The Trouble With Tanking

Jenny Vrentas
Sports Illustrated

During one of the historically bad losses, in what is on pace to be a historically bad season, there was some mercy in the fact that the Dolphins’ home crowd started streaming out of the stadium after a fourth-quarter pick-six. That meant there was a smaller audience for the second one, which came four plays later.

Like all four of the Sunday afternoons for the 2019 Miami Dolphins so far this season, this one played out more like a blooper reel. On the Patriots’ second defensive touchdown of their Week 2 visit to Miami, running back Kalen Ballage, wide open after running a simple route into the flat, handled Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass like a hot potato; the football bounced off his left hand, his left knee, his right hand—and straight into the grasp of linebacker Jamie Collins, who returned it for a touchdown to stretch the lead to 37–0. Ballage, head between his knees, was consoled by teammates. His despair couldn’t last long—he needed to get back on the field for the ensuing kickoff. By the end of the afternoon, the “Patriots pummeling,” as the CBS broadcasters dubbed it, stood at 43–0.

This play could serve as a metaphor for the 2019 Dolphins season, though so could many others. Sitting at 0–4, Miami’s average margin of defeat stands at 34.3. They’ve been outscored 81–0 in the second half of games. In terms of historic seasons, it’s the polar opposite of the famed ’72 Dolphins perfect season.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

By the time Ballage had showered and changed about an hour or so later, the frustration hadn’t abated. Of course, it wasn’t just about the bobble, or about another pass in the game that he oddly ducked to avoid, or the fact that he’d rushed for a total of six yards. “Losing,” Ballage said. “It sucks. We work our asses off.” Elsewhere in the locker room, teammate Kenyan Drake was asserting that no, he did not want to be traded. Minkah Fitzpatrick packed up his corner locker for what he hoped was the final time, his agent being granted permission to seek a trade just 72 hours earlier and 17 months after the team drafted him 11th overall. Even center Daniel Kilgore, a team captain and nine-year veteran who emphasized the need to remain positive, acknowledged, “This is a difficult time to be a Miami Dolphin.”

They’re the latest test case in a strategy that has been sweeping pro sports. We’ve seen it from baseball teams (the Astros and Cubs in the last decade), NBA franchises (the pre-LeBron Cavaliers and “The Process” 76ers), and in football, the analytics-driven Browns. All, including the Dolphins, have refused to utter the T-word, tanking, for two primary reasons: 1) that kind of open admission could warrant league discipline (see: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s $600,000 fine), and 2) no one in pads or on the Dolphins sideline each Sunday is trying to lose. But there’s no denying that the 2019 Dolphins are, purposely, not constructed to win.

Stephen Ross, frustrated with entrenched mediocrity during his decade of ownership, decided after consecutive losing seasons that they needed a radical change of course. Since August 31, they’ve traded away three starters, two of them recent first-round picks, left tackle Laremy Tunsil (to Houston) and defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (to Pittsburgh), and the other a trade acquisition who earned a lucrative extension, wide receiver Kenny Stills (to Houston with Tunsil). Miami has a cash payroll that’s $26.2 million less than the next lowest team and barely more than half of the most expensive roster in the league (Atlanta). Unsurprisingly, they are heavy favorites (76.7% chance after Week 3, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index) to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft.

The Cubs and Astros emerged on the other side with a championship. While the Sixers have not advanced past the conference semifinals stage they reached two seasons before their teardown began, they are now among the five heaviest favorites to win the 2020 NBA title. But in the NFL, there’s no definitive example that this strategy works—at least not yet. The Browns’ 1–31 stretch helped build what some see as a championship-caliber core of the roster—anchored by No. 1 overall draft picks Baker Mayfield and Myles Garrett and supplemented by the addition of Odell Beckham Jr. among others—but four games into the 2019 season they sit at 2–2, and have yet to hold a winning record at any point in a season since 2014. And most of the people who endured that stretch, save owner Jimmy Haslam and chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, are not around to reap any of the potential rewards.

