Why do we insist tanking is a valid strategy anyway?
When a football team falls out of the playoff race, especially one that has so many strong college football fans locally, talk quickly turns to the NFL Draft. People begin to talk about “tanking” in order to get a better pick next April, worrying that any and every win will cost the team the ability to draft a singular player who will surely turn things around all by himself.
On Sunday, the Buccaneers struck a blow against tanking and in favor of sanity in sports. They could have rolled over, started Ryan Fitzpatrick, run an uninspired game plan, and tried to out-lose a San Francisco team that may not have been all that interested in the victory.
Instead, the Buccaneers played like they still had something to play for. Dirk Koetter, likely a lame duck of a coach at this point, did not pack it in while he looks for a soft landing spot, say at the University of Maryland. Jameis Winston has some issues considerably bigger than football that he has to work through, like learning fatherhood on the fly and getting over some bad habits off the football field. He did not back down, and put together his best game of the season by a wide margin.
The undermanned, heavily-injured defense played tremendously well. San Francisco may have been more interested in losing than winning, but their offense is still full of professional football players, and Mark Duffner has gotten the best out of what’s left of the Tampa Bay defense.
Still, it is a certainty that football fans in the Tampa Bay area were conflicted about the victory. That win means they will get a slightly worse draft pick, and that’s too much for some to bear. With that in mind, consider a number of reasons that any team, especially this year’s Buccaneers, should avoid tanking at all costs.
1: Even if the Buccaneers clean house, many players on this roster aren’t going anywhere. Jameis Winston is still, for good or for ill, the most likely choice to start games under center for the Bucs in 2019. That will be up to the next coach to decide in the likelihood that Dirk Koetter gets fired after the season, but quarterbacks aren’t easy to find in the best of circumstances. While Winston under Koetter has had his ups and downs, and while it seems even in good times that Koetter’s offense invites Winston to fall into the bad habits that have limited him his entire career, a win like Sunday’s can instill confidence.
Think of a baseball pitcher. There are games where a struggling starter will come out, post a strong five innings, and not come out for the sixth. The logic being that the manager wants to pull the hurler before things go wrong, to build back some confidence in what he can do. Winston, at one time a pitcher himself, could use some confidence and a game like Sunday’s can do a lot in that regard.
2: Talking about a draft pick is premature when it’s unclear who will be making the pick. It seems more likely than not that Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter will both be dismissed at the end of this season. In short, that means that the person who will be making next year’s draft picks is currently not employed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Why would Licht and Koetter sign off on a strategy that would not include them? What kind of message would it send to Winston and other Buccaneers who will be around in 2019?
The person making a draft pick is more important than the person being drafted. Smart teams with smart front offices seem to find talent wherever they draft. Regressive teams can fall flat on their face in any draft slot. Debating draft picks before the Buccaneers settle on a front office in 2019 is a bit like picking out groceries before one selects a chef to cook them.
3: Good people paid good money for seats at Raymond James Stadium. No, the pirate ship off Dale Mabry was not full, but it was also far from empty. NFL tickets are not cheap, even in the best of circumstances. Picture the person who paid full fare for the ticket before the season, with high hopes of it being a meaningful game to cap off Thanksgiving weekend. The bare minimum the Buccaneers could do for that person and the thousands like them is try.
4: If there is a difference between “tanking” and throwing games, it comes down to semantics. If a team is said to have intentionally lost a game for any reason besides draft slotting, it becomes front page news. The 1919 Chicago White Sox threw games and several movies have illustrated just how that was handled. A match-fixing scandal in soccer was an international issue for years. Point-shaving incidents in basketball have involved gangsters as notable as the ones on which the characters in Goodfellas were based.
What is the difference between losing a game for draft picks and losing one because a gambler put you up to it? It seems largely theoretical and semantic. In a game between two teams going nowhere, like San Francisco and Tampa Bay, it might not much matter, but often “tanking” teams play games against playoff contenders for whom every game counts. Those teams that get to play tanking organizations are at a clear advantage over a playoff hopeful playing other contenders down the stretch.
In other words, tanking to the degree that it is real (and importantly, it really can’t be proven until machines are built that can read a person’s mind) undermines the competitive balance of a league where competitive balance is a major selling point.
5: Franchise saviors do not exist. Much of a fanbase’s hopes in the NFL Draft revolve around a rookie playing so well right off the bat that a team is immediately vaulted from the outhouse to the penthouse. Bucs fans know this well, as it was the expectation for Jameis Winston in his rookie season and for some it remains the expectation for Winston to this day.
The fact is that teams, and only teams, win football games. A good player on a bad team is simply that. There is no talent so transcendent that they will make a bad scheme work, or improve the quality of play from subpar players on their unit. In fact, it could be that putting players in a position where they are expected to do that leads to players becoming “busts,” the dreaded picks that never live up to their potential.
This brings me to another point.
