By now, you’ve heard of tanking. Simply put, a team intentionally loses in an attempt to land a high draft pick. I don’t care if you live under a rock, ESPN probably bought the moss on your rock and sold ad space on it. Professional pontificator Stephen A. Smith is likely screaming about tanking underneath your rock.
Tanking rose to prominence in the NBA, most notably in the form of the Philadelphia 76ers. Under the guidance of (since-replaced) General Manager Sam Hinkie, the team pulled off a tank job so obvious it was given its own nickname: “The Process.” It worked. Just four years removed from the 2014-15 season in which they finished with a measly 10 wins, the Sixers are 3-0 and considered favorites to make the Eastern Conference Finals. It turns out when you pick in the top three of the NBA draft four years in a row (including two first-overall selections), along with a slew of other first and second rounders acquired by trading aging players and taking on bad contracts, you’re pretty likely to end up with a legit NBA team.
While the Sixers may be the best-known case of a team choosing to tank, they’re certainly not the only ones. For many NBA teams, tanking is just the right decision. In the era of superteams and championship-or-bust mentalities, you’re better off spending a year or two losing and praying to land your own franchise-defining teenager. It beats dwelling in mediocrity year after year, shelling out huge contracts to not-quite-superstars, and falling out of the playoffs in the first two rounds—if you even make it (I’m looking at you, Wizards).
Tanking has even spread to the NFL, where it seems like an even better idea. Unlike the NBA, which has an infamous draft lottery system (in recent years made even more random, likely to discourage tanking), the NFL’s system is simple: It awards the worst team with the best picks. This is good news for currently tanking teams like the Miami Dolphins, who are 0-7 and in the process of trading everyone resembling an NFL-caliber player in exchange for the entire second round of the 2021 draft. If the Dolphins continue rolling their way to 0-16, they’ll have their pick of what promises to be a strong draft class, including highly touted Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Tagovailoa, or any other first pick, may become a generational player, but that would not be enough to instantly transform the Dolphins into a contender—and therein lies the flaw in NFL tanking schemes. Unlike the NBA, which has only five players on the court at a time, one transcendental player among the 53 on an NFL roster cannot take a team to the Super Bowl, let alone the playoffs. Putting LeBron on any NBA team turns them into, at the very least, contenders. Put Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers on these Dolphins and they might win a few games, if they’re lucky.
In the NFL, where one player can play at most half the snaps and even generational talents need help, team system and overall talent matter far more than having one (or a few) elite players. Throwing a rookie quarterback with franchise potential behind a bad offensive line and giving them few weapons and no defense to rely on is just throwing their potential away (and into the arms of your opponent’s d-line). Combine the lackluster talent on the field with the lack of consistency or quality in coaching or scheme that often comes with tanking teams, and you have a perfect recipe for disaster. The Dolphins might already have a franchise quarterback on their roster in Josh Rosen, just one year removed from being picked top 10 in the draft by the Arizona Cardinals. The once-highly rated prospect has already seen three offensive coordinators, and spent time behind two of the worst offensive lines in the league. If Rosen does have that star potential, he’s certainly not getting the chance to show it.
Even around the league this season, other quarterbacks are showing that system and surrounding talent matters more than who takes the snaps. Backups Kyle Allen, Teddy Bridgewater and Matt Moore may not comprise a stunning shortlist of All-Pro arms, but they have all looked competent, or even better, filling in for injured starters. No credit away from this group, and I’m not saying all quarterbacks are entirely system players (yes, the Chiefs are better when Patrick Mahomes is healthy), but good coaching and talent in other areas has kept these teams in the W column. And while I’m focusing on quarterbacks, the same goes for all positions; running back Saquon Barkley might already be the NFL’s best player, but his New York Giants certainly aren’t Super Bowl contenders.
But I confess: I am being a little unfair to the Dolphins. They do have more than one pick, including three in next year’s first round, and presumably plan on surrounding their quarterback of the future with other key pieces. But when you look at where those picks came from, you have to question some of the decision-making. In supporting their new quarterback, the Dolphins will likely want a competent o-line (they traded standout left tackle Laremy Tunsil to the Texans in August), a young talented running back (one like Kenyan Drake, just shipped to the Cardinals a few days ago) and some talent at receiver (perhaps a veteran slot-man along the lines of Kenny Stills, gone to the Texans with Tunsil). They’ll also likely look to improve their abysmal defense, perhaps with a young star safety, like 22-year-old Minkah Fitzpatrick, who requested a trade off the sinking ship and is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s okay though, they got a first-round pick in return, and that pick could be anything, even a young star safety!
The Dolphins likely didn’t plan on trading Fitzpatrick, but that’s the risk they ran when they committed to winning next season (or the season after that) at the expense of this one. Expecting talented, highly competitive players to buy into being blown out every game is foolish. With nearly all talent, young and old, off their roster, the Dolphins will have to hit on all, or at least most, of their draft picks, and then succeed in developing those players in their dysfunctional system. And hitting on picks is easier said than done, especially for culturally challenged organizations—another flaw in the tanking strategy.
In the NFL, defined by its parity and unpredictability, being mediocre is better than being awful. All it takes is one good year, one run, and you’re Super Bowl Champions—just ask the Eagles. Even if you’re missing a final piece, likely a star quarterback, it’s much better to establish a system and talent throughout the roster, then plug your young stud in and give them a chance to succeed. Look at the Baltimore Ravens, who after winning the Super Bowl in 2012, hovered around the eight-win mark for a few years, building a solid defense and keeping Head Coach John Harbaugh in place through losing seasons. This year they are 5-2, atop the AFC North, as second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson (drafted 32nd overall, by the way) is thriving, thanks to the resources around him. Meanwhile, at the other end of the North, the Browns, who were supposed to finally stop tanking and contend this year (they had a single win across the 2016 and 2017 seasons) are floundering—their highly selected quarterback is struggling and their lack of competent, well-established coaching is apparent.
It’s possible I’m wrong, and you’ll look back and laugh at me as Tagovailoa and the rest of the 2020 and 2021 draft classes establish the next Dolphins dynasty. But, just maybe, at least in the NFL, intentionally trying to lose isn’t a great strategy.