The only guarantee for the Dolphins is that this season will be painful. After that, it’s a binary path: They will either become analytical darlings who prove the concept for tanking in the NFL, or, as some around the league believe, they will become a cautionary tale.

Brian Flores was officially hired as the Dolphins’ new head coach just hours after calling the defensive plays in Super Bowl LIII, his fourth championship as a member of the Patriots. He held a variety of roles in his 15 years with the organization—scouting assistant, position coach, de facto defensive coordinator—but the one constant since he was first hired in 2004 was the team’s success. This season has been, and will be, unlike anything he has experienced in the NFL.

When Ross fired Adam Gase last December, explaining that his former head coach “wants to win and win now,” that set the course for this year’s bottoming out. Since 2008, Ross has been part of just two seasons with double-digit wins, each followed by a loss in the wild-card round and a regression to 6-10 and 7-9. In announcing the new direction at the end of last season, he cited the old adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

This season has been essentially Year Zero for the new regime, led by Flores and GM Chris Grier. They’re resetting their books, which carry a league-high $55 million in dead cap hits from players they cut or traded, including QB Ryan Tannehill and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who last played for Miami two years ago. Next year, they’ll have more than $100 million in cap space. Through trades they’ve bolstered their future draft assets to include three first-round and two second-round picks in 2020, plus two first-round and two second-round picks in 2021. Instead of paying Tunsil, their hope is to use one of these picks on a left tackle who will be on a rookie contract during the time frame when they’re trying to get good, plus a couple more chances at hitting on other top-tier talents.

Still, there’s evidence to suggest that this rebuild has been even more extreme than the Dolphins planned when Flores was hired. Grier said in a mid-September press conference that the team wasn’t looking to trade Tunsil, until the Texans presented an offer that even Tunsil agreed they couldn’t refuse. They didn’t foresee a frustrated Minkah Fitzpatrick forcing his way out of town. Last December, when Ross was asked if he was willing to go through some years of 3–13 to ultimately become an elite team, he replied, “I would hope I don’t have to go 3–13.” At this point, with this roster, a three-win season appears to be a generous estimate.

Around the league, the Dolphins’ approach has elicited mixed reviews, the most common being skepticism. There are paths out of mediocrity without embarking on a roster overhaul, as two recent Super Bowl teams have done (the Rams went 4–12 before improving seven wins in coach Sean McVay’s first season and making the Super Bowl in his second, while the Eagles rose from back-to-back losing seasons to Super Bowl champions despite their most prominent acquisition—quarterback Carson Wentz—missing the entire postseason). The haul for Tunsil was sizable, but trading a 25-year-old left tackle creates a critical roster hole, which had been filled by Jesse Davis, who took most of his preseason practice reps at right guard. With Davis out with an elbow injury in Week 4, veteran journeyman J’Marcus Webb, signed as a street free agent three days before the season began, took over at left tackle. If the Dolphins are following the lead of the Browns, who followed the lead of success stories from Major League Baseball—where DePodesta spent two decades as a scout then an executive—that raises the question of whether tanking strategies in other sports can truly be applied to the NFL.

“That was the big oversight that the Browns made when they went with their strategy,” says Joe Thomas, the Browns’ former left tackle, who retired after the winless 2017 season. “I don’t think you can understand the true pain and the human toll that losing in the NFL has on your organization, your fans and your players and coaches, because there’s only 16 games and they’re 16 violent games. Whereas in baseball if you lose, oh well, you play tomorrow night. And basketball, so what if nobody’s giving effort? You run up and down the court and you lose by 30. It doesn’t really matter.”

Baseball can be boiled down to a series of individual battles, making it far less reliant on elusive team chemistry than football. NFL rosters are also twice as big as in MLB, and more than three times as large as the NBA, and thus one player—even a quarterback—makes far less of an impact. In the NBA, two players may drive as much as 75 percent of a team’s value.

