Everyone knows the NFL is a business, in fact it’s really big business. But as a fan, there is an emotional connection to the brand of the team that you would otherwise be embarrassed by if you were talking about your favorite brand of cereal. When players don’t play hard, play together or the system in place doesn’t maximize their talent, there is a very personal feeling of frustration. It’s as if something in our (the fan’s) life is broken that needs a fix.
Enter the draft, a time of unflinching optimism where potential upside and hope for the future matters more than past failures. Shortcomings of draft picks–like off the field issues–matter less because of the cognitive dissonance of needing to feel that the team is improving.
Here’s the deal: there is no successful business on the planet that makes decisions based off this emotion, and that’s why the best teams have the most consistent strategies. Like companies they have defined a set of values and core beliefs about their franchise that dictate their vision for the future. Think of values and visions as checks and balances for important decision-making.
Fans don’t struggle with unpopular choices as long as they are consistent and purposeful. Most are smart enough to understand even short term success can mask systemic long term issues. So here’s a radical idea for teams: treat your fans as adults, share the vision and goals of the organization annually, let us judge you on your long term vision not short term success.
Franchises would need to set goals and hit them, like any other business (especially those using public funding to operate).
Enter SMART goals.The draft is essentially a business team building exercise, so it’s a great thing to set goals around. Once you have a direction you want to go, SMART goals help determine if you are actually headed in the right direction and getting there fast enough. Because they mandate timely measurables, they also prevent reactionary decisions from being made too early and assure subjective evaluations aren’t at the core of a choice.
Consider this set of values and visions for a franchise:
1) Positive locker room chemistry
2) The quality of off the field character matters as much as on field talent in the long run
3) Love the game more than the paycheck
4) Defensive toughness is our on the field identity
5) +/- turnover ratio is the statistic most correlated to wins and losses
6) Strong offensive on the field leadership can only be achieved through the quarterback
7) Winning a little now should NEVER prevent us from winning big in the future
8) Expensive new talent should only be prioritized if the position they play is crucial to success, the player currently in that position is not a long term solution, and they satisfy 1,2&3.
They identify these needs in order of importance by position:
1) Pass rushers
2) Offensive lineman
4) Backup running back
How do they pick in the draft? They set an NFL Draft SMART Goal
SPECIFIC- To improve the quality of on the field play in targeted areas in the interest of winning a championship without violating our core values.
MEASURABLE- Two draft picks from this year make the pro-bowl at their position. Defense yields 30% more takeaways than our 5 year average. Fill our top 3 needs with STARTERS. Draft picks do not require a change to our offensive/defensive system.
ATTAINABLE- Can will fill our #1 need at our draft position in round 1 significantly better than round 2 or 3? Repeat for #2 and #3 need. Do we need to draft up to fill the need? Will moving up violate any of our core values?
RELEVANT- Does our pick solve an issue significantly related to long term success of the franchise? Is the pick in one of our targeted positions?
TIMELY- Picks in round 1-3 are starters by year 2. Players selected represent a better value than ones picked behind them at their positions after 2 years of play. In the next two years we do not need to spend a 1st or 2nd round pick on the position we fill round 1 or 2.
There is value of course in using this system to make decisions this year, but the real value is using it to follow up on picks 2 or 3 years out. How many of the measurables have we hit? Were the timely aspects of the plan achieved on schedule? Did our scouts lead us to incorrectly assess the attainability of our plan? Did we solve an issue we thought was relevant but actually was not?
When a team looks at their draft like a business, they can create consistency and implement real changes. From a fans perspective, short term optimism/pessimism or success/failure of picks should matter less than long term adherence to visions/values and accomplishments of defined targets. The frustration of course is that we cannot know what the goals of the organization are exactly other than the PR line “win a Super Bowl”. For some franchises it’s not clear they have defined clear goals at all. It would be fun if teams published their goals like publicly traded companies and their stocks would rise or fall based off their abilities to achieve their goals. Maybe franchises would start acting SMART.