Let’s Talk NFL Tanking Shall We?

In light of the Tennessee Titans receiving the second overall selection in the upcoming NFL draft, there has been some talk of tanking involving the owner of the number one overall selection the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Titans (2-14) and the Bucs (2-14) were in a battle in the final game of the year over who would secure the top selection. Tampa  Bay won by virtue of their 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Following the loss where head coach Lovie Smith made some rather interesting substitutions there was talk of tanking. That Smith deliberately didn’t play standout rookie wide receiver Mike Evans or linebacker Lavonte David in the second half because he wanted to secure the top spot in the draft. Smith may or may not have sat players in a deliberate effort to lose the game but that’s not tanking.

It’s call throwing the game and it’s a completely different animal from tanking.

Tanking involves a concerted effort over the course of a season to lose in order to secure a top draft selection. It’s widely talked about the National Basketball Association where teams are smaller, more games are played and that top player legitimately can make a difference for a team who can hit upon a winner.

It’s not quite so easy in the National Football League. First, you have to have an owner who buys into the plan. How many owners are willing to take that risk in (further) alienating their fanbase? Attendance and viewership has been dreadful for both teams this season.

Second, you have to account for players whose contracts aren’t guaranteed like they are in other sports. Players in the NFL know they are always playing for their next payday. They simply aren’t as secure as players in other sports. It’s a detriment for an NFL player to play on a bad football team because it places his future livelihood at risk.

Third, you have to be aware of league consequences. Repeatedly throwing a game can raise gambling questions which is an issue of concern to the league. Its also quite difficult to do for all the reasons stated above. You aren’t going to get players to agree to do it because its not in their best interests to do so.

So, did either team “tank” the season to secure that top selection? Both Tampa Bay and Tennessee were dreadful teams in their first seasons under first  year head coaches Lovie Smith and Ken Whisenhunt. Both coaches played musical chairs at the quarterback position and never could get solidified there.

Additionally, for both teams, there were players who were brought in to help who were disappointments. Adjusting to a new system can take time and coaches must put players in the best position in which to succeed. You could make an argument that both teams failed there but was it a deliberate effort to tank?

It seems doubtful.

Finally, there is the question over whether it is truly worth the effort. Coaches are judged on wins and losses. Despite narrative to the contrary there is simply no “free year” for a coach in the National Football League. How many coaches have been fired after only two or three seasons? A bunch. The Cleveland Browns fired Rob Chudzinski after one season!

A cursory look at the overall selections in the draft can be found here. You can count on one hand the number of players who have been immediate and lasting difference makers for their teams. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck certainly standout but is there one in this class? It seems doubtful.

Here are the number two overall selections in the NFL draft. There are some pretty good names on that list too including one Calvin Johnson. Frankly, there isn’t a ton of difference and I would submit there isn’t a huge difference between the top 5 picks so long as you have good talent evaluators who make smart decisions.

I don’t know if either Tampa Bay or Tennessee tanked the season in order to snag the top draft pick. It seems unlikely though certainly not out of the question. Its interesting that this question was never raised during the season. There were injuries for both teams at play. What appeared to be incompetency at a closer look could certainly be something more sinister.

One thing however is clear. Tampa Bay did not “tank” in one half of its final game in order to secure the top pick. The correct question to ask is whether they threw the game for whatever reason. If the answer to that is yes then Commissioner has a real issue on his hands.

Photo courtesy of TampaBay.com

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