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Why Tanking Does Not Work in Football

This past decade was filled with the prospect and popularity in tanking, which is when a team deliberately plays poorly in game action in order to secure a high draft pick to rebuild the team. The team that popularized this was the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. In the NFL, however, no team has been nearly as successful through tanking as the 76ers. 

Since tanking took off around 2012, there have been five teams that at some point were tanking in the NFL: the Dolphins, Browns, Jaguars, Bengals and Redskins. Since each team decided to tank (Bengals and Redskins made that decision in 2019) there have been a total of two playoff wins between them. These results indicate that tanking in the NFL has not gone well. 

The best teams have had short or mini rebuilds while their team is still very good. For example, the Kansas City Chiefs were a consistent playoff team with Alex Smith at quarterback but decided they needed to go another way to take the next step. So they drafted Patrick Mahomes and let him take over at quarterback. This helped them win a Super Bowl with the best quarterback in the league and did not blow up their whole roster. 

Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

When looking at a team like the Cleveland Browns, it is apparent that their tanking escapades have failed because of poor leadership on top. The Browns have consistently had high draft picks and have consistently missed on them.

One of their more heinous draft mistakes was drafting Johnny Manziel over Teddy Bridgewater, whom they were strongly considering drafting. Bridgewater had a great start to his career before his catastrophic ACL injury. Manziel, however, flamed out of the league as he could not stay focused and invested in football. 

This past season, the Miami Dolphins decided to tank for a good draft pick so they could pick a franchise changing quarterback. Unfortunately, some key pieces they had such as Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kenyan Drake decided they did not want to be part of a tanking team and requested trades. This led the Dolphins to focusing on filling two more positions of need, which slows up the rebuild even more. 

Don Wright/AP Photo

Probably the biggest reason that tanking in football is just not reasonable is roster size. Compared to basketball, there is a much larger roster in football. Football teams consist of 53 players while basketball teams only have around 12-13 players on a roster. In addition, when on the field, football teams send out 11 players while in basketball there are only five players on the court. 

Basketball is also much more focused on individuals than football is. For example, Lebron James has constantly carried very poor teams to the playoffs and NBA Finals in his career by himself (see 2018), yet the NFL is a more team oriented game. While quarterback is far and away the most important position in football, without a good supporting cast the team will not be a Super Bowl contender. 

There are just too many roster spots and important positions in football for tanking to become an effective form of rebuilding in the NFL. It also creates a culture where winning is put on the back burner, which is not good for morale. Accepting losing is no way to build a Super Bowl contending team and that is what tanking enables. This is why tanking will never work in the NFL.

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