Can Lions Evade the 20th Pick Jinx?

For two dozen years now, just missing winning the Super Bowl — that is to say, losing it — has had deadly consequences for a team the following season: Of the 24 Super Bowl losers (including this year's Falcons, whose fate was decided Saturday) we have seen beginning with the last of Buffalo's iconic four consecutive Super Bowl losses, 10 of them did not make the playoffs the year after, including three that finished last in their division; four lost in the wild card round, and eight were eliminated in the divisional playoffs. Only two — the Patriots in 2012 after losing Super Bowl XLVI, and the 49ers in 2013 after they lost Super Bowl XLVII the previous year — made it as far as the conference championship game, neither of them winning.

A similar syndrome is developing among teams that just miss making the playoffs.

Prior to the 2010 season — and the ensuing 2011 draft — the order of selection in the draft was determined strictly by record, except that the Super Bowl champion always picked last and the Super Bowl runner-up next-to-last. Starting in 1978, teams making the playoffs, and/or winning any playoff games, drafted, in the appropriate order, after any non-playoff teams that finished with the same record; however, if a non-playoff team finished with a better record than a playoff team, the non-playoff team drafted later — as the Broncos did in the 1986 draft after not making the playoffs in 1985, despite an 11-5 record but drafting behind the 8-8 Browns, who won their division.

Nothing was done about this obviously unfair situation, though. But after the Patriots (wouldn't you know?) suffered the same fate in the 2009 draft as the Broncos suffered in the 1986 draft (the Patriots were 11-5 in 2008 and did not make the playoffs, the AFC West-winning Chargers 8-8), the rules were changed so that the 20 non-playoff teams always drafted ahead of the 12 playoff teams (with, additionally, the four wild card losers always drafting 21st through 24th, the four divisional playoff losers 25th through 28th, and the two conference championship losers 29th and 30th). This meant that from the 2011 draft onward, the team that has finished with the best record (subject to tie-breakers if necessary) among the teams that did not make the playoffs has always received the 20th overall pick.

An analysis of how these seven teams have fared is devastatingly revealing: from a combined 68-44 "the year before" (five of them finished 10-6, the other two 9-7) to a combined 46-66 "the year after," with six of the seven teams missing the playoffs again, including three last-place division finishers. And even the lone exception — the Cardinals in 2014 — proves the rule: After leading them to an 8-1 start, Carson Palmer tore his ACL, ending his season, giving way to Drew Stanton, only to see Stanton sustain a knee injury of his own, forcing the Cardinals to go with Ryan Lindley the rest of the way. The 2014 Cardinals ended up 11-5 and a wild card casualty in the playoffs, losing to the 7-8-1 Panthers, one of only two sub-.500 teams ever to make the playoffs, other than in the strike-marred season of 1982, when 16 out of 28 teams made it.

Next team up? The Detroit Lions.

After a blatant choke at out-of-it Cincinnati in Week 16 kept them out of the playoffs — and cost head coach Jim Caldwell his job — a tougher schedule than the Ravens, Chargers and Seahawks, and a better conference record than the Cowboys, has given the Lions the dreaded 20th overall pick in the 2018 draft; and the fact that Detroit will be taking the third biggest jump in the NFL in strength of schedule next year from what every team played this year, based on this year's records, won't help either.

The Lions had better make the right decision in choosing Caldwell's successor. Otherwise — and maybe even if they do — the 2018 NFL season will be a long one indeed in the land of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

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