Is “Tanking” the Way to Build a Winning NFL Franchise?

Andrew Brandt, from theMMQB site argues that tanking play a vital for a winning NFL franchise. Do you agree?

Here’s a summary of Brandt’s views:

1. Choose one overall philosophy and stick to it no matter what;
2. Understand that being a champion takes time–don’t try to go too fast in improving the team;
3. Be smart about opportunities to develop young players and coaches–e.g., when you’re out of the playoffs, play your young players.

#3 is the form of tanking that Brandt refers to. It makes sense to me, and I actually don’t think it’s controversial. But what I’m wondering: would it be beneficial for a team to go further–to find ways to position the team to get better draft position. Yes, this means losing more games, but are there more ways a team could do this constructively (like giving experience to younger players)?

Really, I think the NFL should find ways to discourage tanking. One way might be a lottery for the teams with the three worst records. Among these teams, maybe they could get an extra lottery ball for games they win near the end of the season. Could there be an incentive for winning for the teams that mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. For example, these teams might get an additional draft pick.

6 Responses to “Is “Tanking” the Way to Build a Winning NFL Franchise?”

  1. mitchell

    I abhor the concept of tanking for a few reasons. First, it violates the spirit of sportsmanship. I like sports because competition is fun. Excellence is fun. Losing on purpose works against both of those concepts and I hate it.

    Second, I don’t like the idea of a meaningless game. The game itself is fun when it’s played excellently by two teams who want to win. If teams (or players) I like are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs with four of five games left to play in the season, I still want to watch them play football if they’re going to play it well, and a huge part of “well” for me is trying their best. I will concede a last-game-of-the-season situation in some cases.

    In They Call Me Assassin, Jack Tatum says the Raiders played the sucky Bengals in the last game of the season. If the Raiders won, they would play the Steelers in the first game of the playoffs. If they lost, the Steelers would be out of the playoffs and the Raiders would have a much easier path to the Super Bowl. I might not have the details right, but it was something like this. So the Steelers players told the press that the Raiders were a sportsmanlike, honorable team and would do the right thing, while many pundits speculated that the Raiders might tank so they could just get the Steelers out.

    It was a stupid debate, says Tatum. Of course the Raiders played their best and beat the Bengals. And then they beat the Steelers too. I mention this to underscore the point that yes, the playoffs are important, but if you’re going to play the game, you should play it to win, almost always no matter the playoff implications. The most successful team in recent history (or maybe all of history) is the Patriots, and they have never tanked a game.

    However, putting young players in the game in order to develop them is okay with me, as long as everyone on the field is playing to win. I still don’t love the idea, but if you have better players on the bench in support of inexperienced players on the field, I think I can live with it.

    Intentionally losing in order to improve a team’s draft position is despicable. The draft wasn’t meant to work this way. The draft was meant to give bad teams a chance at better players. Bad doesn’t mean the team who most successfully loses its games; it means with everyone trying their best, they lost the most games. There’s a huge difference.

    In fantasy sports, you see this all the time, except usually the worst teams weren’t necessarily the worst; their owners just stopped competing. I hate this, and those owners shouldn’t be rewarded. I propose, instead of a lottery system (which I also don’t care much for), that non-playoff teams compete for the high draft picks. The non-playoff team that has the best record in the last five games of the season gets the first pick, the non-playoff team with the second best record in the last five games of the season gets the second pick, and so on.

    This will allow teams that are almost playoff worthy a better chance to get into the playoff tier, while the truly sucky teams will have to build first toward medocrity and then into excellence, if they draft well and manage well.

  2. don

    I think the NBA faces tanking because one player, even a rookie, can mean so much to a franchise. In the NFL only QBs can truly be worth tanking for, and it so hard to know with no doubts that a QB is worth the pick.

    Are there teams that eventually won it all or became really good because they were tanking in the NFL?

  3. Reid


    I don’t like tanking, too, for many of the reasons you mentioned. The key, to me, is the effort and attitude of the players–when they’re playing are they giving it their best effort, playing almost as if it were a championship game? If so, then that’s the main thing. This has to do with the integrity of the game, but it also relates to habits of mind. Players should strive to play the game one way–hard, as if it were the championship game. If they stop that for one game (i.e., tank), that disrupts and violates this type of mindset. It may also be hard to crank this up for the next game.

    But what if the players play hard when they’re in the game, but the coach takes out the starters and/or plays more younger players (who aren’t the best on the team)? Is that tanking?

    You mentioned the Patriots–didn’t they do this two years ago–resting starters against the Bills, I believe, and it resulted in them losing home field position–playing Denver on their turf.

    I think resting starters is a trickier question, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

    Intentionally losing in order to improve a team’s draft position is despicable….I propose, instead of a lottery system (which I also don’t care much for), that non-playoff teams compete for the high draft picks. The non-playoff team that has the best record in the last five games of the season gets the first pick, the non-playoff team with the second best record in the last five games of the season gets the second pick, and so on.

    I agree that intentionally losing is really annoying and problematic, but the thing is, there is powerful incentive to do so, and it can be the rational move. When the Colts were in position to get Luck, it was rational to try and get the first pick.

    They should do something to avoid this, and I like your suggestion. I wonder why they don’t do something like that. What am I missing?

  4. Reid


    You’re right that one NBA player makes a bigger difference, but getting a high draft position is really valuable–and it can be parlayed into multiple players. Think of what the Titans did or even the Rams, trading their pick to Washington, who chose RGIII. My sense is that these type of moves can really help build a team. This is especially true if there are multiple years where a team has a good draft position (e.g., the Raiders).

  5. don

    It’s absolutely true tanking can help a team, but how many years in a row does a team need to be bad for them to build themselves into a contender. The Titans and Rams are teams you mentioned but I’m not sure how much of a contender they are and how much good drafting positions they will need to become one. Let’s say the Titans had the next two number one choices in the draft, it no guarantee that they will past some of the good teams above them. I’m just not sure if it’s worth it in the NFL to tank the way a 76er’s have been the last few years. At this point it’s probably not worth it for the 76er’s as well. When I say worth it, I mean the amount of loss revenue when your team is so bad for so long versus what you are going to get in return if your team ever becomes a contender again.

  6. Reid

    Getting great draft position isn’t a guarantee for dramatic improvement. If you’re GM stinks and/or makes bad choices, getting great draft position, year after year, doesn’t matter.

    Also, I would exclusde intentionally trying to have a bad season from the start, which I think would be a bad move. I’m mostly thinking about certain points during a season, like when a team is eliminated from the playoffs. Or maybe the team’s record is so bad that they have a chance to get a high draft pick.

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