Former Dolphins coach Brian Flores’ allegation that team owner Stephen Ross offered him a $100,000 bonus to lose games to try to get the first overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft has led to increased scrutiny on tanking in the NFL. And it has made years-old comments from John Madden newly relevant.
At Madden’s memorial service yesterday, a video was played of Madden discussing what he called the proudest moment of his coaching career: A game Madden’s Raiders won, even when some observers felt they would have been better off losing.
The game was Madden’s Raiders against the Bengals on a Monday night late in the 1976 season. The Raiders had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, so they didn’t need to win. But the Bengals were locked in a tight AFC Central race with the Steelers, and if the Bengals beat the Raiders, Cincinnati would clinch the division and knock Pittsburgh out of the playoffs. Given that the Steelers had eliminated the Raiders from the playoffs in three of the previous four years, some thought the Raiders would lose on purpose to knock the Steelers out of the playoffs and give themselves an easier path to the Super Bowl.
“The thinking was, ‘They don’t want to play Pittsburgh, they want to play Cincinnati, so they’re going to go lose,'” Madden said in a video played at his memorial. “That’s the worst thing you can say about someone, that they lost on purpose. Just for the sake of the organization, just for the sake of football, just for the sake of what’s right, you’ve got to go win.”
The Raiders did beat the Bengals in that game, and the Steelers won the AFC Central. Sure enough, the Raiders had to face the Steelers in the playoffs again — but this time the Raiders beat the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game to advance to Super Bowl XI, which the Raiders won.
Madden said his proudest moment as a coach wasn’t winning that Super Bowl. It was winning the allegedly “meaningless” game against the Bengals. Because in Madden’s view, winning was always the goal of the game, and Madden was proud to have a team that played to win every week, no matter the circumstances.
“That Monday night game was the most proud game that I ever coached in my life,” Madden said. “I don’t know any other way to play. And thank goodness, my players didn’t either.”
Madden was right. There’s no other way to play, except to win. And the NFL needs to eliminate the incentives for losing that have resulted in too many teams not playing to win.