To tank, or not to tank—that is the question. In today’s NFL, is it better to blow it all up and go for the #1 pick?
Tanking is an incredibly controversial strategy that seems to fly in the face of overwhelming public opinion in order to attempt to get a struggling team back on its feet. Before diving into whether or not NFL teams should tank, we need to first define the term and figure out if its even possible for NFL teams to do it.
Tanking is the deliberate actions of a front office attempting to make their team worse in order to obtain a high draft pick in one or multiple years. This strategy can also manifest in taking on expiring contracts that other teams don’t want in an attempt to meet their salary floor (89% of the salary cap for NFL teams), but also still have plenty of cap space when their team begins to improve and look for free agents.
So is this even possible in the NFL? It is worth noting that the active roster size for NFL teams (53) is more than twice the size of the MLB’s (25), the NHL’s (20), and the NBA’s (13). The NBA is most notorious for tanking (looking at you, Sixers), and this is mostly the result of how easy it is to turn over a 13-man roster as well as the fact that the salary floor in the NBA only has to be exceeded at the end of the season. Fluctuations in salary that go below the floor are not penalized before and during the season, so long as a team is at or above the floor by season’s end. This allows for a lot of flexibility for teams looking to intentionally perform poorly in an attempt to improve their drafting position.
With a 53-man roster, however, this is an entirely different prospect. In the NBA, there are only five starting positions to fill with decent players before you are competitive. In the NFL, there are 22 starting positions (not including special teams), all of which are important to a team’s success. A team does not need to have 22 All-Pro starters to have success, but a team should have solid players at just about every one of these positions in order to compete for titles. Accumulation of serviceable NFL starter-quality players is what makes teams like New England and Denver so successful. Their successes do not rest on 2-to-4 players the way an NBA team does (i.e. the Big 3 in Miami or Boston).
Therefore, if an NFL team were to tank (which does not appear to have happened yet and does not seem likely to happen), they would need a plan that would involve lots of cap space and an absurd accumulation of draft picks.
So let’s say for arguments’ sake a team in the NFL gets over all of those roadblocks and decides that it’s in their best interest to tank their team. Would it even help? To address whether or not tanking is effective, the only available case studies are teams that weren’t trying to tank.
Take, for instance, the 1999-2000 New York Jets. They finished the season with an 8-8 record, but their draft was significant that year because they had an NFL record four first round picks in the 2000 NFL Draft. This is significant because that kind of pick accumulation is the kind that would be necessary to have a successful tanking strategy. Over the following six seasons, they only improved their record to as high as 10-6, and only made the playoffs twice. This case study is a bit restrictive, however, because they started already at a .500 record.
So let’s look further to teams that have had more than a dozen picks in a single draft. In 2004, the Titans had 13 picks in the seven rounds of the draft. Two years later, their record had improved from 5-10 to 8-8. However, this is again a very limited view of how tanking might work, as there are a number of other factors that lead to fluctuation in records from year to year. Roster turnover in the NFL is very high at depth positions, and even at starting positions. These vacancies are not always filled through the draft, and with a salary floor of well over $125 million, there is a lot of turnover through free agency.
It is not just accumulating draft picks that directly accounts for increased success, and the same goes for large amounts of free agent spending (“Dream Team,” anyone?). Oftentimes, it is changes in the front office and on the coaching staff that turn franchises around. For example, when the Kansas City Chiefs went from 2-14 to 11-5 in one season, it wasn’t because they tanked to get the #1 overall pick who then transformed them into a playoff team. They had a new head coach, and one of the best in the business in Andy Reid. And when the Eagles went from 4-12 to 10-6 division champs in that same time, it was because they had fired Andy Reid and replaced him with the since-fired Chip Kelly.
With actual known cases of tanking (once again looking at the Sixers), teams tend to hold onto their GM and Head Coach through the process of tanking and rebuilding, as it would make little sense to do otherwise. If the purpose is to be bad, why would a GM or Head Coach be fired when their team is bad as planned? Yet, in the NFL, bad teams have their head coaches fired (regularly, in the case of the poor Cleveland Browns). Sidebar: Do you think a team trying to tank might fire their coach if the team is too good? Food for thought.
In conclusion, tanking in the NFL does not seem as though it would be a valid strategy, and the fact that nobody has tried it just might be all the proof needed. A 53-man roster is tough to intentionally and completely sabotage, and in such a short season where so much can happen and anyone can truly win any game, it seems almost impossible to lose on purpose. Yet even if that could happen, there is little reason to believe it would help a team build a successful future for their franchise.
But in the end, who really knows? I just want someone to try it and see what happens. Until then, we’ll just have to assume it doesn’t work.
(Prove me wrong, AFC South!)
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