Tanking happens, and in theory it makes sense

Washington Football Team v Philadelphia Eagles
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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.

23 responses to “Tanking happens, and in theory it makes sense

  1. Most fans would logically agree with the eagles’ decision given the circumstances, but would also agree that this is a terrible look for any team/organization.

  2. Imagine being a team that won 6 games in one of the worst divisions in the history of football, then complaining you didn’t get help from a 4 win rival so you could make the playoffs…

  3. The quote that has zipped over the airwaves the past two years is “players do not tank, organizations do.” This is generally interpreted as the GM does the dirty work, but the coach and players try to win each and every game.

    In this case, it is obvious the coach was doing the dirty work and it was noticeable not only for this substitution, but also the players active for the game. Pederson dishonored himself.

    Since tanking is damn near impossible to prove with certainty, I suggest the NFL request Eagles owner, GM and coach be publicly asked to sit down with Goodell for a private chat to show the league’s displeasure.

  4. I hope the Giants keep a chip on their shoulder for when they play the Eagles next year. It’s one thing to do what’s best for your own team but there used to be a thing called sportsmanship. If you lose on purpose in a game that matters to two other teams, it just isn’t right.

  5. The Colts tanked an entire season. This was one game. As for the Giants, perhaps they should have found a means to win one more game.

  6. The easy solution here is to address the draft order situation that incentivizes teams to tank.

    Teams that don’t make the playoffs should have the higher draft picks, however with the reality of tanking it makes no sense for picks 1-18 to be decided solely on win/loss record. That would also solve the problem of bottom-feeder franchises taking all the best college players and burying them in a failed team culture.

    If teams like the Jets or Jags weren’t guaranteed the best college talent for being terrible, you’d see them making more of an effort to address the real problems in their organizations.

    I don’t know what the solution is. Everyone hates on the lottery concept but I think it can be set up for picks #1 through 18 in a way that truly deincentivizes tanking.

  7. The Lions and Vikings did it the old-fashioned way yesterday. Both teams played hard and let the refs determine the winner.

  8. Reminds me that gambling was also something the league refused to talk about until recently.

  9. The Eagles are banking on all this being forgotten as soon as the first playoff game kicks off in a few days. And if that draft pick turns into a good player, months from now their fans will be singing the praises of the crafty maneuvering.

  10. Of course it happens – this was just the most blatant example in recent memory and it affected the playoffs. But teams will do it and never stop unless something is changed.

    And if the Eagles get a franchise player with that pick next year then people will laugh at this one day.

  11. With the prevalence of legalized sports betting nowadays, and the fact that we just watched an NFL coach throw a game on live TV, at what point, or what has to happen, before this conduct starts to cross into “racketeering” or criminal investigation?

  12. The only team that this affected in a negative sense was the Giants.

    Giants up 17-3 vs Dallas (1st game)…LOST. Giants up 14-3 vs TB…LOST. Giants up by 11 with 5 minutes to play vs PHI (1st game)…LOST.

    The Giants screwed themselves way more than Pederson did. Im a Giants fan and I think its a clown move to do what Pederson did last night, but Im upset at my Giants not at him.

  13. charliecharger says:
    January 4, 2021 at 12:20 pm
    It also makes sense to have a draft lottery. You shouldn’t reward incompetence.

    I agree the NFL shouldn’t reward incompetence which is EXACTLY what the NFL does with the “worse team picks 1st” draft order, but I don’t think a lottery is the answer!

    I believe the NFL should give the SB winner 1st pick, SB runner-up 2nd pick, 3rd place team the 3rd pick(according to head to head play or strength of schedule) and so on through the Playoff teams then go the the worse team after the Playoff contenders get their picks, BUT only do this for the 1st round or maybe the first 2 rounds, that’d take away any reward for tanking or incompetence. Or maybe reverse the entire draft order for the 1st round, SB winner picks 1st to the worst team picks last, that’d make teams play harder throughout the season which would give the fans more competitive games, that’d be a win-win for the league!

    Also it’d stop the worst teams from getting the best QBs which is one of the biggest reasons the QB bust rate since 2000 is right around 70%!

  14. Let’s see, Pete Rose bets on his team to win, and he is banned from baseball for life. Doug Pederson intentionally coaches his team to lose, and he is rewarded.

  15. I was always one of the people who say ownership/management tank, coaches and players don’t. And now I’ve been proven wrong.

    I think Pederson was told he would keep his job, BUT he needed to tank the game. So now we know what his price is. I hope he watches some of the footage of the awful look on Jalen Hurts’s face. No matter what happens in the long run, Hurts lost respect for his coach last night.

  16. Since the Eagles tanked to move up to the 6th draft spot from the 9th, the NFL should keep them in the 9th slot.

  17. Players give their all on the field. They are fierce competitors. They always want to win. Just as well Philly has no cap space. If I was a free agent, this is the last team I would want to play for.

  18. Howie Roseman needs to be fired, Doug Pederson needs a lifetime ban, and Jeffrey Laurie/the Eagles need to be fined $20 million. Last night was the single most disgusting thing I’ve seen as an NFL fan in 30 years, and I had no rooting interest in the game. BOYCOTT WILDCARD WEEKEND!!!

  19. Tanking is trading away veterans for draft picks, cutting older vets to save up cap money, and going with young and less well known players, while hoping to rebuild through the draft.

    Throwing games is quite different.
    The commissioner should at the very least prevent the Eagles from moving up 3 spots.
    If they had proof I’d dock their 1st round pick.

    Their throwing the game impacted who made the playoffs. I’m not saying they win if Hurts stays in, but its far more likely than of Sudfeld comes in.

  20. I am not a fan of any of the NFC East teams. In fact, they’re all rather low on my list. However, the NY Giants have nobody to blame but themselves. Maybe if they were so into getting into the playoffs, they could have won just one more game—like the game against the Eagles where they were up 21-10 late in the game and still managed to lose. The division title was there for any of the four teams willing to win nine games. The division is pitiful, overall. I’ll be pulling for the Football Team against the Bucs, but I doubt they will win.

  21. There were all sorts of reports that Pederson planned on playing Sudfeld. Wentz didn’t even dress. The circumstances in which Sudfeld entered the game made everything seem a little suspicious. If he had just come out as the starter in the 3rd quarter, it probably wouldn’t have been as bad of a look. But really, who cares?

    As a Giants fan, I’m not bothered by the Eagles not winning. The Giants had plenty of chances to win games that they lost and those losses cost them a chance at the playoffs. I’m proud of the team for winning the last game of the season when everything was on the line, and hopefully that builds into next season.

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