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Sunday, July 18, 2004 

Picking a Winner

Just over a week ago, Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman wrote an analysis piece on the last 10 NFL drafts 1994-2003).  He made a few simplifications:

How do the teams stack up, overall? The problem is that if you include the entire draft, the thing becomes too unwieldy, plus it will give a skewed picture. The all-important statistic of how many regulars came from those 10 drafts will always end up in an overload in favor of the bad teams, because they're more in need of help. There are more spots available for rookies.

So I tried to level the field by using only the top three rounds of the draft, the elite. Good and bad teams alike need a steady influx of these high choices, the lifeblood of their future.

Dr. Z goes on to list each NFL team's record for the past 10 years (except for Houston, and the "new" Cleveland Browns), how many players they drafted are still with the team, and how many of them are "regulars".  Dr. Z then repeats this for the just the first-rounders.  Finally, he lists how many Pro Bowl players each team found in the first 3 rounds, and how many players spent less than one year with the team (aptly named "flunks").  The list of "regulars" was somewhat subjective, since he included "important" role players but not players like Ryan Leaf, who started but were not successful. 

I wish he had listed All-Pros (selected by media) instead of Pro Bowlers (selected by a mix of player and fan voting), but that's a nitpick.  My real problem is the limitation on the first 3 rounds.  I agree that bad teams will use more rookies - but over a ten-year span, shouldn't every "bad" team eventually get good?  The years 1994-2003 include New England Patriots teams that finished 6-10 or worse, plus 2 Super Bowl Champions.  I'd love to know how each team did in uncovering "gems" - Pro Bowlers who were found in the last 4 rounds - like Tom Brady.

In terms of the data itself, I found three things very interesting:

1. Miami has done an awful job in the first round of the draft.
To be fair, they have only made 6 first round selections over the past ten years, but to have just one regular remaining is really bad, plus they have a league-high 7 "flunks".  Only 3 other teams have more than 3 flunks - St. Louis (6), Atlanta (5), and Cincinnati (5).

2. Pro Bowl Players = Championships.
Six teams have found 7 or more Pro Bowlers in the first 3 rounds over this period: Tampa Bay (8), Denver, Baltimore, New England, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh (7).  Four of those teams have combined to win six Super Bowls, and the other two (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) have repeatedly reached their Conference Championship game or Super Bowl in this period.  But once again, I'd like to see the later round numbers...

3. Parity has REALLY taken over in the past 5 years.
If I asked you to name the 3 teams with the best winning percentage over the past 10 years, who would you pick?  Green Bay would be a safe bet, but San Francisco and Denver?  Here's the top 10: 

1.  Green Bay      108-52
2.  San Francisco  100-60
3.  Denver          98-62
4.  Miami           96-64
5.  Pittsburgh      95-64-1
6.  Kansas City     94-66
7.  New England     93-67
8.  Minnesota       92-68
9.  Tennessee       89-71
10. Philadelphia    87-72-1

Of those teams, four have combined to win six Super Bowls (Green Bay, San Francisco, Denver, and New England) and two others have lost the big game (Pittsburgh, Tennessee).  But what is amazing is that NONE of those top 3 teams has played in a Conference Championship game since 1999 (San Francisco hasn't won their division since 1997), and yet they still lead the pack.

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