The tanking paradox: Why bad NFL teams refuse to lose

by Dec 5, 1:38 PM

The 3-9 Jacksonville Jaguars host the 2-10 Houston Texans on Thursday Night Football in a game that will play a major role in determining the selection order at the top of the 2014 NFL Draft. With a loss, either of tonight's franchises will be in prime position to nab the No. 1 overall pick.

It's obvious both the Jaguars and Texans would benefit greatly from finishing last and earning the right to draft first. Each organization is in dire need of a franchise quarterback, and the 2014 draft class appears to have but one player who fits the bill as a "can't miss" prospect: Louisville junior Teddy Bridgewater. 

Mere weeks ago, the 2014 quarterback class was thought to be among the deepest in recent years. Then Oregon's Marcus Mariota declared his intention to return to school, and Georgia's Aaron Murray and LSU's Zack Mettenberger each suffered torn ACLs. Beyond Bridgewater, the class is rife with questions marks: Is Johnny Manziel a character risk? Can Tajh Boyd mature into an accurate passer? Can Derek Carr avoid the fate of his brother, former No. 1 overall pick David Carr?

But despite the overwhelming consensus that both the Jaguars and Texans would benefit greatly from a Thursday night loss (and several more to close out the season), it's a virtual certainty they'll both do their best to get a win.

Tanking (deliberately losing games) is a phenomenon that doesn't seem to occur in the NFL. One couldn't devise a system of player allocation that would make tanking more beneficial to bad teams -- there's no draft lottery (the worst team always picks first) and top draft picks routinely join the league as impact players from day one -- but bad NFL teams refuse to willingly lose.

With NBA teams preparing for the richest draft class in a decade, an anonymous general manager admitted in print to working out a plan with team ownership to ensure the a last-place finish (or something close to it). "Sometimes my job is to understand the value of losing," the unnamed executive wrote in a piece for ESPN The Magazine. "The owners didn't want to tread water any more than I did. They'd rather go down to the bottom with the hope of coming up, so they signed off on it."

In the gridiron world, Jaguars general manager David Caldwell issued a firm denial this week that his team would ever consider such a plan. "I don’t think that’s in anybody’s mindset that has ever stepped into an NFL franchise, and if it is, they’re probably in the wrong industry," he said in a recent interview on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

And Caldwell isn't lying. His team has won three out of four after starting the year 0-8, pulling out of the NFL's basement. The Jaguars are playing themselves out of the running for Bridgewater.

Why don't bad NFL teams pack it in, take their lumps and set themselves up for next year? The answer lies in the paradoxical logistics of losing on purpose.

There may not be an industry on this continent where job security, both among employees (players) and management (coaches, general managers) is weaker than it is in professional football.

Playing careers are shockingly short. The NFL says the average career is six years, but other sources have reported the figure at as low as 3.5 years. This reality is magnified on bad teams, which typically have high roster turnover (particularly at quarterback, the position best able to orchestrate intentional losses). It simply makes no sense for an individual player to hurt his future earning potential, and potentially aid in the drafting of his replacement, by not performing at his best on the field.

Likewise, last-place finishes destroy coaching careers. Of the previous five NFL head coaches to "earn" a No. 1 overall draft pick, four were fired after the season and only one got a subsequent head coaching opportunity from another team. The rest now toil as assistants and position coaches.

Last-place teamRecordHead coachFired after season?Current employment status
2012 Chiefs2-14Romeo CrennelYesUnemployed
2011 Colts2-14Jim CaldwellYesRavens offensive coordinator
2010 Panthers2-14John FoxYes (contract not renewed)Broncos head coach
2009 Rams1-15Steve SpagnuoloNoRavens senior defensive assistant
2008 Lions0-16Rod MarinelliYesCowboys defensive line coach

A similar chart for general managers would look about the same. 

Tanking makes perfect sense on a macro level. There's no denying franchises regularly benefit over the long-term by finishing last. But it just doesn't work as a strategy at the micro level. Tanking is never in the best interests of the individuals capable of actually doing the tanking. Asking a coach to call a play designed to fail, or a quarterback to throw a pass aimed to miss, is akin to asking him to take money out of his own wallet and throw it away.

Perhaps the day will come when an NFL owner orders losses and assures his general manager, coaches and players that their jobs are safe despite a last-place finish -- and, in fact, they may be judged harshly if they don't finish last. (The very next day, the NFL will introduce a draft lottery.)

Until that day, the coaches and players that comprise bad teams will keep doing their damnedest to claw out the one or two victories that make up the difference between the No. 1 overall draft pick and a selection in the 5-10 range, and that ensure they all get to play football again the next summer.