The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

Should the Browns throw the games?

Posted by disappointmentzone on 20 December 2006

By April 18th, 2006, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies had both secured spots in the NBA playoffs. Neither team could finish worse than sixth. That night they played each other in what was each team’s second-to-last game. The winner would earn the fifth seed in the Western Conference.

In the first round of the NBA playoffs the sixth seed plays the third seed and the fifth seed plays the fourth seed. Normally, the team seeded third is better than the team seeded fourth, and so the team seeded fifth, by being seeded fifth, is in an advantageous position over the team seeded sixth which, again, has to play a higher seeded team. In a curious twist, however, the third seeded team in the Western Conference last year, the Denver Nuggets, had only the seventh-best record in the West. Meanwhile the fourth seeded team, the Dallas Mavericks, finished with the second-best record in the West, six games better than the next-best team. Due to the confusing playoff system in place, which awarded the Division champions the first three seeds irrespective of their standing in the conference, Dallas was to be seeded lower than a team that would barely make the playoffs if it played in a different division.

These were the opponents the Clippers and Grizzlies were playing to face. But that’s not all. The team that finished in the fifth seed would have to play four road games against the Mavs. The team that finished in the sixth seed would play four home games against the Nuggets. Both the Clippers and the Grizzlies had better records than the Nuggets, so whichever team finished sixth would get home-court advantage in the playoffs despite being the lower seed.

The Clippers-Grizzlies game on April 18th, then, was unlike the typical basketball game. The players on both teams had incentive to lose. Both teams’ fans had incentive to root for their team to lose. The ownership of both teams had incentive to root for their team to lose. No one wanted to play Dallas, the team that would eventually go on to the NBA Finals. Everyone wanted to play Denver. The only way to ensure a first-round match-up against the Nuggets was to lose the game. Losing that one game meant the greater possibility of winning more games later.

As it turned out the Clippers lost to the Grizzlies and went on to beat the Nuggets in five games. The Mavericks, not surprisingly, swept fifth-seeded Memphis.

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I bring this up in light of my post about whether the Browns would be better off losing the final two games of the season. That post generated more email (not saying much) than anything I’ve written so far. A number of people had problems with the notion of the Browns purposely tanking the final games in an effort to secure a better draft position. What sort of message would it send to the players and fans if the coaching staff and management decided to pack it in against the Bucs and Texans? Higher draft picks get paid more money, so what of the financial burden of drafting higher? In a talent-rich draft, is the difference between a top-five pick and a top-ten pick great enough that losing two games would be worthwhile? Isn’t rooting for your team to lose the antithesis of what it means to be a fan? These are all legitimate criticisms. Allow me to address them.

The Browns will not make the playoffs this season. The aim of every team playing in the NFL is to win the Super Bowl — I think this is a fairly uncontroversial assumption — and this aim is no longer tenable for the Browns. If the Browns cannot play for the Super Bowl this season, then what should be the primary aim over the last few games? Well, of all the possible aims, I would argue that the most compelling is to do the necessary work to win the Super Bowl next season. If in three weeks that’s going to once again emerge as the team’s goal, then why not get a head start and make it the goal now?

With this in mind, the issue becomes whether winning the final two games of the season would improve the Browns’ chances next season as much as losing the next two games. Would beating the Bucs and Texans this season improve next year’s team as much as what the Browns could get with the fourth draft pick instead of, say, the ninth? That’s what this boils down to since the Browns are not — and should not — be playing for this season.

To improve the team’s chances next season requires consideration of more than just the draft, however. Rolled into improving the team’s chances are other questions concerning not only what the team should do in the draft (which is dictated by draft position), but also what the team should do in free agency, which players from the current roster should be cut, which coaches should be fired, which coaches should be hired, etc., etc., etc. So it’s possible to reconfigure the primary aim — to win the Super Bowl — as a general question: what must the team do in off season so that winning the Super Bowl next season is a possibility?

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It would be almost senseless to enter the final weeks with winning the games as the absolute goal, and indeed the Browns are not taking this position. As evidence, consider the players who the coaches will rest because there is no reason for them to risk further injury. If it were the playoffs, for example, D’Qwell Jackson would not have had toe surgery last week. He would have toughed it out for a few more games on the chance that doing so would better enable the team of winning the Super Bowl. But instead of toughing it our for the last two games he opted for surgery because the team is better off with him undergoing surgery now than waiting until after the season. This year’s Super Bowl is out of reach and injuries take time to heal. Giving Jackson the most time possible to attend to his turf toe will be best for his injury and ultimately for the team. Unfortunately, the Browns without Jackson are worse than the Browns with Jackson, so winning the next two games will be more difficult than it would be if he were playing, but the team is resting Jackson nonetheless. The team is making the sort of small decisions teams make when the benefits of going all out to win a game don’t outweigh the risks of further injuries to key players.

