The allegation that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross regarded the 2019 campaign as a full-season exercise in tanking isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of it.
The NFL’s procedure for determining draft order creates a clear incentive to tank. Usually, it kicks in once a team is eliminated from playoff contention, mathematically or as a practical matter. It happened most conspicuously in 2014, when the Buccaneers removed roughly half of their starters at halftime of a Week 17 game against the Saints, which Tampa Bay led by double digits. The Saints came back and won, the Buccaneers lost, and the Bucs secured dibs on the first pick in the 2015 draft. (They took Jameis Winston; some would say the punishment ultimately fit the crime.)
If the allegations against Ross are true (he strongly denies them), it means he took tanking to the extreme, embarking on a potential path to the top of the draft well before his team had declared itself to be a non-contender for postseason positioning.
The possibility of short- or long-term tanking will linger as long as the NFL rewards ineptitude with dibs on the best players entering the league from college football. It therefore becomes incumbent on the league, once and for all, to remove that incentive.
We’ve kicked around possible approaches in the past for doing that. One idea, as mentioned on Wednesday’s PFT Live, would be to implement a lottery for the 18 non-playoff teams, with each having an equal shot at getting the first pick, second pick, and so on in the first round, or perhaps beyond.
A separate lottery could be held for each of the seven rounds on that basis; obviously, the most interest would be generated by round one. And the first-round lottery would become a tentpole event that would generate millions of viewers and dollars — especially as fans bet on which team will get which pick.
Another approach would be to give the best of the non-playoff teams the first pick, descending from best to worst through the first 18 selections and filling in the final 14 spots with the playoff teams. (That could potentially tempt a borderline team to pass on a quick exit from the wild-card round, opting instead for the first pick in the draft.)
Then there’s the possibility of ditching the idea that bad teams secure the right to compel the best players to join their dysfunctional organizations. Maybe the Super Bowl champion should get the first pick, as one of the spoils of victory. The worst team would pick last. Some would say that’s not fair, but it definitely would remove the incentive to lose games.
Finally, there’s the option that would be the most fair and appropriate for the teams and the players. Ditch the draft. (It’s WAY too late for that, given the Draft Industrial Complex that the league has created over the years.) Instead of a draft, teams would have a hard cap on first-contract compensation, with the worst team having the most to spend and the best team having the least. Teams would have to recruit incoming players to join the franchise, and they’d have to allocate the cap dollars accordingly.
While the naysayers will say the best teams would stockpile the incoming talent, would (for example) the top quarterback in the class choose to sign with a team that already has a franchise quarterback in place? While some teams may do a better job of persuading young players to join them instead of a competitor, a free-agency approach would remove the incentive to be bad and replace it with an incentive to be attractive to young players. Which of those two incentives is better for the game?
There surely are other potential ideas and approaches. (Feel free to put your own in the comments.) Regardless of what the league chooses to eventually do, sticking with the current system necessarily will tempt certain teams at certain times to, for example, “evaluate” young players in the hopes that those young players will cause the team to lose in the standings — and to win in the draft order.
The value of finishing poorly is undeniable. Consider the trades made every year for the purposes of climbing a few spots in round one. Last March, the 49ers surrendered two extra first-round picks and a third-round pick for a flip-flop with the Dolphins of the No. 3 and No. 12 spots in the order. In 2012, Washington gave up two extra first-round picks and a third-round pick to upgrade the sixth pick into the second pick.
In 2019, a Week 17 loss to the Giants gave Washington dibs on defensive end Chase Young with the second overall pick in 2020. If the Giants had simply lost that game, they would have won Young.
As the Ross allegations and his response to them promise to become nasty and ugly and contentious in the coming months, the simple truth is that the entire issue springs from a system that illogically rewards losing with the promise of snagging potential generational talent.
Indeed, if Flores had simply accepted and acted on the owner’s plan (if that truly was his plan), the Dolphins would have quarterback Joe Burrow — and the Bengals wouldn’t. While that doesn’t mean Miami would be preparing to play in the Super Bowl, Cincinnati definitely would not be.
So even though Ross, if the accusations are true (again, he strongly denies them), undermined the integrity of the game, violated the Sports Bribery Act, and/or set the stage for class actions in the various states that had legalized betting during the 2019 season (more on that possibility in another post), the current system creates a clear strategic reason to lose now, in the hopes of winning later. Until the current system changes, that fundamental truth will not.