For years, I’ve argued that any team that has seen its playoff hopes extinguished should pivot to a different prize: Parlaying a lost season into the highest possible draft position.
That’s exactly what the Eagles did last night, even if they predictably deny it. A win over Washington in a meaningless game (to the Eagles) would have put Philly at No. 9 in the draft order. A loss placed the Eagles at No. 6.
In the age of analytics, which at its core advocates a comprehensive evaluation of all decisions based on expected gains and expected losses, it always makes sense to take 4-11-1 and the sixth pick in the draft over 5-10-1 and the ninth pick, if neither record results in a playoff berth. The difference in final won-loss-tie record means nothing. The difference in dibs on draft day means plenty.
Three years ago, the Jets gave up three second-round picks to move from No. 6 to No. 3. Those three second-round picks can become three key players for the next five or 10 years.
The difference on Sunday night was that it played out in prime time, in a game that had significant meaning to Washington and the Giants, at a time when no one expected it. The final game of the regular season has become special, different. It’s hand picked by the league to have meaning, regardless of what happens earlier in the day. Three years ago, when there wasn’t a game guaranteed to have relevance independent of the outcomes of the other 15 games, the NFL scrapped the prime-time game in Week 17.
In hindsight, we should have seen it coming. And maybe the league should have seen it coming. Because the potential for it happening will continue to hide in plain sight until the system for determining draft order changes.
As noted on Twitter last night and during Monday’s PFT Live, the Buccaneers in 2014 removed starters during a Week 17 game against the Saints in order to nail down the No. 1 pick. The Bucs led 20-7 in the fourth quarter before managing to win by losing.
Although the Buccaneers denied tanking, it was obvious that they did. The fact that it didn’t happen in prime-time and didn’t help the Saints get into the playoffs and/or keep someone else out kept it from being a big deal.
Whenever concerns like this arise, the NFL insists there’s no tanking. In the next breath, the NFL will acknowledge that teams can decide who to play and how long to play them.
Teams will use something less than their best players for a variety of reasons. Teams that can’t improve their playoff position rest starters. Teams that want to develop a young quarterback like Tua Tagovailoa will put a better quarterback like Ryan Fitzpatrick on the bench. Those objectives have long been regarded as legitimate by the league.
The league has regarded tanking as illegitimate. Even more than that, the league has regarded tanking as non-existent.
“I don’t think any team tanks,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in 2017. “I really don’t. I think teams, depending on where you are, go through transitions. They look to sort of say, ‘You know, we need to build more talent here. We do it through the draft. Let’s let some of our veteran players go, and develop some of our younger players.’
Thus, when tanking happens, the league’s only course of action is to ignore it. The more the league addresses it, the more likely that fans will realize that it happens. And as legalized wagering spreads from sea to shining sea, the fewer fans connect the dots on the very real temptation to tank, the better.