Less than a month ago, the Miami Dolphins were accused of explicit and reprehensible crimes against competitiveness when they blitzed the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Monday night 3rd down.
The Dolphins weren't taking -- I mean they were, but they weren't. Tanking -- the art of intentional losing to improve draft stock -- doesn't happen at the coach level, or the play level. It happens in the front office, wherein resource allocation focuses not on the present, but on the future, presuming the all hope in the present is lost anyway.
This philosophy accepts losing to make winning easier, or more likely, later. It eschews the spirit of competitiveness and scoffs at the heartwarming story of a ragtag, underdog, rough-and-tumble spoiler of a team. It was championed most brazenly, executed most thoroughly, and its results most clearly revealed, in the Sam Hinkie "Process" Philadelphia 76ers of the 2010s. Hinkie, the general manager of the Sixers, sold off established and successful players for talented, young, and often discounted developmental pieces. Whoever had hit a ceiling that was not greatness, he exchanged for another swing of the bat of a potentially great player -- because eventually, a few swings would connect, and Philadelphia would have the great players necessary to win championships.
Philadelphia has yet to win a championship, but they have great players and they've made a couple forays into the playoffs. Can we expect the same results from Miami?
Again, the answer is yes, but no. NFL teams turn from cellar-dwellar to playoff contenders quicker than you can blink, in an age with greater roster turnover and coaching turnover than ever before -- and of course, some other factors of randomness that we're going to discuss. But while Miami's tank is driving them to the top of the draft order as planned, it isn't really securing them the future they need any better than it would have been if they played out the year with present, competitive intentions.
Tanking in the NFL simply does not look like it does in the NBA; it does not succeed the way it does in the NBA. And there are a few reasons why.
1) The season is too short
If you ever took a high school stats class, you'll know that probabilities hold true over larger sample sizes. When you flip a coin, you have a 50% chance of getting heads, and a 50% chance of getting tails -- we know that because there are only two options, and in that the coin is a fair coin and the flip isn't rigged, the options are random and thus equally likely.
But that doesn't mean if you flip a coin 10 times you'll get 5 heads and 5 tails -- 50% for each, easy and true. 10 is such a small sample size that you could get 6 heads and 4 tails, or 3 heads and 7 tails; those outcomes aren't that unlikely. But once you flip a coin 100 times, the sheer weight of the trials of a true 50/50 shot will eventually normalize the numbers of your total trials to 50% heads, 50% tails.
16 games is not a big sample size -- in it, there's still room for massive error that affects the NFL Draft order. Consider the NBA, which has 82 regular-season games: there are so many more opportunities for the bad teams to be bad and the good teams to be good, and subsequently the bad teams lose games and the good teams win games, and the draft order shakes out as an accurate model of which teams are bad and which teams are good. If a bad team accidentally beats a good team, that's okay, 81 other games to make it right -- but, in the NFL, if a good team beats a bad team, that's 6% of the season's games right there. There aren't nearly as many games to correct the error.
As such, randomness plays a greater role in determining the NFL draft order, as compared to the NBA order in this example -- and where randomness is in play, you may end up getting Pick 3 instead of Pick 1, which is enough to keep you from snagging your franchise QB
2) Losing is hard because players are good (and bad)
32 rosters, 53 players: 1,696 players practicing for game day every week. That's about 300 linemen, almost 160 corners and wide receivers.
You think they're all good? Every single one of them: good player?
The answer is actually yes: in that they got to the NFL and are on an active roster, they are really good at football -- but when they're measured against the few elite players at each position, they can look pretty rough. Jeff Driskel, Kyle Allen, Brandon Allen, Dwayne Haskins, Ryan Finley -- these aren't bad football players! They're just wildly out of their depths when they're playing against the likes of Byron Jones, Grady Jarrett, Everson Griffen, Jamal Adams, and...Maxx Crosby?
But that doesn't make their goodness just evaporate. In the spirit of blind squirrels finding nuts, even the worst players at the NFL level regularly contribute positive plays to their team's effort, and even if they don't, they can be easily concealed and even buttressed by play calling, or by scheme. And by the very same token, even the best players in the NFL make bad plays on the regular, sometimes stringing enough of them together to lay goose egg performances. The talent disparity at the NFL isn't nearly as stark as in leagues such as the NBA, where one star player vaults a nobody into a sleeper, and another star from sleeper into contender: there are more positions, and there is a middle-class of talent at each position, and individual players drop and climb classes on a weekly basis this year.
Who's been the best player in football this year. Ah-ah-ah! I didn't say "quarterback" or "wide receiver." I said player.