The same justification is being made by many people (myself included) for why the Browns should start Derick Anderson next week. We know what we are going to get with Charlie Frye, but we don’t have as good of a grasp on Anderson. It could very well be that Anderson’s success is beginner’s luck and Frye would actually give the team a better chance at winning. I mean, Anderson was on the bench for a reason, right? Maybe. Who knows? Given his play in the past ten quarters, however, there is evidence to suggest that Anderson could be a better candidate for the starting quarterback position next season than Frye, but more evidence is needed. So starting Anderson is a good decision on that front. It also will help the front office with respect to what needs to happen with bringing in a new quarterback in the off-season. Do the Browns draft someone? Do they sign a Chris Simms-like player? Or do they sign a veteran? I don’t know. But starting Anderson could shed some light and most people would agree that this — starting Anderson in place of a guy who might give the team a better chance at winning — is a worthwhile sacrifice to make given the costs and benefits.

In the same spirit as the decisions being made for individuals of the team — sacrificing short-term gains (a win) for future returns (a healthy player; clarity on which players will help the team win next season) — decisions should be made about the team as a whole.

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There are benefits to the Browns winning the last two games. Higher draft picks get larger signing bonuses, which can hamper teams financially. However, the Browns will be drafting high regardless of what happens. Not to sound indifferent, but what’s a few more million dollars? Or, to put it in different terms: should the Browns turn down the possibility of buying a higher draft pick, say #4 instead of #8, if the cost is only four million dollars? That was the difference in guaranteed money between D’Brickashaw Ferguson (#4) and Donte Whitner (#8) last year.

Is four million dollars too high a cost to pay for losing two games? After all, fans don’t want to see losing teams and the Browns generate revenue through ticket sales. A worse record would mean a less desirable product, which means fewer fans, which means less revenue. Right? Well, no. The Browns made the post season in 2002 — by far the best season in recent years. With all the hope and promise of a playoff-caliber team one would expect attendance the following season to increase. Instead, in 2003 there was a slight decline in overall attendance, 730; hardly a blip. The 2003 Browns were certainly disappointing, so one might expect a big decline in ticket sales the following year. But that didn’t happen. In 2003 the Browns sold 585,564 tickets. In 2004 they sold 584,840. That’s a difference of 724 tickets, which is essentially no difference. The Browns got worse and the fans still showed up at a rate that’s one of the best in the league. The same thing will happen next season, not just because Browns fans are loyal (although that’s part of it) but also because the difference between 4-11 and 6-10 is, well, slight. If moving from playoffs to no playoffs didn’t hurt the team at the ticket office it’s hard to think that two loses at the end of this season would matter much either.
In fact, there is an argument to be made that the draw of a higher draft prospect could be enough to lure any fans — presumably about 725 — that would otherwise be unsatisfied by a 4-11 record rather than a 6-10 record. No matter what happens Browns fans will once again fill Cleveland Browns Stadium to near-capacity next season. Why they’ll come is not as important as that they’ll come. There will be no loss of revenue from ticket sales if the team goes 4-11 rather than 6-10. Money is not a big issue.

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My guess is that what bothers most people about the prospect of losing games on purpose in order to secure a higher draft pick is that rooting for one’s team to lose runs counter to what it means to be a fan. How does one reconcile rooting for one’s team to lose with one’s being a fan of that team? In the short term I can see how this would be a problem. It smacks of a defeatist attitude, an attitude that no fan ever wants to adopt. But what’s the significance of the short term for the 2006 Browns? The short term for the Browns is not the same as the short term for the Bengals. The next two games will decide whether the Bengals get a chance to win the Super Bowl this season. The next two games for the Browns will decide a number of things (draft position among them) but nothing of consequence for this season. The fact is, pulling for the Browns to secure a higher draft pick — and this can only happen by hoping that the Browns lose two games — is rational.

As a Browns fan I want the team to win. Badly. Which is why I would go so far as to say that they should lose two games. Doing so will suck, but it’s the price I’d pay for the chance at being better next season. The Browns are greater than this one team, this one season. The successes I hope for as a fan are far greater than two wins at the end of a season in which we will not be going to the playoffs. The two wins won’t do as much for the overall success of the team as two losses. Losing games might suck, but it’s also a smart move.

Consider it as benching the team for the last two games to avoid risk of further injury.

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