For the first 99 NFL seasons, it was taken for granted that teams would try.
Even when tanking made sense, teams wouldn’t do it. In 1988, the Green Bay Packers were 2-12 but won their final two games, allowing the Dallas Cowboys to pass them for the first pick of the 1989 NFL draft. The Cowboys took future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Troy Aikman first overall. The Packers took Tony Mandarich second.
There might have been subtle and unchecked cases of tanking late in a season — the Tampa Bay Buccaneers benched most of their starters in the second half of a Week 17 of a 2014 game, lost and clinched the No. 1 overall pick to get Jameis Winston — but giving up a full season? Never. Not in a league as proud as the NFL.
Not long after last season’s Super Bowl, there were stories out of South Florida that the Miami Dolphins would tank this season. They could then get a prime draft pick and take a quarterback of the future. The Dolphins objected to the term “tanking,” but they did practically nothing in the offseason to improve their 2019 prospects.
It worked too well. Through two games the Dolphins look impossibly, historically bad. Completely flip-flopping on their quarterback decision Thursday doesn’t make it look like it’ll get better anytime soon. The NFL has a problem to fix.
Competition committee could look into tanking
According to Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic, a league source said it is “likely the competition committee will have to address this issue” of the Dolphins’ tank job. That doesn’t mean much other than speculation, but it’s probably fair to say the league is monitoring the situation closely. It’s not good for the NFL when one of its 32 teams has lost its first two games by 92 points.
It’s understandable why the Dolphins would be sensitive to the term “tanking.” No coach or player is actively throwing games. Those who are left and compete on Sundays are not trying to lose. But the Dolphins pulled a “Major League” and put together a roster that had no chance to win. Since the end of the preseason alone, the Dolphins have traded offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Kenny Stills and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, three of their best players. There’s no subtlety here. You can call it an extreme rebuild if you want to put a happy face on it. Or call it tanking if you wish.
The problem is, tanking is bad for the game but it can work for teams. The Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs did something similar, stripping the roster all the way down, and won championships after building back up. MLB is likely to have four 100-loss teams this season. The Philadelphia 76ers haven’t won it all, but they punted a few seasons and now have stars to build around. The 2016-17 Cleveland Browns tore down the roster and went 1-31, but came out of it with a talented team and a lot of preseason hype. Ask a Browns fan if they would have rather the 2017 Browns won six games and then not get Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick.
Tanking is very hard on an organization and its fans. It’s really bad for the league when one or more of its teams aren’t doing their best to win and ruining every game they’re involved in. But it hasn’t stopped anyone in other leagues. Can the NFL just hope that nobody will copy the Browns and Dolphins and trust that everyone tries?
What can NFL do about tanking?
The easiest way to discourage tanking is by not awarding the worst team the No. 1 draft pick. But even a weighted lottery system doesn’t stop teams from packing it in to improve their chances. Ask the NBA about that. And a lottery system in which every non-playoff team has the same chance at the top pick goes against the NFL’s parity plan, which is one reason the league is so successful.
The NFL could institute high salary floors for each team, but that doesn’t solve everything and the NFL has never directed teams on how to build their rosters. Making teams spend a certain percentage of their cap would discourage hoarding cap space, but it wouldn’t cause bad teams to be competitive. They’d just spend more money.
Teams across all sports are generally smarter than ever. The understand market inefficiencies and how to build a team. What’s best for the league isn’t always what’s best for a team. The Dolphins could go 0-16 but if they draft Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Tagovailoa ends up being the MVP of the league, it’s hard to argue it wouldn’t be worth it for the organization.
The NFL can try to institute new rules against tanking, but there’s no perfect fix. Their best plan might be to hope the Dolphins’ tank job doesn’t work, and doesn’t spawn any copycats.
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