Steelers Experience Reveals Folly of “Playing for Draft Position”

It is a conversation which, fortunately, rarely rears its ugly head in Steelers Nation.

Fans of other NFL teams, however, are not so lucky.

The drill is familiar. As the NFL season reaches, and then passes, its midway point there are a goodly number of teams that find themselves out of the playoff hunt, long before the Giant Eagles and Krogers of the world begin discounting turkeys.

The dynamics of the NFL draft being what they are, the question inevitably arises head, “shouldn’t we just play for draft position?”

The logic is clear. Teams with the worst record pick first and get dibs on the best players – not just in the first round, but in each successive round.

Think back to say, the 1999 NFL draft.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a top 7 pick and get to choose between Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Tory Holt and Champ Bailey instead of having to decide between Chris Claiborne, Daunte Culpepper, Cade McNown, Troy Edwards, John Tait, and Anthony McFarland?

This example has to make playing for draft position tempting for even the most die-hard purest.

But such an approach is fool hardy, and the Steelers experience reveals why.

In Praise of, yes, …Bill Austin

Tim Gleason, aka Mary Rose of Behind the Steel Curtain, rated Bill Austin of as the second worst Steelers coach of all time in his book From Black to Gold. No argument there.

While Gleason does not lay this at Austin’s feet, I can remember an NFL films segment from the late 70’s or early 80’s chronicling the Steelers pre-Chuck Noll woes. Referring to Austin’s final year, the segment opined, “The Steelers didn’t even know how to lose right.”

The implication was that, because Austin’s team had the “misfortune” sandwich in 2 wins and one tie in the middle of 11 losses during the 1969 season, the Steelers drafted fourth instead of first and subsequently missed out on the number one pick, O.J. Simpson.

O.J. Simpson, before embracing life of crime, was a Hall of Fame running back in every sense of the word. O.J.’d have been a Hall of Famer in Pittsburgh too.

However, 100 times out of 100, I would not trade the Steeler’s first round pick in 1969 for the right to pick Simpson. No way.

Why? Because in the franchises’ pivotal decision, the Steelers picked Joe Greene with the fourth overall pick in 1969.

Both men made it into Canton, but Joe Greene did so wearing 4 rings, while O.J. remains bare.

The Steelers and the Aikman Derby

A quick search of Google Newspaper Archives reveals that as early as September 1988, the press was already handicapping “the Aikman derby.” Or otherwise speculating on which team would get the right to draft Troy Aikman.

I bring this up because this season I have found myself in an on going conversation with an old college buddy, “DK” who, although he lives and dies with Cowboys, is a regular Steel Curtain Rising reader.

His response to the Cowboys recent victory over the arch-rival Redskins was:

The winner for that game in a sense will be the loser as I’m pretty certain that Washington will in 2011 have more favorable schedule and of course slightly better draft pick.

For weeks now DK has been laying down the “let’s just play for draft position” card, making reference to the Cowboy’s 3-13 1988 record that netted them three time Super Bowl champion and Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.

The Aikman reference brought back memories of a camping trip with another friend, whom I’ll simply name as Yosefi, who gloated to me late in the 1988 season, “the Cowboy’s are gonna finish worse that the Steelers, we’re gonna get Troy Aikman….”

To show how naïve I was at age 16, I told him “we don’t need Aikman, we have Bubby Brister.”

Nostalgia for the innocence of youth aside, this example would seem to justify “playing for draft position.”

The Steelers started 1988 2-10. They finished 5-11, winning three of their final four, including a win over the playoff bound Oilers and the NFL’s all time winningest coach, Don Shula.

Had guys like Bubby Brister, Rod Woodson, Merril Hoge, Dermontti Dawson, John Jackson, Louis Lipps, and Greg Lloyd not rallied, the Steelers still might have not gotten a crack at Aikman, but could have had a shot at Barry Sanders or Derrick Thomas. Instead the got Tim Worley.

Unlike the O.J.-Greene example, Troy Aikman and Tim Worley do not even belong in the same thought, let alone the same sentence.

Measured by Super Bowls, the Cowboys have three since 1988, whereas the Steelers have only won two.

The Moral of the Story

But you know what? Even knowing that, I still wouldn’t trade those three victories for at shot moving up in the 1989 draft.

The Steelers found plenty of fools gold in the 1989 draft, but the also came away with some gems. That draft, along with those three, “playing for pride” victories in ’88 sparked the resurgence of the franchise that continues today.

Since that fateful 1988 season, the Steelers have had more winning seasons, more playoff appearances, and more overall stability than the Cowboys.

There are many reasons for this, but one of those is the franchise’s commitment to playing to win.

The moral of the story runs deeper:

  • Good things happen to teams that play to win.

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4 thoughts on “Steelers Experience Reveals Folly of “Playing for Draft Position”

  1. Lets not forget the last game of the 2003 season against Baltimore. The Ravens were playoff bound and the Steelers were a 6 win team. Baltimore played their hardest and won the game. That loss gave the Steelers the 11th pick in the draft which became Big Ben. If the Steelers win that game then Ben would probably have been drafted by KC which would have pick before the Steelers instead of after them. So Baltimore won the Battle and lost the War. I do believe strongly in playing for draft position. You must do want is in the best iinterest of your team. Baltimore is 1-7 vs Big Ben and if they had lost a meaningless game to both them and Pittsburgh the Steelers would have only 4 Super Bowls and not 6.

  2. Dalewis,

    Of course they should have taken Marino. Dan Rooney knows that, and has said as much, indicating it was he who steered the conversation to Roethlisberger on Draft Day 2004.

    But I don’t think playing for draft position or not has anything to do with the decision not to take Marino.

    Noll said it was because of the drug rumors, other have said that he wanted Rivera because “we started last time on defense, let’s do it again.”

  3. Anonymous,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I guess we need to agree to disagree.

    The Baltimore game was a great example of what I am talking about. That Steeler team took a pounding and was out of it early.

    But they never gave up. They never quit on Cowher. Dick LeBeau said when he saw the fire and intensity that the Steelers played with, with nothing to play for other than pride, he decided that he would like to come back to Pittsburgh.

    Last year Mike Tomlin said unapologetically, that if the score board is lit, he plays to win. That is a man I want as my coach.

    Winning might not be everything, and in high school and below there are often times more important things.

    But at the professional level you have to play to win.

    When a team intentionally tries to lose it is time to clean house.

    Once again, I thank you for contributing here, and welcome any further comments you might have.

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