6: The Draft Chart is 100% theoretical and not even remotely close to a guarantee. If you’re a draftnik, you are undoubtedly familiar with this chart. Every pick is perceived to not just have value, but a specific value. This is a practice based in history, statistics, and a lot of research.
What it is not, and what it will never be, is a guarantee of value.
When arguments against tanking come up, fans often point to this chart and bemoan the dropoff from the 5th pick to the 10th. Five hundred whole points! That’s a lot, presumably!
The problem is that draft charts exist in a vacuum, and football is famously not played in outer space. Charts take no note of what positions need to be filled, and those needs can change the game considerably. If a team doesn’t need a quarterback, or star defensive end, they likely do not need a top five pick to find the guy that will help their team the most. Certain positions are not generally taken that high outside of extreme circumstances.
For example, Tampa Bay will undoubtedly look for help in the secondary. Falling a couple of draft slots because of a win here or there will not take them out of the running for a strong defensive back that can help stabilize the defensive backfield.
7: Regardless of where they pick, the Buccaneers will have choices. While the secondary is the weakest aspect of Buccaneers football this season, Tampa Bay did not end up there because there was no good defensive back available to them.
On draft day, the Buccaneers faced a dilemma: They could pick Vita Vea, helping build up a defensive line that was the weakest in the league in 2018, or they could have drafted FSU star Derwin James to help out in the undermanned secondary. Jason Licht and company selected Vea.
Now making a decision on whether that was a good or bad call is years premature. James has been an excellent rookie in San Diego, taking advantage of an aggressive defense to produce an eye-popping five sacks as a safety. Vea spent the early season hurt, and is just now starting to round into form. However, that form was critical on Sunday, as the big man was all over the 49ers in the Buccaneers’ win.
Still, the point remains that every draft pick comes with opportunity cost. Tanking does not change that in the slightest.
8: Not all drafts are created equal. The concept of tanking makes the most sense when a team has a major hole to fill and a player or group of players in the coming draft is seen as particularly special. When the Indianapolis Colts bottomed out and selected Andrew Luck, they knew the signal-caller they were taking would lead them for years to come. Yet there have been some really thin drafts in NFL history.
The most famous Buccaneers’ draft day mistake was, of course, 1986. The team selected Bo Jackson against his wishes and the running back turned them down. Look up the 86 Draft, however, and you’ll find that Bo Jackson was just about the only player worth selecting in it.
In 1998, Hall of Fame locks Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson were selected with top five picks. The only other player in that top five that you’ve heard of is Ryan Leaf, and you heard about him for all the wrong reasons.
This year, the draft seems a bit thin in star skill position players, but of course the Buccaneers aren’t likely to be looking for a top ten draftee quarterback this offseason. Still, would dropping a slot or two really hurt this team with many holes in a draft that seems destined to give the NFL more “grinder” type players than anything else?
9: Locally, fans demand that the teams care about their communities, and losing on purpose doesn’t exactly scream #TeamTampaBay. The biggest sports figure in Tampa Bay right now is Jeffrey Vinik, the owner of the Lightning. That the Bolts are among the best teams in hockey is no small part of this of course, but Tampa Bay’s fanbase is unique in that they expect teams to care about where they play.
In the Buccaneers’ great run in the 90s and early 2000s, community leadership was valued. Warrick Dunn set an example. Tony Dungy built on it by challenging his players to do as much as possible. Derrick Brooks, John Lynch, Mike Alstott, these names aren’t just big for what they did on the field.
Sometimes simply trying to win is community support. Bucs fans have been down for a while now, and while the future cannot be ignored it would not be a stretch to say patience is running thin. Some focus this ire on the players, others focus on the front office, but since this is Tampa Bay many are pointing their accusatory finger at the Glazer Brothers.
- There is nothing in sports as hard to watch as football at anything less than full speed. The Pro Bowl, the NFL’s all-star contest, is notorious for not producing the kind of ratings that NFL events are used to. People dislike the game because it doesn’t really feel like NFL football. Players are more concerned with avoiding injury in that game, and there’s little at stake.
Much the way that teams that may be “tanking” still charge money for tickets, NFL teams that tank are also broadcast on television. Watching a team that isn’t concerned with winning can be torturous.
If nothing else, Dirk Koetter, Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers stood up against tanking on Sunday afternoon. For the short term, they made a choice that gave them a win in front of their home crowd. For the long term, they might have shown the Buccaneers’ next coach the blueprint for how to design an offense for Jameis Winston. Vita Vea looked like a beast. Carl Nassib continues to put in work like every game means the world.
There might be nothing else to it. With San Francisco already on to next season, the result might be more about them than the Buccaneers. Still, Tampa Bay was faced with a choice where they could have chosen to only show up in body but not in spirit. They opted for something better on Sunday. The thousands who spent good money and a lot of time attending the game, I’m sure, appreciate the effort.