Dayton Fliers: Winning at no cost

When an NFL team has a losing record at the end of the season, invariably the debate among fans and media turns to whether it is better to win or lose going down the December stretch.

The argument is simple: Losing gives you a higher draft choice, so why win if a team is not going to make the playoffs anyway?  

In the locker room, there is no debate. The players and coaches want to win, and nothing is theoretical about their outlook. They have been sweating, practicing, lifting weights, winning and losing together since the beginning of August, and their only concern is making the final record the best possible.

That's why the argument is waged in the media, where it can be abstract:  In the big picture, are teams out of playoff contention better off winning or losing?

Personal experiences make an argument for both cases. The 1989 Redskins were 5-6 after 11 games before winning their last five games.  A year later they were a playoff team. Closer to home were the 2002 Panthers. That team started 3-8 but won four of its last five and started the next season 5-0 en route to the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, an extra win or two last year could have cost the Panthers the first pick, and now the thought of watching Cam Newton on ESPN highlights in a different uniform is simply unthinkable.

Similar on the surface, 2010 and this season are quite different: The Panthers were going through a coaching change last January, whereas they are in the first year of building under a new coach this season, just as they were in 2002.

Jason Lisk of NFL Stats did some research that clarifies the discussion.  Taking 135 teams with losing records at the 10-game mark from 1998 to 2007, Lisk studied their finishes and how those teams did in the near future.

His conclusions:

--Teams that cost themselves draft position by winning "meaningless" games performed substantially better across the board over the next three seasons.

--Teams winning at the end of a losing season eventually won more games, made the playoffs a much higher percentage of the time, and advanced to conference championship games a much higher percentage of the time in subsequent seasons.

--The draft position "sliders" (i.e., teams that slid down the draft chart by winning more late games) won 16.3 percent more of their games and made the playoffs twice as often over their subsequent three seasons, a substantial increase in a league designed for parity.

Lisk also points out that there can be unforeseen benefits of winning. He cited the 2003 Pittsburgh Steelers, who cost themselves five draft slots by going 3-3 in the final six games after a 3-7 start and had to settle for Ben Roethlisberger as a result. Thus, the presumption that much higher draft picks are less risky than slightly lower picks is not always accurate.

So while the Panthers may be underdogs more often than not the rest of the season, the numbers suggest that fans should for an upset or two. Winning is always better than losing, and the numbers suggest that the penalty might not be so great after all.

Director of Communications Charlie Dayton has worked 34 years in the NFL. Before joining the Panthers in 1994, he was VP of Communications for the Washington Redskins. Dayton has worked on the NFL media staff for 25 Super Bowls, is a past winner of the Horrigan Award and was recently recognized with the National Association of Black Journalists Merit Award.

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