25 Jul The Consequences of Tanking
Supply and demand triggers rash decisions in any walk of life. Quarterbacking, and acquiring the gems of the profession, are no different. Organizations valued at one-billion dollars are willing to sacrifice an entire year of bad business for the opportunity to select the next hot commodity.
2017 free agency offered even less than an underwhelming draft class. With limited quarterback options available, a number of teams opted to post-pone the search until 2018. The allure of a potentially star-studded rookie class, the New York Jets went one step further.
Parting ways with veterans is nothing new to the NFL. Moving on from the majority of the club’s recent production, however, is something new to professional football. In two days, Todd Bowles will address his 2017 team for the first time. During that meeting, Bowles will attempt to convince his team that a three-way competition between Josh McCown, Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg was the best the Jets could do at quarterback.
Tanking, rebuilding, whatever it is branded, it remains a risky proposition and one that few teams recover from under the same regime.
In theory, the idea of intentionally dropping games to secure a higher pick in the draft works. Unfortunately, video-game football and real football are not parallel universes. The number of cons excessively outweighs the lone pro: a fifty-fifty chance at finding a starting-caliber quarterback.
Before exploring the consequences of the cons, let’s reveal four downfalls to attempting to become the worst team in professional football:
1. Destroying morale and creating animosity among the players currently under contract –
Nothing creates a mutiny quicker than illustrating that the current player’s contributions aren’t appreciated. When it’s time to negotiate Leonard Williams new contract with the Jets, what will be his incentive to stay? Money talks, but loyalty typically wins before a superstar even reaches free-agency. New deals are almost always done before the old one expires putting the Jets in a precarious position. That loyalty is threatened by the Jets all-in-approach to securing a high pick in the 2018 draft. Every player knows that his career can come to an end in a flash. Williams will remember that the Jets treated his third-season in the league, just as he’s coming into his prime, as an extended pre-season for the 2018. What else could he possible ascertain from a mass exodus of veterans and a lackluster attempt to find a competent quarterback?
2. Inflicting nearly-impossible expectations on the selected quarterback –
Next to throwing away a season, giving an unproven player special privileges is the fastest way to create an organizational-divide. When the veteran receiver entering a contract-season sees the more prepared, veteran quarterback benched in favor of a rookie, the risk of “losing” that player multiplies. The best way to garner respect from professional athletes is to play the best players and exhaust every resource necessary to win.
The moment the highly-drafted quarterback is taken, the expectation is that he will make believers of everyone in the building and become the guy from day-one. Some are built to handle this pressure with maturity and professionalism – most 21-year-olds, are not. The results are mixed, but the likes of Blake Bortles, E.J. Manuel and Mark Sanchez are far more frequent than the success-stories of Andrew Luck or Matt Ryan.
Resurrecting a buried franchise is a burden for a polished veteran. Asking a fresh-from-college rookie to fulfill this task is almost always a death-wish for any coaching staff.
The Cleveland Browns had to shell out serious cash, to attract free-agents. Kenny Britt, JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler all signed deals far greater than market value, but this was Cleveland’s only option after winning one-game, with their Money Ball approach, in 2016.
In 2011, the Colts saw what life-after-Peyton Manning looked like. If there was ever a sign of clear tanking, entering the season with Kerry Collins as the starter was it. The best free-agent Indianapolis attracted in 2012 was Donnie Avery and the team has consistently fielded the worst roster (outside of the quarterback) since it was lucky enough to land Andrew Luck.
Even though the Colts landed the unquestioned, can’t miss prospect of this generation, the team has missed the playoffs the previous two years – and did it while playing in the worst division in the National Football League.
3. Free-agent attraction suicide –
Free agency is often a farce in the NFL. Spending top-shelf money for third-tier talent is the best way to ensure mediocrity, but that doesn’t mean it is without any value. Supplementary players are crucial during this period and the best teams fill out depth and defined roles with experienced veterans. That Patriots are typically the model franchise by which other organizations compare and self-evaluate. These lower-level deals are where New England continuously reloads. Bargain players like Chris Hogan, Kony Ealy, Patrick Chung, Alan Branch, the list goes on, sign with New England for the best opportunity to take the next step in their careers.
These fringe players would be committing career-suicide if they accepted a contract with the previous season’s worst team. Convincing a visiting free-agent that the team is committed to winning comes off like an empty-promise more than a persuasive anecdote.
4. The 50-50 proposition of actually getting the pick right –
50% of first round quarterbacks don’t work out. It’s not fair to hold Sam Darnold or Josh Allen to the same substandard as Blaine Gabbert or Jake Locker, but the draft always has been, and always will be, a crap shoot. Risking the alienation of the entire locker-room for the opportunity to select one player that has just as much of a chance to bust as he does to succeed is the opposite of diversifying the proverbial portfolio.
When the franchise savior busts and the current regime is still attached to him, how will the other 52 players feel about their future with that team? It is a short-sighted plan that is predicated on the success of one player rather than constructing a complete unit.
There isn’t one recipe for success when it comes to building an NFL roster. Value exists in every potential upgrading avenue. Be it free-agency, the draft or developing home-grown talent, quality players can be found anywhere. While a number of blue-prints have been successful, creating a winning-culture and instilling a competitive mindset with the players already in-house is the optimal way to turn the tide of a perineal loser.
Cam Newton and Matt Stafford took a while to develop and become bona-fide top-level quarterbacks. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota have helped shift the tide of their respective teams, but neither has made the post-season in two years. Andrew Luck got out of the gates hot, but the Colts have regressed significantly the previous two seasons.
The allure of landing a franchise-changing quarterback is difficult to ignore. Sacrificing the well-being of the other players on the roster is an approach that hasn’t worked for anyone in the past.
To the tanking-enthusiast: be careful what you wish for.