The Art of the Tank is a truly interesting thing to witness. In the modern sporting world, the practice of tanking – losing intentionally for better draft assets – has become more and more popular. However, is it really worth it in the end? Or is there a less painful way to get a struggling franchise back on track? Luckily, we have some real-life examples to study in order to see if this is the case.
The 2020 Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville was bad, really bad, there’s no denying that, but there was some pretty obvious self-sabotage going on within the organization. Before the season began, the Jaguars were projected to be the worst team in the NFL after a tumultuous offseason that saw them rid most of their 2017 AFC championship squad from the team. They were clearing house, which was the right thing to do, but many thought they were going too far. For example, cutting starting RB Leonard Fournette seemed to be the move that signified that the Jaguars were prepared to be an afterthought in the upcoming season in order to get Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence in the draft. Surprisingly, the Jaguars won their opener, however, they would go winless in their next 6 contests. This was all in spite of QB Gardener Minshew, who was one of the team’s only redeeming qualities. Worrying that Minshew could spur the team to a win, Minshew was benched for rookie Jake Luton. After Luton then looked strangely competent, he was then benched for underwhelming veteran Mike Glennon. The Jags would go on to finish the season 1-15. However, that record is more nuanced than it seems. The Jaguars had multiple close contests throughout the season, including an overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings. If any of those games swung the other way, The Jags could’ve been left watching their new signal-caller going to another team. They were doing all they could to tank, but sometimes lady luck can intervene. This is what makes tanking potentially not worth the risk. Luck also interfered, when the 0-13 NY Jets suddenly won 2 straight games in December, putting them behind Jacksonville in the draft order. The Jags may have gotten what they wanted after drafting Lawrence in April, but they very easily could’ve been on the outside looking in. The Jags needed multiple things to go their way, and if any one of them went awry, all of their setups would be for naught. Tanking operates on a high-risk-high reward system, and while the Jags may have gotten the reward, it was far from guaranteed.
Obviously, the most notable example of tanking in North American sports is the infamous run by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers between 2013 and 2016. The Sixers were really a pioneer for the tank, setting out a pretty perfect blueprint. They would regularly start terrible lineups, with some of the league’s worst talent all in order to improve their odds in the league’s draft lottery. This included a record losing streak of 27 games split between the 2014-15 and 15-16 seasons. As a result they picked within the top 5 multiple times during this stretch. Now, the Sixers are a regular championship contender, so this sounds like another win for Tanking right? Well….not exactly. The Sixers had luck on their side when it came to the lottery actually, landing within the top 3 three separate times between 2013-17, but their luck with picking the right players is what backstabbed them. In 2014, they selected Kansas center Joel Embiid, who has become a superstar, and an MVP candidate. Looking at the players selected around him, that was definitely the right pick, but it’s the later decisions that are looked at questionably. 2016 1st overall pick Ben Simmons has had his moments with the team but has consistently failed to show up when it matters most, leading to his probable departure from the team this offseason. they then compounded this, by selecting Markelle Fultz, with their 2nd consecutive 1st overall selection in 2017. Fultz developed severe confidence issues, as well as a crippling shoulder injury once arriving in Philly, which would lead to him getting dealt to the Orlando Magic not even 2 years later. This once again shows the luck aspect that makes Tanking so risky. The Sixers may have gotten the luck necessary from the lottery, but they would end up making the wrong selections with those picks. A potential golden opportunity at a championship was once again ruined by luck. Luck is the main antithesis of a tanking strategy, and it’s what makes it not worth the risk in most cases. It can destroy team morale and ruin the public image of the team, so a tanking team is facing severe consequences if the wheel of fate doesn’t spin their way. But is there a better option? Can a team avoid tanking and still rebuild a struggling team into a contender? Yes, yes it is.
The 2019 Miami Dolphins
2019’s Miami Dolphins may be the perfect example of why tanking may not be worth it in the end. The Dolphins followed a very similar process to the subsequent year’s Jaguars at first. Trading away franchise LT Laremy Tunsil, along with former 1st round safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, as well as leaving their roster in a fairly poor state. Their actions seemed to be successful at first, getting outscored 163-26 through their 1st 4 games. However, this would mark a turning point for this Miami squad. They seemed to take a new outlook on the season, mostly driven by the intense culture established by new HC Brian Flores. Incumbent starting QB Josh Rosen was benched for seasoned veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and the team began making strides. They would have multiple much closer games, leading up to their 1st win against the NY Jets. The team had obviously made some kind of turnaround, as they finished 5-4 after an 0-7 start. The following offseason they signed multiple key free agents and drafted multiple impact players, leading to a 10-6 record in 2020, just barely missing the playoffs. While there’s no way to officially prove it, you have to guess that the team fighting in the back half of the season made them a more appealing destination. They were able to rebuild through culture, dedication, and fight. They didn’t need to lose on purpose in order to get back to relevance, most importantly, they retained their integrity, and chose not to rely on luck in order to rebuild their team. They dealt with the hand they were given and were rewarded for their efforts, allowing them to return to prominence much faster than a team like the Sixers.
So in the end, is tanking worth it? Well…yes and no. While it is undeniable that tanking does offer a higher potential chance at generational prospects that can change a team, the other potential effects make the decision harder. Decreased morale, the ever-present element of luck-whether involving losses or draft selections-and, a ruined team image, can easily be more too much damage for a generational prospect to wash away. On the other hand, you can always build more slowly while maintaining integrity, however, you sacrifice a potential chance at those higher-end prospects. It really is a double-edged sword, so it’s hard to come up with a clear answer. However, in reference, I’d have to say that tanking is not the way to go, due to the heavily aforementioned luck aspect that goes into it. It’s just too unpredictable and the act of tanking itself can hurt a team’s culture immensely. Tanking will always have its place in sports, as many front offices believe that it’s a worthy way to improve a franchise, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better opportunity hidden right under their noses.