Playing behind an overmatched offensive line, first Ryan Fitzpatrick and now Josh Rosen have been overwhelmed by opposing pass-rushers. | Laura Heald (2)
Playing behind an overmatched offensive line, first Ryan Fitzpatrick and now Josh Rosen have been overwhelmed by opposing pass-rushers. | Laura Heald (2)

In 2016, Akira Motomura, a professor of economics at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, published an article in the Journal of Sports Economics studying the success of tanking in the NBA over an 18-year period. He was surprised at the results of their statistical analysis, which showed that having more and higher draft picks did not correlate with a team’s improvement over a four-year period. What did help teams, they found, was having better pickers—specific teams and GMs who had more success identifying and developing players, regardless of where they were picking. “Just getting more picks and accumulating higher picks by being bad doesn’t seem to help by itself as a strategy, unless you make good use of those picks,” says Motomura. “It’s not a strategy that is necessarily superior to making smart trades, doing player development [well] and getting good free agents.” The 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors were built around a core of savvy free-agent and trade acquisitions; only one of their postseason rotation players—forward Pascal Siakam—was a Raptors first-round pick. And the league’s dominant franchise of the 2010s, the Golden State Warriors, was built without ever selecting in the top five of the NBA draft.

Their results were specific to the NBA, but that underpinning of making good use of the assets you gather is one reason why Grier invited a guest to speak to his scouting department in late July. En route home to the Florida Keys from a FOX seminar in L.A., Jimmy Johnson stopped at the team headquarters in Davie, Fla. When Johnson was the Dolphins’ head coach, from 1996–99, he drafted four Pro Bowlers, including Hall of Famer Jason Taylor, and also signed the team’s all-time leading kicker Olindo Mare. Perhaps even more relevant to the current Dolphins, he also leveraged the Herschel Walker trade haul into the roster that helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls (two with Johnson at the helm).

Johnson met with Grier and Flores, then spoke to the personnel staff, sharing the five attributes he looked for in selecting players: intelligence, playmaking ability, gym rats, speed and quickness, and character (“Because I don’t believe you can build a team with bums,” Johnson says.)

This scouting rubric applies regardless of the circumstance, important because Johnson doesn’t see a direct link between this year’s Dolphins and his ’89 Cowboys, who finished 1–15 the year of the Walker trade. “It wasn’t a matter of tanking,” he says. “We were already bad.” Legendary coach Tom Landry had gone just 3–13 the season before. Johnson traded Walker, the star running back in his seventh professional season, and QB Steve Pelluer in October. He kept young pieces like wide receiver Michael Irvin and began reloading immediately, including drafting Aikman first overall.

“Some teams in the NFL, they have high draft picks every year, and yet they still stay at the bottom,” Johnson says. He points to the Eric Dickerson trade in 1987, in which the Rams sent the All-Pro running back to Indianapolis for a package that included three first-round and three second-round picks. Armed with that haul, the Rams selected 28 players over the next two drafts—none of whom made even one Pro Bowl with the team.

And the 2012 trade in which the Rams sent the No. 2 overall pick to Washington (which drafted Robert Griffin III) ultimately netted the Rams eight picks. None of those players made a Pro Bowl with the Rams, and only one, defensive lineman Michael Brockers, lasted more than five seasons with the team. “Getting picks is not the answer,” Johnson says. “Picking the right players, that’s the answer.”

A simple message was written on a white board in the middle of the Dolphins locker room for the second game of the season: “Together.”

A few hours after the 59–10 season-opening loss to the Ravens, Pro Football Talk posted an article entitled, “Early Mutiny in Miami,” reporting that multiple Dolphins players contacted their agents post-game asking to get them traded. The team, for its part, said it was only made aware of one trade request: Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had been outspoken about his unhappiness about lining up in multiple positions across Flores’ defense. Fitzpatrick played against the Patriots Week 2 without incident—save for a few hecklers in the stadium, calling out his name in a sing-song manner—and was gone the next day. When the trade to Pittsburgh, in exchange for a 2020 first-round pick, was announced, cornerback Xavien Howard—who signed a five-year extension this offseason—posted to Twitter a gif of Will Smith looking around an empty house in the finale of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Flores had set out to build the same kind of relationships with players he had in New England, where Matthew Slater credited him with giving him the confidence to play in the NFL and Devin McCourty joined the Flores family for Thanksgiving. In Miami, Flores started by taking position groups out to lunch away from the facility during the offseason program. Flores sat down with Fitzpatrick to convey his vision for the player and the team—as he has done with other players—in an effort to make it work. But his challenge in trying to build a new culture is that there’s no positive feedback loop so far, not when the Dolphins have been losing by wider margins than the ’16 Browns.

