Last Sunday, I was seated at a gate in the St. Louis airport and, along with a dozen others, was glued to a small television that was positioned way too high over the seats fully invested in the Steelers taking on the Patriots for the likely title of AFC champion.
As the Patriots’ Tom Brady led what would become his 53rd career fourth quarter/overtime game-winning drive, we threw our hands up in the air or applauded depending on who we were cheering for as the Patriots slowly marched down the field and scored easily.
The Steelers quickly managed to drive down inside the Patriots’ 20-yard line with just 30 seconds left in the game as our flight pulled into the gate. As the game reached its controversial end, I began dragging my feet and walking backwards towards the flight with my eyes glued to the screen as was the same with all my newfound acquaintances.
The clock hit zero with a Patriots interception as we gave the attendant our tickets as we smiled with incredulous belief that Brady did it yet again and talking about how much we were looking forward to the potential postseason matchup of those two teams.
It was one of those rare times that perfectly embodied one of the many reasons I love sports. There, among a group of total strangers who only shared the commonality of a destination, we were all invested emotionally in a game and we laughed and talked with each other and got along no matter who we were cheering for or what was going on in the outside world. Then it also occurred to me: the only reason so many were glued to the screen was because winning the game mattered.
Flashback to last Thursday to me sitting on my couch in my apartment with reheated pizza and a beer on my coffee table willingly subjecting myself to the torture that is the Broncos vs. Colts game. The only reason I did so was because I am a Colts fan, the reasoning of which will be explained in next week’s column, yet even then I was wondering why I cared about this horror show.
The Broncos were, and in many ways still are, suffering from a letdown season due to their inability to find a quarterback who is capable of carrying their once-in-a-generation defense. Meanwhile, the Colts’ season had long been written off after news broke that star quarterback Andrew Luck wouldn’t be making his long-awaited return from surgery from this past offseason until next season.
So the NFL’s Thursday night game came down to two teams mathematically eliminated from the playoffs fighting for…what exactly? For the Broncos, you could say the team was fighting for first-year head coach Anthony Lynn’s job as it has been called into question in the past few weeks.
For the Colts, there was little else except for pride. Head coach Chuck Pagano is good as gone since his departure was expected after last season’s disappointing finish. Any of the true long-term impact players are already contracted to play next year for the Colts so no one is playing for a big pay day this spring. So the only thing of significance that depends on the Colts winning or losing was their slot in the NFL draft.
At the time, the Colts were slated to get the third overall pick and, as a Colts fan, that was good enough for me. The team had enough holes to pass for a pretty good brick of Swiss cheese so the higher we were in the draft, the better players we could get to start filling them.
At halftime, the Colts were up 13-10 and I found myself saying to myself, “We’re going to find a way to win this one aren’t we?” I felt an initial tinge of guilt for being upset that my team was up but when I began to think about, why should I feel bad about that?
You are always conditioned to cheer for your team to win no matter what and while that is good on the surface, take a look deeper and you’ll find that shouldn’t always be the case. As I said before, the Colts’ season had as close to zero significance remaining as possible and it was clear that this team would simply be another one lost to history.
So what’s one more win in the book then if it’s going to push the team a spot or two further down in the draft order? Is anyone really going to be celebrating the fact Indianapolis went 4-12 instead of 3-13? If you say yes, then that’s like having to choose between having a bowl of cereal with expired milk or expired cereal. Sure, one might taste a little bit better in the short term than the other but are you really going to be happy about either one in the long term?
So I found myself cheering for the Colts to lose the game and luckily, in Indy-fashion, they blew the lead and an easily-winnable game to keep their draft pick in the top five for another week. I refuse to apologize for cheering for that. I was cheering for my team to lose now so they could win in the future.
If the Colts had won and hypothetically dropped to the fifth spot in the draft and another team had grabbed a star offensive linemen, one of Indy’s biggest needs, I would be really upset that it was because the team had won a pointless Thursday night game against Denver. In this hypothetical situation, the Colts grab said star offensive linemen and protects star quarterback Andrew Luck well enough so he never has to get shoulder surgery again.
That’s indisputably better for the team’s future. So once a team’s season is lost, why shouldn’t we cheer for them to lose? Because winning is the purpose of the game? That’s an understandable instinct but look past the knee-jerk reaction and realize that losing now could lead to a playoff berth next year.
Now there are two main protests to this point: the first being the important distinction between cheering for a loss and full-on tanking.
For those of you who don’t know, tanking is when a team’s front office purposely puts together a bad roster for the sake of being bad so they might end up with the highest draft picks and build through that for years to come.
This is most infamously shown through the Philadelphia 76ers who have been tanking for years now and only this season has it finally come to fruition (seemingly). So many may ask, and it’s a fair one to ask, what is the difference between cheering for your team to lose a few games compared to the whole season?
My answer to this is tanking is an absolute atrocity to any sport. No team should be anticipating a bad season and just prepare for the worst. Otherwise you would have missed out on seasons like the one the Jacksonville Jaguars are enjoying. While Jacksonville was boasting one of the best defenses heading into this season, very few believed it would be enough to carry an offense led by an inept quarterback to significance.
Just this past weekend the Jaguars locked up their first playoff berth in 10 years.
So anticipating failure before it actually arrives is simply cowardice and should not be cheered on even if it means a group of promising rookies on your team years down the road. What I am saying is when the failure is inevitably past your doorstep and setting up an air mattress in your living room, you might as well embrace it.
I am not necessarily saying the second a team is eliminated from the playoffs, the coach should just put in all the backups in and all of the sudden it’s a race for the bottom but this is more of a case for the fan. The fan should want what’s best for their team and if it means once any significant immediate success is officially ruled out then cheering for what will mean the best chance for long-term success then so be it.
The second common protest to this is the thought process of, “Does dropping a few spots in the draft really matter?” To which my answer is: absolutely.
In last year’s draft, the Chicago Bears were slated to pick third behind the San Francisco 49ers and yet when the 49ers timer began, a trade was quickly executed in which the two teams flipped spots. Chicago gave up a handful of future draft picks to go up one spot to get the quarterback they wanted in fear that San Francisco was going to take him for themselves.
You think Bears fans would’ve rather kept all of those picks and lost an extra game instead? The NFL draft is one of the most unpredictable and exciting things in sports that happens off the field and so value means absolutely everything.
As draft trades become more and more common, higher picks not only have their worth in the type of player a team can get but the return they may receive in a trade as well. Either one of these is worth another loss in a season that has 10-plus of them already.
Now it should also be important to note, if it wasn’t obvious already, the only time it should be acceptable for a fan to cheer for a loss is when it benefits the team in the long term. Essentially, at the high school and college level, losing has no real advantage years down the road so being happy with a loss is really only understandable at the pro-level when it has a way to benefit the team via something like the draft.
So while it may sting the next time your team loses a game late in the season, take a step back and look at if it has any real significance on the current season or if the loss could mean your team is better positioned for success down the road? Because more often than not, the team dropping a game against an opponent this week may not mean they necessarily lose.