It's almost impossible to answer: because consistent, weekly greatness belongs to prime Tom Brady and nobody else. Accordingly, if we can't consistently predict the quality of individual play from our contributors, nor can we account for the random bounces of the oblong leather whatchamacalit that swing seven points one direction or another, we can't really predict if we're going to win or lose. Ask the New Orleans Saints in Week 10 if you don't believe me.
3) Top prospects do not offer surety
So let's skip over the losing bits -- it's undeniable that losing your way into the top pick is hard, but you can just lose your way into the Top-5 and trade into it from there.
So you've got Pick 1. What do you need: a quarterback? Good luck.
The last time the clear best QB from any given draft class was the first QB off the board was in 2011: Cam Newton beats out Andy Dalton and Tyrod Taylor for the honor. 2015 has a good case, with Jameis Winston at 1 and Marcus Mariota at 2. but even then: twice in the last eight years, barring the results of the 2019 class.
With Pick 1, you control the draft; the board is your oyster. But if you don't have a QB in the National Football League, you're not competing -- and until changes are made in the CBA, the best circumstances under which to get a quarterback are through the draft, on a rookie deal. In order to ensure that you can draft the quarterback you want, you need Pick 1.
Your control over the draft now has funneled into a tight group of options; options that 75, 80% of the league wasn't even going to look at anyway. You've got a small pool of players to consider, and your choice will ride out at least two years (sorry, Josh Rosen) and your job will hang in the balance. Your pool of players has attempted thousands of passes each at the NFL level, has never been more publicly visible or available, and you will have several opportunities to meet with, speak to, and work out each player.
And yet, with all of those incentives to succeed, and all that data available, we're picking the best QB as the first QB 25% of the time.
Again, consider the NBA: with a starting five in which switchability is a virtue, hoarding top picks creates no funnel for specific position targeting; a more active trade market makes an abundance of wealth at one position far more fungible; and one elite talent, as we've discussed, has a far more significant positive impact on team performance. A top pick either busts or adds value, same as the NFL -- but there are so many more ways a top pick adds value for NBA squads. Never forget: Michael Carter-Williams went for a first-rounder.
Best Player Available, the buzziest of NFL Draft strategies, is largely a myth -- the better adage is Best Value Available, and for a QB-needy team, the best value is always at quarterback. That's still the case at the first overall pick, despite the fact that QB drafting is a minefield of busts and career backups waiting to drag your team to pick 12 and keep them there for 3 seasons.
4) The best-laid plans of mice and men
So you've sufficiently lost enough games/got the draft capital to trade up to Pick 1. You need a quarterback and there's a surefire stud -- can't miss, can't bust, God put him on this green earth to play QB stud -- available for your top pick.
Congratulations: you're the 2019 Miami Dolphins. You've Tanked for Tua.
Football is a violent sport. We acclimate ourselves quickly to that as we grow up fans, and we forget about it until the breathless moments of harrowing hits: Bubba Franks, Alex Smith, Mason Rudolph (the Eric Weddle hit). Football hurts the people who play it, and the frequency of life-changing injury puts even the most thorough of tanks in jeopardy: which is the case with the Miami Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa, the Alabama quarterback whose season ended when he fractured and dislocated his hip on Saturday against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
It is too early to say if Tua will recover fully; it is too early to say if he'll recover at all. He undergoes surgery on Monday and, as it stands, is expected to make a full recovery: but that road is long, and does not necessarily include a successful return to football.
The Dolphins, who famously went so far in their tank as to call a typical defense against the Pittsburgh Steelers, were never trying to lose 16 games. But they were okay with shipping off top talent -- Laremy Tunsil, Minkah Fitzpatrick -- for draft capital returns. They were okay with exchanging role-player talent -- Kenny Stills, Kenyan Drake -- to add even more capital. They were not building to win this year, even thought they have twice in the past three weeks; they are building to win in the future, and to do so, they needed to ensure they got Pick 1, so that they could get their quarterback.
They won't get Pick 1 now -- the Bengals have bellyflopped into that spot -- but they were going to get one of Tua and LSU QB Joe Burrow, both the prizes of any forgettable season. Now, with Tagovailoa's football status up in the air, the most deliberate tanking attempt we've seen at the NFL level is running aground.
The Draft Network analyst Kyle Crabbs wrote today on the wide variety of options the Dolphins can entertain at QB now. Those choices will certainly narrow to a select few as Tua's future comes into clearer view. What we do know is that tanking simply does not work as planned at the NFL level: there's too much chaos, too much middle-class talent, and too much uncertainty in QB evaluations -- and, sadly, health. That's not to say losing doesn't give you a better shot at better plays -- it does. But the sculptured rebuild of Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers will never come into such clarity at the NFL level. There's just too much chaos in this stupid, wonderful, scary league.