The Delicate Art Of Tanking In Professional Sports

You have heard the slogans before. Suck for Luck. Tank for Tua. Quit Tryin’ for Zion. In today’s modern sports world, where teams tend to sign long-term contracts with their own franchise players, the draft is the best place to find new elite-level talent. One need only look at the 2022 Super Bowl to see the two sides of this coin. Joe Burrow was drafted with the first overall pick by the Bengals, and in a few short years, he had them in the championship game. Matthew Stafford was drafted first overall by the Lions, won very little, and ended up with the Rams, taking them to the Super Bowl in his first year there.

The Rams certainly didn’t tank to get Stafford; they just waited until his time with Detroit had run its course. The last two times the Rams drafted a quarterback in the first round, they got Sam Bradford and Jared Goff. Sometimes, losing doesn’t work.

Often, though, it does work. This year’s World Series champions are, unfortunately, the Houston Astros. Newer baseball fans may not remember this, but not too long ago, the Astros were terrible. They were the worst team in the league. They parlayed this into top draft pick after top draft pick, and over a stretch between 2011 and 2015, they drafted George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker with first rounders. Those players formed the core of a team that has been a World Series threat for close to a decade now.

Tanking these days…

Tanking these days is most closely associated with the NBA, and tanking as a concept got its start in the early 1980s. The new Clippers owner, the ignominious Donald Sterling, remarked publicly that he wanted his team to finish in last place so they could draft Ralph Sampson in 1983. Now, Sampson was a good player, but the Clippers did not draft him; they took Byron Scott instead and traded him to the Lakers, where he had a fine career.

The Clippers would have been much better off if they had taken the 14th overall pick, Clyde Drexler, who went to Portland and had a Hall of Fame career there. In 1984, the Rockets tanked and benched their starters for most of the latter part of the season. For their troubles, they got Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon. Except, two picks later, the Bulls took Michael Jordan. Olajuwon won two Finals titles when Jordan was out of the league for dubious reasons. You know very well what Jordan accomplished.

The Process

The Philadelphia 76ers went so far as to codify tanking, calling it “The Process.” This netted them Joel Embiid but no championship rings. In most basketball seasons, tanking makes sense because, out of the 60 players who will be drafted, two or three might be All-Star-level talents. Getting one of them may be the difference between a forgettable season and a season where a team can make a serious run.

The NBA differs from the NFL and MLB in that there is a draft lottery. In baseball and football, the worst team gets the first pick, period. In basketball, the worst team has the best chance to get the top pick, but there is no guarantee. So you can be the Knicks, tank the hell out of your 2018 season, and end up with RJ Barrett. Or you can be the Grizzlies and get Ja Morant and instantly turn into a playoff contender despite not having the top pick.

Are The Las Vegas Raiders About To Tank?

This week’s opponent for the Raiders is the Colts. The Colts fired head coach Frank Reich and replaced him with former center Jeff Saturday, whose only coaching experience is with a Georgia High School. There’s nobody on the Colts’ staff remaining who has called plays at the NFL level. After purging themselves of Carson Wentz’s contract over the offseason, they brought in Matt Ryan at quarterback, and that experiment failed as Ryan proved to be a shell of his former self. The Colts are in the same position they found themselves in 2010, only this time they took a far less measured approach to tanking.

Colts owner Jim Irsay is not a stupid man; he knows that he has a good team with nothing at quarterback, and with several blue-chip quarterbacks available in the upcoming draft, he is determined to get one of them. Jim Irsay also knows that as a rich football owner with a reputation for instability, he is under no obligation to make sense to anyone, even himself, and so Saturday is the coach now.

The Colts are no strangers to tanking…

The Colts are no strangers to the tank. In 2010, the year after Carolina had tanked their way into Cam Newton, Peyton Manning had neck surgery, leaving Indianapolis with a gaping hole at quarterback. They went into tank mode, hoping to draft Stanford’s generational talent, Andrew Luck. The Colts started Curtis Painter, who was woefully unprepared for a starting role, and the Colts were awful. But the Colts with Luck had the same problem they’d always had: an elite quarterback with a subpar offensive line and defense, limiting their potential.

