How the NFL Can Eliminate Tanking
Why the actions of the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars should be the catalyst for overdue change in the NFL.
Like it or not, tanking is an unfortunate and ugly byproduct of professional sports in the United States. While some teams are able to master the art of subtlety, others operate freely without qualms or reservations.
The Philadelphia 76ers went so far as to celebrate their purposeful dysfunction when they slapped lipstick on a pig with the adopted motto of “Trust the Process,” a long-term strategy implemented in 2013 by former GM Sam Hinkie, designed to ultimately produce sustainable dominance. NBA fans were split in regards to their opinion of Hinkie’s plan, some lauding his intestinal fortitude to see it through while others took issue with its shamelessness. Regardless of which side of the fence you sat on, Hinkie and the 76ers became the face of a rapidly-growing problem.
Fast forward to Week 7 of the 2020 NFL season when Gardner Minshew of the Jacksonville Jaguars underwent x-rays for the thumb on his throwing hand, revealing multiple fractures and a strained ligament. The team promoted rookie Jake Luton to be their starter for the first three games following Minshew’s diagnosis. Predictably, Luton played poorly, prompting the Jaguars to go with journeyman quarterback Mike Glennon despite Minshew already being cleared to play.
This lasted until Week 14 when Glennon was pulled in favor of Minshew with the Jaguars losing 31-3 in the third quarter against the Titans. Minshew kept the starting job in Week 15 against the Ravens but then, for some not-so-inexplicable reason, he was benched in Week 16 against the Bears and Glennon took over starting duties once again. The Bears beat Jacksonville in dominant fashion, 41-17, with Glennon throwing for only 211 yards and two interceptions, prompting many to ponder why the Jaguars refused to play the quarterback who most obviously gave them the best chance to win. The answer to that is simple; they didn’t want to win.
In fact, when Jacksonville saw the Jets pull off miraculous upsets against the Rams and the Browns in Weeks 15 and 16 respectively, they knew if they lost their remaining games they would secure the first pick in the 2021 draft and finally be able to select their franchise quarterback, presumably Trevor Lawrence. It’s a poorly kept secret that the Jaguars, dating back to the days of Mark Brunell, have been in desperate need of a star under center. How it ultimately works out for Jacksonville next year remains to be seen but, through tanking, they instantly became one of the most enticing destinations for potential head coaches (the team fired Doug Marrone one week ago).
Another blatant example of a team trying to lose on purpose is the Philadelphia Eagles benching Jalen Hurts for third-stinger, Nate Sudfeld, during the second half of their Week 17 matchup against the Washington Football Team. This particular game had major playoff implications for not only Washington but the Giants as well. If Philadelphia was able to beat Washington, the Giants, as a result of their victory against Dallas, would have advanced to the playoffs as champions of the NFC East.
As you would expect, the move was heavily criticized by players on New York but, surprisingly, those in the Eagles organization echoed those sentiments, saying they were blindsided and had no idea Sudfeld was part of the game plan. It was a curious decision to say the least, considering the Eagles were trailing by just three points at the time and Hurts, while not being all that productive as a passer, had already rushed for two touchdowns. During his three possessions, Sudfeld committed two turnovers and was sacked twice. Washington went on to win the game, eliminating the Giants from postseason play and Philadelphia secured the sixth pick in the draft. Eight days later, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was fired.
