1-13, would have a combined 64 percent chance of acquiring the top pick. It gives them a significant advantage over the three lower seeds, but not enough assurance that owning the No. 1 pick is close to guaranteed.     

The NFL could invite three Hall of Fame players, preferably with ties to one of the five teams, to each pull out one envelope. The first envelope selected is set aside and that team gets the No. 1 pick and two more are drawn, but the revealed picks are announced in 3-2-1 order. Obviously, the team with the worse record not selected will pick fourth and the other one fifth.

The benefits are two-fold, starting with preserving the integrity of the NFL season by removing any temptation -- overtly or subtly -- for teams with the worst records to not put healthy impact players on the field in the late season. Secondly, it assures playoff contenders that potential lottery participants will have every incentive to keep playing hard because nobody among the bottom five is guaranteed even a top-3 pick.

When first texting Dungy about the proposal, at which time I hadn’t settled on a fixed number of lottery teams, he was reluctant to approve a lottery where the team with the worst record could potentially fall to the back end of the top-10.

“I don’t think [NFL] would do it and I wouldn’t be in favor of it,” texted Dungy, an NBC analyst on Sunday Night Football. “As bad as the Jets and the Jags are this year, it would be a shame to have them pick 8-10 because of a lottery.

“So I would not be in favor of a rule that may penalize truly bad teams and really [a consensus No. 1 quarterback pick] only comes into play once or twice a decade.”

It was a great point from a legendary coach with a reputation as a voice of reason, compelling me to arrive at a reduced lottery of just five teams with the worst records. When I texted him to say my lottery team count had been adjusted, Dungy responded: “Yes, maybe four or five teams would work.”

Under this proposed system, if already in place, it would diminish some of the uncomfortable drama going on the last two weeks of the 2020 season. That’s because Sunday’s game between the Jaguars and Chicago Bears at TIAA Bank Field, along with the Jets facing the Cleveland Browns, would not bring them any closer to knowing their draft status since the lottery ultimately decides it.

The upside for the NFL is a lottery would drastically reduce the perception, and any temptation, of tanking. Imagine if the Jets, who were blown out two weeks ago 40-3 by the Seattle Seahawks, had followed up with non-competitive losses in their last three games. How would that look?

Coach Doug Marrone insists his team is giving maximum effort, and there’s no reason to dispute that, but would it not raise eyebrows if last week’s lethargic 40-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans were followed by two more awful performances against Chicago and the Indianapolis Colts in the season finale?

Maybe none of those scenarios happen. Maybe the Jaguars and Jets are plenty competitive these last two games, but Dungy also brings up a flip side to this whole tanking thing that many people might not even consider.

“I do think the current [draft] system could lead to abuse,” Dungy said. “I brought it up on our podcast. If I’m New England [Patriots], I would be tempted to not play my starters the last game against the Jets so I wouldn’t have to play against Lawrence for the next 10 years.”

Then again, with an NFL lottery, there’d be no incentive for Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick – known to have a strong dislike for the New York Jets – to even consider violating the true spirit of competition for a future advantage.

Jaguars’ fans would have fully embraced having an NFL lottery a week ago because they weren’t leading the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes then, but it’s a different story now. The opposite is true for Jets’ fans, who would gladly take their chances on landing Lawrence through the lottery instead of hoping the Jaguars do to the Bears what their team did to the Rams.

No matter who winds up with Trevor Lawrence, one thing seems clear: an NFL lottery would bring a greater sense of fairness to the NFL draft. And not put fans in the position of rooting so hard for their team to lose. (904) 359-4540     

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