Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Bush Bowl

In the NFL, the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49ers are playing in what has been dubbed the "Bush Bowl". The reason for this is that these are the two teams with the worst records in the NFL this season. The loser of the match, therefore, will get the No 1 pick in the draft of college players in April (that's not quite true; there are complex tiebreakers that will sort this out if Houston win, but it works for the purposes of this post). The reason people are excited about this is because this year, there is a supposed can't-miss prospect. Reggie Bush, a running back from USC, is considered one of the best players to emerge in years, and that any team would clamour for him.

I, however, disagree. There are three teams that might 'win' the first draft pick, if you can win something that is given to the biggest loser. None of them have a running back as their top priority. The Texans have Domanick Davis, a solid, if unspectacular running back; they continue to struggle not because of a lack of good players at skill positions, but because their offensive line is useless. The same goes for the San Francisco 49ers, minus the good running back. Their team is hopeless, and that is being kind. There is no point in drafting a marquee player like Reggie Bush without an offensive line to put him behind. Besides, the 49ers could do with many, many new players; were they to obtain the top draft pick, they would do far better by trading it away in return for more high picks. Similarly, the New Orleans Saints (the mystery team in this equation) have a stud running back in Deuce McAlister. The last thing they need is another running back.

Given that there are players like quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Vince Young, or defensive lineman D'Brickashaw Ferguson, all of whom are likely stars, the teams with the first pick should trade it away. Yes, there's a danger they look like the Portland TrailBlazers of the NBA, who drafted an unknown called Sam Bowie (I think) ahead of Michael Jordan; but in reality American football is a game where one star can only get you so far. And in a league where the salary cap means that building a team isn't simply stockpiling great players, but getting value for money at each position, teams are far better off making sure they have the tools around which star players can really demonstrate their talents.

In 2001, everyone was getting excited about the prospect of Michael Vick as quarterback. San Diego, however, chose not to draft him; they traded their first pick to Atlanta. The pick they received in return was used to draft LaDanian Tomlinson, unquestionably one of the best and most consistent running backs in the league, if not ever. Then they picked up Drew Brees, their quarterback, in the second round - while he took time to develop, he's now one of the top players at his position too. Ignoring the conventional wisdom, and using the strong bargaining position to pick top players at two positions, has helped San Diego become a far, far stronger side (if anything, they are now hampered more by conservative coaching than a lack of ability). Whoever ends up with the number one pick this year, I would advise them to do exactly the same. They won't be short of suitors, and they can get a heavy price for relinquishing their shot at Reggie Bush. The chance to build up a stronger team all-round shouldn't be gambled away where more than one upgrade is needed.