Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
02 Apr 2013
by Danny Tuccitto
Welcome back for the second installment in our series on historical draft efficiency. Today, we're going to find out how well (or poorly) each franchise drafted from 1970 to 2007; rank them, even! But before we get started, here are a few loose ends I need to tie up.
First and foremost, if you haven't read Part 1 of the series, click here and give it a look. Just as a quick refresher, the main things you need to know are what value above expectation (VAE) and return on investment (ROI) mean in the context of the series. VAE measures total value above and beyond what was expected from a player given the slot at which he was selected. ROI measures percentage value relative to expectation.
So, take a random draft pick like Jim Mandich, whom the Dolphins selected 29th in 1970. Given where he was drafted, Mandich's expected value per year was 3.2, about that of a marginal starter. His actual value per year was 3.5, so his VAE was +0.3, while his ROI was +9.6%. And the point of all this is that, with VAEs and ROIs for all draftees since 1970, we can group them however we like; today, we group by franchise.
Beyond VAE and ROI, which you need to know for this, here are a few other things you might want to know.
So with all advisories covered, below is the table showing cumulative VAEs and ROIs for each franchise's draft history from 1970-2007. For the sake of comparison, I've also included its regular season winning percentage since the AFL-NFL merger. The table is sorted by ROI.
|Franchise||# Picks||VAE||Rank||ROI||Rank||Win Pct||Rank|
|Franchise||# Picks||VAE||Rank||ROI||Rank||Win Pct||Rank|
As only 12 of the 32 franchises added value above what you would expect from the slots where they made their picks, most of the league did a below-average job at drafting from 1970 to 2007. However, with 22 franchises between -5 percent and +5 percent ROI, we're talking -- for the most part -- about small differences. Perhaps I'm extrapolating a bit, but to me this is an indicator of how NFL success is predicated on exploiting marginal advantages. A few more positive-VAE picks over the course of four decades, and the New York Jets would have been just as good at drafting as the Dallas Cowboys, and possibly just as successful on the field (assuming the Jets also hired guys like Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson to coach those picks rather than guys like Bruce Coslet and Rich Kotite).
At the extremes of the list, we have analogous situations on both sides. The Pittsburgh Steelers have added more value above expectation than any other franchise, but the Miami Dolphins have been more efficient with 43 fewer picks. Similarly, the Kansas City Chiefs have lost the most value with their drafts, while the reincarnated Cleveland Browns have been woefully inefficient with far fewer picks. The Chiefs have managed to (somewhat) overcome poor drafting when it comes to wins and losses, but it's not a coincidence that the Steelers and Dolphins are also one-two in winning percentage, and the Browns are dead last. Indeed, VAE (+.57) and ROI (+.66) are moderately correlated with winning percentages since the merger.
Of course, that also suggests over 50 percent of "winning games" is unrelated to "drafting well," insofar as that's what VAE and ROI are measuring. For instance, franchises like the Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, and New England Patriots seem to have done better on football Sundays than on draft day, whereas the Carolina Panthers and San Diego Chargers haven't been able to parlay positive VAE into a ton of wins.
As I said, I'll save most of the details for future articles, but there were plenty of interesting tidbits to discuss here without giving everything away. If you're curious, feel free to ask about specific draft stats in the comments section, and I'll indulge your curiosity as much as I can.
The Steelers are the only franchise to have four drafts of positive double-digit VAE (1992, 1987, 1971, 1974), while 15 franchises haven't had a single one of their drafts reach that threshold. Elsewhere in the modern-day AFC North, whether it was Paul Brown's retirement or some curse brought on by Brown passing over Bill Walsh as his replacement, the Cincinnati Bengals went from +46.2 VAE in their first three post-merger drafts to -50.5 VAE over the subsequent 25 years. Meanwhile, in another stroke of odd timing involving Brown-related teams, the Baltimore Ravens had negative VAE in each of their last four drafts as the original Cleveland Browns (1992-1995), but then only had three total negative drafts in the 12 years after leaving town.
Moving to the AFC East, in addition to Miami being No. 1 in draft efficiency since the merger, they also had the most positive-VAE drafts (26). However, as Dolphins fans can attest -- as a Miami resident, they can and will let you know -- none of their top 10 drafts came after 1996. In New England, that's right about when football fandom began in earnest thanks to Bill Parcells.
