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As football fans, we’d like to think our favorite teams always strive for excellence and that they compete honorably and with integrity. After all, those are a few of the principles the sport is built on. However, many NFL fans can’t help but suspect that some teams purposefully give up well before the season’s final snap in order to secure a highly valued draft pick—a practice known as “tanking.”
Since no NFL team has ever officially copped to tanking, its existence and perceived prevalence in the league remains an annually debated topic. Without any team’s admission, it may be impossible to prove specific instances of tanking for certain, but every year there seems to be at least one team intentionally dropping the ball to inherit that coveted No. 1 draft pick. For the sake of adoring fans who just want see their hometown heroes placed in a winning position, let’s just hope the ill-conceived concept of tanking doesn’t rear its ugly head this season.
Unfortunately, with several NFL teams already facing the bleak reality that their seasons will end after week 17, it’s likely a few may be tempted to let their foot off the gas over the course of the next four weeks in order to secure a top prospect. We’re not casting any accusations, but the 2-10 Houston Texans could easily lose out and become the so-called winners of the 2014 draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars (3-9), Atlanta Falcons (3-9), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-9), Minnesota Vikings (3-8-1) and even the Cleveland Browns (4-8) could also decide to take things easy down the stretch by either benching starters or reporting mysterious injuries. However, these underperforming teams should realize that tanking is not only unethical and a slap to the face (and wallets) of NFL fans, but that it also rarely pays off, especially when approaching a rather lackluster draft class, like the one we’re currently looking at for 2014.
While the 2014 class does boast some talent, the 2012 group this isn’t. The (alleged) tanking of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts may have worked out because they had an Andrew Luck to look forward to, but the same can’t be said for the bottom-feeding teams of 2013. Considering quarterbacks are the only position teams seem to tank for – due to the fact that they can instantly turn a team around in some cases – whom might potential tankers be slumping for in the 2014 class?
Once considered the top quarterback prospect of the upcoming class, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny “Football” Manziel has proceeded to damage his own stock this season with off-the-field issues that have raised questions about his character and work ethic. With Manziel seeming like a risk to some, many NFL scouts began to turn their attention to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, but this week, he announced he would be returning for his junior season. Also ranked as a top-five quarterback by many, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger hurt his chances of being a first-round pick considerably after he tore his ACL in last week’s win over Arkansas. So are there even any QB prospects worth tanking for in the first place?
Some would say Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater may be the best NFL-ready quarterback in the 2014 class and according to several reports, the Cleveland Browns may have set their sights on the young hard-thrower after trading their best offensive weapon in Trent Richardson to the Colts for a first-round pick earlier this season, thus (allegedly) beginning the tanking process. However, it’s still not confirmed that Bridgewater is even entering the draft and if he is, NFL teams still have to keep in mind that his impressive collegiate statistics have put up against sub-par opponents, as Bridgewater has only faced a handful of ranked teams with NFL-caliber talent in his college career.
In reality, the practice of tanking is one big gamble, and one with very low odds of success to boot. As we’ve seen from the past, scoring a top first-round pick doesn’t guarantee a winning future. Considering there are nearly as many first-round busts (or perhaps more) as there are stars in the top 10 picks of every draft, the selection process itself is far from an exact science. Tankers might end up with an Andrew Luck, but they could end up with JaMarcus Russell, or dare we mention Ryan Leaf (shudder).
Of course, from a business perspective, the idea of tanking has some merit. With a season in the toilet, a franchise can expect attendance and merchandise sales to drop off anyway, so planning for the future and losing in the short-term may not hurt the organization’s bottom line. Plus, securing a high-profile player with a top pick usually equates to a spike in jersey and ticket sales. Essentially, intentionally mismanaging your club often proves to be a profitable business strategy, at least in the short-term.
Unfortunately, a franchise’s tanking only comes at the expense of its fans, who not only devote their allegiance with their cheers, but also their hard-earned dollars. The fact that tanking literally robs fans who pay exorbitant amounts of money to attend games may be the most putrid thing about the practice and is easily the biggest reason why teams shouldn’t do it – that is, if they care.
But let’s make sure to put the blame where it belongs, because tanking only serves the franchise’s interest, namely the interests of the suits up top. With their jobs constantly on the line, players and coaches certainly don’t want to lose. Whoever is given the opportunity to play or coach on Sunday is definitely going to give it his all, but if the structure is designed for failure, he’ll end up looking bad anyway, more often than not.
So, is tanking really worth it in the big scheme of things? Is it worth a top pick to screw over the fans and put the current group of players in a losing, job-threatening and ultimately embarrassing position? Apparently, some franchises may think so, but with a weaker crop of talent coming into the league at skill positions next season, let’s hope the NFL decides to take a year off from tanking, if only to preserve the pure competition and spirit of the game we love.
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