We are now six weeks into the NFL season, and the contenders have begun to separate themselves from the pack. As have the teams that have absolutely no hope of making the playoffs this year.
That latter group, and whoever joins them in the coming weeks, has thus entered a world where they are incentivized to tank and maximize their draft position rather than try to fight for a .500 season. Their fans will have little reason to tune in or even hope for an upset.
That might sound like something that could hurt the NFL’s product, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t seem to believe the standard tool to fight tanking — a draft lottery — is warranted.
"I don't think the league has ever been more competitive than it is today," Goodell said from the NFL fall meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale. "You see that in teams going from last to first in dramatic fashion. I think that's unique to the National Football League.
"... For us, the competitiveness of our game is obviously critical. I don't think that is solved with a [draft] lottery, I think that is solved by all the issues we try to deal with on a regular basis through the competition committee and the league in trying to make sure our league is competitive."
A draft lottery is already in use in the NBA and NHL, but not MLB where the value of the No. 1 overall pick is less valuable and far more volatile. The NBA’s draft lottery also hasn’t exactly stopped tanking in that league, just made it marginally less rewarding.
As far as Goodell’s point that competition is up and teams are going from worst to first, there seems to be data to back that up. Atlanta Falcons president and competition committee chairman Rich McKay told ESPN that 51 games this year have been decided by seven or fewer points, the most in NFL history through six weeks.
Of course, the New England Patriots still look comically dominant, and the Miami Dolphins are, well, let’s just talk about the Dolphins for a second.
The Dolphins could not be tanking harder
In an NFL landscape that is probably used to tanking at this point, and with the Cincinnati Bengals also winless, the Dolphins have still managed to shine through as a beacon of ineptitude.
The team started the season by trading away two of their best players in Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills to the Houston Texans for a first-round pick. Then they gave up 53 points to Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. Then they traded away one of their only good players remaining in Minkah Fitazpatrick for another first-round pick.
The team has been outscored 180-42 this season. It has scored four total touchdowns. It is last in the NFL in points for, points against, total defense and second-to-last in total offense. None of its passing offense, passing defense, rushing offense, rushing defense or turnover margin rank in the top 25 of the league.
Its two quarterbacks, Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick, have combined for 5.6 yards per pass attempt with nine interceptions. Its leading rusher, Kenyan Drake, has 153 rushing yards. Its leading receiver is an undrafted rookie in Preston Williams.
This is a team that was planning to tank months before the season even started, and the end goal is Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, or whichever quarterback the team deems its next face of the franchise. The team is simply unwatchable unless your team is playing it — then it’s very watchable — or you just have some morbid curiosity.
Maybe the Dolphins would still be doing this if they were only assured a very good pick rather than the No. 1 pick by going 0-16, but the sheer commitment to losing is the price paid by assuring them that top pick is coming.
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