Their inability to build around Manning meant that the most purely talented quarterback in NFL history won only a single Super Bowl and beat Rex Grossman in a monsoon to do so. And only a few years later, the Colts’ deficiencies and refusal to strengthen their line led to Luck quitting football for good. That doesn’t mean betting on luck was a bad idea. It means the Colts front office didn’t do their jobs beyond that, expecting Luck to clean up all their messes for them.

Owners can’t acknowledge tanking, publicly.

Pro leagues and ownership publicly don’t condone tanking because it reduces fan interest in the games. Who wants to pay to go to a game they know their team isn’t trying to win? It doesn’t make sense for fans to support a team that isn’t serious about winning. But the fact of the matter is this: there is no virtue in missing the playoffs if you don’t also end up with a top draft pick. That’s the kind of 7-9 Jeff Fisher BS that led the Rams to trade the moon for the top pick to take Bradford. That’s called draft purgatory, and unless you have a scouting department that can find the Drexlers of the world in the middle of the first round, you are going nowhere.

That is more or less where the Raiders have been for years, in the mid-first round with the occasional top-ten pick. That is a very hard place to get out of, unless you get lucky and get someone like Aaron Rodgers to fall into your lap late in the first. The Raiders did actually have that happen to them, and they drafted Fabian Washington.

What about the Raiders?

The Raiders are having an awful season by any metric. They have blown multiple huge leads and are winless on the road. The coaching staff has proven to be incompetent, and the fan base is angry. With the Chiefs atop the division, a prospect unlikely to change for the next decade, the time for patience and measured moves is over. This is exactly the kind of team that should tank. The San Antonio Spurs had David Robinson, and he got hurt in 1996, so they tanked and got Tim Duncan and won a bunch of titles that nobody watched because the Spurs are boring. But they did win. Nobody can look at this Raiders team and say they are not good enough to win. They are; they just keep screwing up in monumental ways that would make the Jets give them the side-eye.

A massive influx of talent, including a top-five pick, would go a long way towards bringing the Raiders back to respectability. The Raiders have needs on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker, and in the secondary. Another full offseason with a bountiful draft could do wonders to fix those issues.

The issues with the Raiders…

The problems with the Raiders’ tanking are threefold. Firstly, the team is actually not terrible like those 2010 Colts were, and they just may goof their way into a bunch of wins like the Dolphins did when they were trying to tank for Joe Burrow. They got Tua Tagovailoa instead, and while he’s no Burrow, the Dolphins are respectable again as long as they don’t murder Tua by mishandling concussions. Secondly, fans would hate it due to the fact that the Raiders already charge the highest ticket prices in the NFL. No need to worry, because visiting fans will buy the remaining tickets anyway. The third problem is Derek Carr.

Derek Carr and his ceiling… 

It may be that the Raiders have reached their ceiling with Carr, and that ceiling is a first-round road playoff loss. It’s possible that Carr goes down as the best quarterback never to win a playoff game. Can the Raiders live with that? Carr has expressed clearly that he only wants to play for the Raiders, and he’d retire before playing anywhere else. If the Raiders tried to move him, what team would give up adequate compensation, knowing that Carr might never play for them?

The best thing to do, then, is to draft Carr’s replacement now and shore up the offensive and defensive lines. To get a player better than Carr at QB, a tank is in order, with someone like CJ Stroud or Bryce Young as the target. The Raiders have two elite quarterbacks in their division, and the only way to consistently beat an elite quarterback is with another elite quarterback. If Carr was truly elite, we would not be having this discussion in Raider Nation right now.

A tank is not fun. A tank is not pretty. And a tank does not always work if the actual picks you make are not good. But if you hit on those picks, like the Bengals or the Astros, or even on the level of what the Jets have done as of late, you can become a contender overnight. Raider fans have suffered for two decades. What’s another year—one that’s already in the toilet? Save money on tickets and spend that cash restocking the liquor cabinet.

*Top Photo: Chris Unger/Getty Images

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