In a previous life, I observed that one thing the modern Patriots (ca. 1993-2007) have done well in the draft is basically never pick a flat-out first-round bust. And while the numbers I have now support that (10th in first-round ROI since 1993), they also reveal this less flattering trend: From 1970 to 1992, New England's ROI was -0.7%; from 1993 to 2007, it was +1.0%. Yes, the brief Bobby Grier era (1997-1999) accounted for much of the negative value after 1993, but it's also true that, aside from the 1995 and 2005 drafts, Parcells and Belichick had a combined -26.4 VAE and -12.7% ROI.
For the other two teams in the division, draft futility has reigned. The Jets only had two -- two!!! -- positive-VAE drafts during a 20-year span from 1980 to 1999. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills somehow managed to emerge from franchise hibernation in 1987 despite 10 consecutive negative-VAE drafts from 1977-1986, which includes the first two drafts by Bill Polian. (Feel free to bring up their 1985 draft in the comments.)
Surprisingly, Polian's eight drafts in Buffalo netted -2.3 VAE and had an ROI of -1.7 percent. With the Indianapolis Colts, however, he rattled off seven consecutive positive-VAE drafts to start his tenure, and had a +31.1 VAE through 2007. Keep in mind, as the No. 1 pick in 1998, Peyton Manning's VAE thus far in his career is only +2.8, so Polian's favorable stats with the Colts aren't all about the Manning pick.
Compared to the rest of the AFC West, Kansas City seemingly left their draft bibles in the AFL. After winning Super Bowl IV in January 1970, the Chiefs proceeded to have seven consecutive negative-VAE drafts; 13 out of 14, and 16 out of 18. No wonder they went 14 years between seasons with double-digit wins (1972-1985).
Over to the NFC, where I'll start with Washington. I mentioned earlier that the Redskins were among a few franchises that have been better "winners" than "drafters." This should surprise no one who's aware of George Allen's fear and loathing of rookies or Dan Snyder's fear and loathing of positive value. Well, in Allen's case, it's not that simple. In 1972 and 1975, he had three picks combined. Those picks had a combined ROI of +152.5%, and included selecting Pro-Bowl running back Mike Thomas in the fifth round (108th pick).
Dallas and the New York Giants have been much better than Washington (and the Philadelphia Eagles, for that matter), but both have had massive failures overshadowed by successes. For instance, the Giants had only two positive-VAE drafts from 1971 to 1982, but then had only four negative-VAE drafts from 1983 to 1997.
For the Cowboys, you can't really talk about drafting without mentioning Jimmy Johnson (or his chart, apparently), but what strikes me is how basically anyone with a base level of competence could have improved on the disaster that preceded him. From 1978 to 1987, Dallas had 10 consecutive negative-VAE drafts (-39.7 VAE, -24.2% ROI). Their second-best pick according to VAE during that streak was Todd Christensen with No. 56 overall in 1978. You'll remember Christensen from such hit shows as "Cowboys Camp Casualty," "I Made My Name in Oakland," and "The Phil Simms NFL Workout."
The two franchises associated with almost gratuitous amounts of losing over the past few decades are the Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers; one seemingly because of the draft, another despite it. You won't be surprised to learn that Detroit's 0-16 season came on the heels of a nine-year stretch that included only one positive-VAE draft. However, you will be surprised to learn that, from 1980 to 1989, the Bucs went 45-106-1 even though they had eight positive-VAE drafts from 1979 to 1988 (+9.0 VAE, 5.5% ROI).
Finally, there's the NFC West, where the Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, and Seattle Seahawks are all light years behind San Francisco in the historical draft efficiency rankings. Arizona was an improbable participant in Super Bowl XLIII, but not only because they went 9-7 during the regular season. It's also the case that they had not had a positive-VAE draft for three years running, and their most efficient pick from 2005 to 2007 was finding a mediocre wide receiver (Steve Breaston) at No. 142 in 2007. The Rams did things the other way around: They first won the Super Bowl, and then had seven negative-VAE drafts in eight years.
77 comments, Last at 29 Apr 2013, 10:16pm by RSpang