EARTH CITY, Mo. -- In the current iteration of the NBA where cute nicknames are handed out for teams looking to tank for a better draft pick, there seems to be little resistance to the idea of losing now in hopes of a better tomorrow.
In the NFL, you’d be hard pressed to find any team willing to concede or even give the impression that it’s tanking for a top draft pick.
This week’s game between the St. Louis Rams and Indianapolis Colts provides an interesting case study of how to turn around a fledgling franchise. More the point, it provides an in-depth look at how much luck plays into it all.
Make no mistake, talent evaluation, coaching, player development and chemistry, among other factors, are at the center of what it takes to build a winning franchise.
But some old-fashioned good fortune doesn’t hurt.
“Sometimes the stars just have to align right,” Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. “The stars just align right and you’re rolling and there you go. But sometimes you need some good fortune, some luck in this league. You put in the hard work day in and day out, the next guy is doing the same thing on his team and then you get that on top of it. You get that luck every once in a while, sometimes you don’t.”
In terms of good fortune, the Colts appear to be the San Antonio Spurs of the NFL.
After drafting franchise center David Robinson in 1989, the Spurs had zero losing seasons and fared no worse than the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference until the 1996-97 season.
That year, the Spurs lost Robinson to a back injury. He played six games before calling it a season. Without their centerpiece, the Spurs dropped to 20-62. Not that any team wants to have a drastic drop-off but if San Antonio was going to do it, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
The Spurs landed the first pick in the 1997 NBA draft, where they spent a no-brainer pick on Tim Duncan, deemed to be the most NBA-ready big man to come along since Shaquille O’Neal, to serve as running mate and heir apparent to Robinson. Two years later, they won the NBA title.
By now you probably see where this is headed. The Colts had just two losing seasons and won eight division titles from the time they drafted quarterback Peyton Manning with the first pick in the 1998 NFL draft through the final season he played in 2010.
Losing just wasn’t part of the conversation in the Circle City during Manning’s time as the starter. But when he had to sit out the 2011 season because of a neck injury, the Colts fell off the map, going 2-14 and earning the No. 1 draft pick.
It just so happened that awful year came at a time when Stanford’s Andrew Luck, deemed by many to be the next great franchise quarterback, was headed to the NFL. Indianapolis wasted no time grabbing Luck and its fortunes turned immediately.
Since Luck’s arrival as the replacement for Manning, the Colts are 17-7 with a playoff berth and another likely on the way.
The timing for Indianapolis not only afforded them Luck but under a new collective bargaining agreement, it allowed them to give Luck a contract which pays him just 4.49 percent of the Colts’ total cap in 2013.
By comparison, the Rams are paying quarterback Sam Bradford, whom they drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, 11.47 percent of their total cap number this year.
The difference allows a team like Indianapolis to surround its young quarterback with more talent.
Simply put, some franchises seem to have a knack for losing and losing big at just the right time.
It’s a notion even Colts coach Chuck Pagano readily and enthusiastically acknowledges.
“It’s everything,” Pagano said. “You’ve got to have a quarterback at any level in order to give yourself a chance or to have a chance to compete and win, again at any level. The stars obviously just lined up right. I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with the horseshoe. I can’t put a finger on it.”
Pagano went on to point out that had things broke a certain way, the Colts could have theoretically had a quarterback lineage that went John Elway to Manning to Luck.
“I know it didn’t work out with John, but we’ve been pretty fortunate,” Pagano said. “This organization’s been pretty fortunate.”
And then you have the Rams, a team that has been anything but fortunate since the Greatest Show on Turf. Maybe they used up all their luck in finding a former grocery store employee turned league MVP in Kurt Warner.
Since the Rams’ last had a winning record in 2003, they’ve had records that landed them a spot in the top two four times. They drafted Bradford, defensive end Chris Long with the second pick in 2008 and grabbed a big haul in a trade with Washington for the second pick in 2012.
They missed badly in 2009 when they selected offensive tackle Jason Smith at No. 2. Of course, Smith was widely regarded as a player worthy of the pick. That didn’t turn out to be the case but the larger point is that it wasn’t exactly an ideal draft to be selecting in such lofty position.
The Rams have done plenty to keep themselves from righting the ship but it hasn’t helped that some of the best crops of players have entered the league in the odd years when they’ve actually been competitive.
Let’s use 2006 as an example. That year, the Rams were headed toward a transitional phase with a number of talented veterans headed toward the end of their careers. They started 4-1, lost seven of eight and finished with three wins to end up at 8-8.
The Rams picked 13th in the draft after that year, selecting defensive lineman Adam Carriker, whom the Rams played out of position and never contributed much before moving on to Washington. Granted, they still could have taken cornerback Darrelle Revis in that spot but what if that had been a year they drafted in the top three?
Given the Rams’ draft history, especially at the time, it’s entirely possible they could have blown the pick on some of the busts taken in that top 12, such as end Jamaal Anderson or tackle Levi Brown. But there’s little doubt that a top three pick that year would have at least greatly increased the odds they’d have landed a franchise-changing player.
Losing and losing big isn’t something any team in the league embraces or hopes to do on a year-to-year basis.
“If you can do it at the right time, sometimes the ball just bounces your way and things shake out for you,” Dunbar said.
In the NFL, like in life, timing is everything. Even when it comes to losing.