“The thing that concerns me is, when you when you have a bad football team, and as bad as what the Dolphins have looked, the remaining players get bad habits,” Johnson says. “If you’re a professional football player and you don’t think that you have a chance to win, it’s frustrating. You have players like Fitzpatrick who want to get out of there. You don’t prepare as well because you don’t think you’re going to win anyway. There’s a danger of creating a culture of losing to where bringing in players the next year won’t help. You don’t want to ever eliminate the goal at the end; you don’t want to eliminate hope for the remaining team.”

In Johnson’s 1–15 season, more than half of the games were decided by 10 points or less, which he believes kept his team on track toward a Super Bowl just three years later. Another challenge of lopsided results is the physical stress it can put on players. After the Patriots game, when the Dolphins defense was on the field for more than 36 minutes, linebacker Jerome Baker explained, “days like this, you’ve gotta start recovery now.” During the 1–31 stretch in Cleveland, Joe Thomas noticed how the extra minutes the defense was on the field accrued to a couple extra games over the course of the season for teammates like linebacker Christian Kirksey.

“Physically, it is so much harder if you’re a linebacker playing in a game that is a blowout in the other team’s favor, because you just have a battering ram coming at you 30 times in the second half,” Thomas says. “That takes a toll on your body, your overall health, your career. And it’s not a lot of fun.”

A diminished roster can also affect player development, particularly at quarterback. That’s something Chris Palmer saw firsthand coaching Tim Couch and David Carr, the first picks of expansion teams in Cleveland and Houston. Couch’s career was cut short by the battering he took, and Carr was sacked a record 76 times his rookie year. Would their careers have gone differently, had they not started on expansion rosters? “Deep down I think that, because both guys were very talented,” Palmer says. Present-day Cleveland is another reminder: A major reason for the Browns’ slow start was an offensive line that hasn’t been rebuilt following losses including the retirement of Thomas and the choice to move on from Mitchell Schwartz during their great veteran purge in 2016. The Dolphins will no doubt look to use some of their abundant cap space on linemen, but another reality of historic losing is that you might have to overpay to get players to come.

Less than a month into the season, the crowds at Hard Rock Stadium are already becoming sparse. | Rob Tringali
Less than a month into the season, the crowds at Hard Rock Stadium are already becoming sparse. | Rob Tringali

Domonique Foxworth, retired NFL cornerback and former president of the players union, questioned the ethics of the Dolphins’ strategy on ESPN, calling it “morally reprehensible.” Not only from a safety standpoint, but also from an employer’s responsibility to put their employees in a position to succeed. “Everyone is talking about, is this going to work?” Foxworth later explained in a phone conversation with SI. “No one is talking about the fact that it’s just f---ing wrong, and there are costs. Normally the people who pay the costs should be the people who benefit. But in this case, players are paying the biggest price, and they are not going to be the ones who benefit at all.”

To his point, 24 of the 53 players on the Browns’ 2016 opening-day roster are no longer in the NFL, including six of the 22 offensive and defensive starters. Nor are the head coach, Hue Jackson, and the GM, Sashi Brown. Only five players from that season’s Week 1 roster are still in Cleveland. Says Kevin Zeitler, who joined the Browns for the winless ’17 season and was traded to the Giants this spring, “no matter what, the players that year, that’s your résumé—you were part of the 0–16 team. Whatever part of your career you are in, you are not going to be looked at the same, simple fact.”

