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The NFL’s Tanking Nightmare

Unlike the NBA or MLB, the NFL isn’t built to handle widespread tanking. If more teams follow the lead of the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets, the league could be facing a crisis of competitive balance.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The NFL’s competitive balance has always been a delicate thing. It’s supposed to be governed by this vaguely noble code of competition that says the players, since they have little money guaranteed to them, will give all they can on every snap. With everyone always going at full speed, the thinking goes, there’s no room for the tanking tactics of the NBA or other leagues. It’s why football history is littered with teams who inexplicably won in December to screw their draft pick for the following year. The famous Nate Poole catch that knocked the Minnesota Vikings out of the playoffs on the team’s last play of the 2003 season also cost the Arizona Cardinals the top pick in the draft and the rights to a quarterback named Eli Manning.

As recently as December 2011 — in a Sports Illustrated article about presumptive no. 1 pick Andrew Luck — then–Colts vice chariman Bill Polian said the idea of late-season tanking never crossed his mind.”I am proud to be part of an organization and part of a league where players and coaches give 100 percent effort in every game,’’ Polian told SI. “Maybe that’s why we’re such a popular sport.’’ To be fair, Peyton Manning’s bum neck took care of all the tanking for Polian.

Six years later, and a former general manager is saying the exact opposite — that tanking may become commonplace: “The thing that worries me is that the Browns essentially tanked the season last year and no one said — except a few of us — said anything about it.” That former executive? Bill Polian.

In 2017, tanking in the NFL is very real. Even if players are still trying their best on every play, front offices have worked around it by making sure those players aren’t good enough to win games — no matter how much effort they’re giving. The Browns did it last year, the Bucs did it in 2014, and the Jets are doing things that look and smell like a tank, including the tankiest move of all: denying a tank. They shed Eric Decker and David Harris, two players who would have harmed a tank by being talented. In fact, when discussing the team’s sad excuse for a quarterback battle, Jets coach Todd Bowles had this to say:

Draft picks have become absurdly valuable in this era. After the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, picks became cost-controlled, and hitting on a high draft pick who gives you star-level production on a rookie contract is now one of the most valuable things in the sport. As Pro Football Talk pointed out, if you want to understand how valuable tanking would be, look at how much the 49ers got for moving down one spot with the Bears in April’s draft. The Bears beat the 49ers last December to ensure they’d have to trade down if they wanted that pick. If the Bears had simply lost to the Niners, they could have kept the three picks they dealt to move up one spot. So yes, tanking helps.

The existential worry here is not about bad football; you’re going to get that with the Jets whether it’s intentional or not. No, it’s about the structure of the league and what happens if more teams start to realize that a higher draft pick is worth some minor short-term pain: four wins and the no. 1 pick is worth a lot more than six victories and something outside the top 10. More smart teams in the NFL is a good thing, but if tanking is here to stay — and it’s looking ever more likely that it is — the trend could have a devastating impact on the league’s 16-game schedule and four-team divisional structure.

Tanking in the NBA, NHL, and MLB is an accepted path for a rebuilding team. Aside from some ugly games here and there, a handful of purposefully bad teams don’t create a massive swing in the competitive balance of the league. Tanking teams typically become a leaguewide joke, but all three leagues have so many games in a season as well as a deep playoff structure to ensure that a few automatic wins on a given team’s schedule won’t have an effect on who’s competing for the championship.

The NFL is not set up for this. The playoff and scheduling system is already somewhat unfair: Teams play dramatically different schedules but vie for the same wild-card spots, and a total of six games a year against division opponents gives the league’s divisional structure way too much influence on who wins how many games. The Browns have been under .500 every year since 2007. In that span, the AFC North has dominated the conference’s playoff spots, averaging two per year since Cleveland started its especially bad run. Maybe that’s because the Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals are awesome, but the Browns’ consistent role as an easy win certainly has played a part. If a team in your division is tanking, you get an automatic leg up on the rest of the competition in a league where playoff space is at a premium.

An NFL with multiple teams tanking at once would be a dystopian future in which playoff spots were determined, at least in part, by what teams in what division were tanking in a given season. If, for instance, the Jets tanked this year, and the Bills, starting up their new post-Ryan-brother regime and wanting a clean slate, did as well, the Dolphins, with four easy wins, could be nearly halfway to a wild-card spot without even playing a competitive game.

If multiple teams per year start tanking — even if they don’t start tanking until the end of the season, when division matchups are concentrated — the NFL would have to change how the system operates. Schedule luck would end up playing a crucial role in determining playoff spots.

There are multiple ways the NFL could go about addressing the tanking issue, ranging from the mundane to the revolutionary. The league could change its draft system to discourage tanking, using a lottery as the NBA and NHL do.

In addition to changing draft incentives, the league could tweak the way the schedule works. In order to minimize the impact of a team stuck in a long-term tank, it could change the division system entirely. Something as simple as having two conferences in which all 16 teams play each other once (that’s 15 games) and then play an out-of-conference opponent, not dissimilar to the way scheduling works in college football. That’s an idea endorsed by football people like Pat Kirwan, and it’s likely it would even do a better job of finding the most-deserving playoffs team than the current setup — tanking or not.

More randomization in the schedule would help, too. Perhaps two games against a division opponent already gives an unfair advantage to teams that share a division with an awful team. The same can be said about the current schedule rotation, in which entire divisions play other entire divisions.

Even without tanking, playoff spots can get awarded within the schedule, rather than on the field. Stephen Miller, a math professor at Rutgers University who has studied schedule rotation’s impact on competitive balance, is flummoxed by the current system, which he said “concentrates weakness” because there’s not enough variety in the rigid schedule. “There have to be random assignments,” he said in an interview.

The NFL needs to evolve, or the competitive balance of the league is going to be threatened more so than it already is. Remember: The more teams tank, the more likely it is you’ll see Christian Hackenberg play at some point. And when Hackenberg is playing regular snaps, it means something has gone terribly wrong in the league.