First of all, for this to work, either a second league would have to be created or the NFL would have to orchestrate a massive expansion project. So, for the purpose of this article, let’s include the XFL, which is scheduled to be resurrected in 2022. This system, as it is with soccer overseas, will be comprised of multiple leagues or, as they’ll be referred to in this article, divisions. For the inaugural season, the top 16 NFL teams would comprise Division 1, the bottom 16 NFL teams would occupy Division 2, and the XFL teams would be assigned to Division 3. Here’s how it would look based on each league’s most recent regular season:
|Division 1||Division 2||Division 3|
|1. Kansas City Chiefs||1. Washington Football Team||1. Houston Roughnecks|
|2. Green Bay Packers||2. New England Patriots||2. DC Defenders|
|3. Buffalo Bills||3. Minnesota Vikings||3. St. Louis Battlehawks|
|4. New Orleans Saints||4. Los Angeles Chargers||4. New York Guardians|
|5. Pittsburgh Steelers||5. San Francisco 49ers||5. Dallas Renegades|
|6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||6. New York Giants||6. Los Angeles Wildcats|
|7. Baltimore Ravens||7. Dallas Cowboys||7. Seattle Dragons|
|8. Cleveland Browns||8. Denver Broncos||8. Tampa Bay Vipers|
|9. Los Angeles Rams||9. Carolina Panthers|
|10. Seattle Seahawks||10. Detroit Lions|
|11. Tennessee Titans||11. Philadelphia Eagles|
|12. Indianapolis Colts||12. Cincinnati Bengals|
|13. Miami Dolphins||13. Atlanta Falcons|
|14. Chicago Bears||14. Houston Texans|
|15. Las Vegas Raiders||15. New York Jets|
|16. Arizona Cardinals||16. Jacksonville Jaguars|
Red = Relegation
Green = Promotion
Now, let’s pretend we’re getting ready to start the 2023-24 campaign, the inaugural year for our new model. Based on the table above, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Arizona would be relegated to Division 2 for the upcoming season with Washington, New England, and Minnesota taking their place. In addition, Houston (Texans), NY (Jets), and Jacksonville would be sent down to Division 3 with Houston (Roughnecks), DC, and St. Louis earning a promotion to Division 2. The top eight teams in Division 1 would then advance to the postseason to determine a champion. The top eight in Division 2 and the top four in Division 3 would do the same because, after all, bragging rights are always fun.
But, more importantly, tanking wouldn’t make much sense because the long-term ramifications are no longer beneficial to the organization, quite the opposite. In fact, if we’re using soccer as an example, when a team in the English Premier League gets demoted, according to Deloitte Sports Business Group, it costs the owner £50 million (the equivalent of $68.35 million). Each year, teams competing in the Premier League receive £90 million, a figure which is generated from a combination of sources, including TV revenues. In contrast, an organization that suffers relegation only receives a £40 million payout, a humongous financial blow for ownership to absorb.
And, by the way, the longer a team stays relegated, the lower the payout becomes each year. Because of how much money they stand to lose due to being demoted, owners will then be forced to trade their star players since they will no longer be able to pay their salaries. And good luck attracting premium sponsorship when your team is playing on the junior circuit. Considering that most owners think with their wallet, the prospect of losing both their talent (jersey/ticket sales, etc.) and yearly stipend will undoubtedly force them to do everything in their power to assemble a winning product each year rather than tanking or, in other cases, treating the team as a business transaction. *cough, Tom Ricketts*
Lastly, if financial hardships aren’t enough to scare away an owner who might still consider tanking, the draft will now implement an NBA-style lottery to determine the order, consisting of multiple drawings, performed in stages. We’ll start with Division 3 and rank the teams one through eight by winning percentage, ensuring that, no matter what, a Division 3 team will never pick lower than eighth. The team with the worst record will have the highest percentage to obtain the first pick and so forth and so on. Using the same format, this will be followed by the bottom eight teams in Division 2, followed by the top eight teams of Division 2, and then Division 1 in its entirety.
When the Bears dropped six straight, bringing their record to 5-7, many suggested it was better for them to lose out and obtain a high draft pick rather than sneaking into the playoffs as a low seed. The concept of losing to maybe not be losers in the future has always been foreign to me. Losing, especially by design, sets a dangerous precedent and cultivates a culture that is extremely hard to correct. Did the Bears have any business making playoffs this year? No. Would they have benefited from a top-ten draft pick? Maybe, but Ryan Pace doesn’t have the greatest track record with his first-round selections anyway. Whatever victory they may have experienced by tanking, it would’ve been that of a pyrrhic nature.
The simple fact is this; the majority of the time, tanking just doesn’t produce the desired results. The 76ers are an excellent team but have fallen short of their championship aspirations. It feels like the Jets and Jaguars have been tanking for as long as I can remember. How’s that worked out? It’s a lot to digest, I get it. Change is scary. But, the sacrifice-today-for-a-better-tomorrow mentality is long overdue to be eradicated from American sports. Yes, it’s a business but it’s also about passion and fire and pride. To tank is defined as “to fail completely”. There’s nothing prideful about that.