The NBA and the NHL use a draft lottery to discourage tanking, though the lure of a potential franchise-changing star has been enough that teams still do it. The advent of the NFL’s rookie wage scale, part of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, has made draft picks even more valuable, as first-year players are automatically locked into artificially low—and artificially long—contracts. But a lottery has never been discussed in the NFL, according to one member of the competition committee, nor have they had substantive conversations about tanking. Thomas suggests a different deterrent: Set an annual minimum salary floor, rather than a minimum that has to be met across four years, as stipulated in the current CBA. Absent that, tanking teams are well within the rules.

“I don’t ever remember it being an issue before now,” says one team decision-maker who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about another team’s strategy. “I don’t like what they are doing, but if they are willing to go through this pain for a year, they are deserving of the No. 1 pick.”

Rhonda Sibilia arrived in her tailgating parking spot on the southwest side of Hard Rock Stadium at 8:20 a.m. before the second home game of the season. Plenty of diehards had arrived before her. Sibilia was a student at Southwest Miami Senior High during the perfect ’72 season, and, “that does something to your psyche,” she says. She and her partner, Bill Prouty, have had season tickets for more than a decade. But this year, for the first time, he’s been talking about giving them up. There are a number of reasons: the tennis center encroaching on the tailgating lots, a preseason snag with their digital tickets and, of course, the losing. Recalling the failed “Suck for Luck” campaign in 2011, they actually have more faith in the direction of the Miami Marlins.

“He’s threatening not to renew, but I have too much fun here,” Sibilia says, gesturing at a tailgating crew that runs six cars deep. “It would be nice to have half as much fun inside the stadium as we do outside.”

When can they expect that? The Dolphins have been careful not to place a timeline on their rebuild, not wanting to box themselves in with either expectations of when they should win or when they need to take a QB. The Browns, for example, waited until the second year of bottoming out to draft a quarterback, passing on opportunities to take Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson (twice). That required two straight seasons of losing, but they ended up with Baker Mayfield.

As for the quarterback the Dolphins could land with the No. 1 pick next spring, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa comes with a ready-made tagline: “Tank for Tua.” There’s also Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Or, if they choose to wait like the Browns once did, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence is expected to be the headliner of the 2021 draft. Considering the unprecedented depths they’ve found with this roster teardown, it’s hard to say with any certainty how the next few years will play out.

Rob Tringali
Rob Tringali

Like the Sixers and Browns, the Dolphins have started the rebuild with the youngest team in the league. The Dolphins have a combined 26 players in their first or second season, and 35 if you lump in third-year players. That’s balanced out by some veterans who have a better opportunity, either with playing time or money, than they may have had elsewhere.

After Miami traded Tunsil and Stills, Flores was the lone member of the organization put in front of the media to explain the move. Two weeks later, when they moved Fitzpatrick, the team sent out Grier, perhaps a recognition of the fact that the person trying to motivate the locker room shouldn’t be the one explaining the personnel teardown.

At that press conference, Grier described himself in “lock step” with Flores; he and Ross talk multiple times a week, if not multiple times a day. When Ross set the team on this path, he gave Grier control of football operations and also changed the organization’s power structure, with Flores reporting to Grier instead of the owner. Flores was also the only NFL head coach hired this year to receive a fully guaranteed five-year deal, rather than a four-year contract with an option year. But their futures are not guaranteed—no head coach under Ross has made it through the end of his fourth season.

Back in the locker room, when a reporter asked Ballage what the team’s message for the fans would be, his frustration bubbled up. “It ain’t about the fans,” he said. “It’s about us. They don’t make one play on Sundays. So, no, I don’t have any message for the fans.” Across the room, rookie first-round pick Christian Wilkins, whose teams went 55–4 and won two national titles at Clemson, said he’s keeping his spirits up because he loves football. He’s four games in to an NFL career he’d dreamed about. Baker, still recovering from the game in his locker stall, said no matter what, they need to stay together—this physically taxing game leaves them no choice.

“All I know is I get paid to do a job. So when I go out there, I give it all I got,” he says. “Whoever is out there with me, I expect the same thing. If somebody else is worrying about the future, I have to focus on now. Hopefully, I am there in the future.”

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

What to Read Next