I was listening to the Grantland NFL Podcast today and was surprised as to how the two speakers, Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell, lost sight of something. They were answering a question about the Carolina Panthers, who finished with a sub .500 record but made it into the playoffs and into the second round. The question centered on the reality that by getting to the playoffs and winning the first game (against the much depleted Cardinals), the Panthers moved from 11th in the draft to 25th or so. That is, this spring, they will be choosing their next batch of rookies further down and are, thus, less likely to get the best talent.
Mays basically said that losing that many places in the draft was costly, that the franchise would be better off missing the playoffs. Why? So, they might be better next year. Well, what might that mean? Getting into the playoffs and making it into the second round? Like they did this year? Or maybe a better shot at the Super Bowl? Maybe. But isn't the point of any season of competition is to win as much as possible in that season? Don't the fans get their utility--their happiness, their self-esteem--by their team's success now?
Yes, franchises always have to balance the present against the future, but only one team wins the Super Bowl and it is always unlikely to be your team. Getting into the playoffs means that the team has done well and that the team has entered a lottery with fewer participants. Isn't this the goal?
In basketball, we have epidemic tanking. The 76ers are engaged in a multiyear effort to stockpile talent so that they might be competitive some day. Fans have to tolerate years of not just losing but losing a lot. Sports pundits criticize teams that are on the bubble, trying to get into the playoffs, as they would be better off losing more games so that they can get a better pick. But isn't winning the goal? Isn't getting into the playoffs something a team should aspire to? Not every team can win the championship, and, in most years, only a handful of teams have an excellent chance.
Since sports are ... entertainment, shouldn't franchises aspire to do as well as possible? If they are close to the playoffs, shouldn't they try to get into the playoffs so that their fans have more games to watch, more opportunities to root for their team, and the team might get lucky and make it further than it is supposed to? In the NFL, wildcard teams have won the Super Bowl on a regular basis. In basketball? The lesser playoff teams don't make it as far (one game rounds vs best of seven...).
I get the larger, long-term strategies that these folks are espousing. And if a team truly sucks, then tanking a bit more makes sense. But if you are close to the playoffs, like the Panthers were, then go for it, try to win, and don't worry about losing one's place in the draft. Instead, just try to draft smarter. FFS.