As the NBA draft approaches, the word that repeatedly comes into play for the teams at the top of the draft is "tanking." NBA organizations with little hope of competing for a playoff spot (let alone a championship) have made an art form of paring their rosters in an attempt to amass draft picks and shots at true franchise-changing players over the past few years, with the Philadelphia 76ers serving as the highest-profile culprits. Baseball teams like the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have bottomed out before rebuilding, with the latter organization riding its tank all the way to a World Series.
It's not a surprise, then, that the Cleveland Browns hired a quantitatively inclined executive away from another sport -- former Dodgers general manager and "Moneyball" character Paul DePodesta -- and subsequently followed the blueprint of how an NFL team might tank to a T. Along the way, they emulated the philosophies exhibited by some of the best organizations in football past and present, but the Browns still incurred some criticism after an ugly 1-15 campaign in 2016. They still seem closer to the Sixers than they do the Astros or Cubs, albeit after only one season of calculated losses.
If the Browns succeed with their gambit, more teams will try to emulate their path to competency. Should they? It's a question worth exploring. Tanking in professional football isn't entirely different than it is in baseball or basketball, but it's not the same, and it's problematic enough that I doubt it's ever widespread.
Let's consider those arguments and try to figure out whether giving up and aiming for the first overall draft pick is a coherent strategy in the NFL.
Advantages of tanking in the NFL
There's no lottery. Teams that tank in the NBA and NHL don't always see a top pick as a return for their efforts. The Sixers have spent the last four years tanking but only earned one first overall pick through the lottery, Ben Simmons, who missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury. They just traded for a second consecutive first overall pick this weekend. Teams like the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes tanked in 2015 in the hopes of grabbing star forward prospect Connor McDavid, but the Edmonton Oilers leaped them both in the NHL lottery. (The Sabres at least ended up with Jack Eichel.)
NFL organizations don't have to worry about some pretender beating them to a spot at the top of the draft, if only because there's isn't a lottery. If a team is terrible, it will be rewarded for a miserable season with one of the best selections available. The NFL had a lottery that gave a randomly selected team the top pick in the drafts held between 1947 and 1957, but that was a draft in an entirely different universe. (Consider that two of the first overall selections from that time frame lasted one season in the league.)
If a team finds a superstar, he's probably the team's for life. The franchise tag, high attrition rate, and partially guaranteed contracts make it far easier for NFL teams to hold on to their superstars than is the case for NBA teams with their studs. The vast majority of successful NFL veteran quarterbacks have spent their entire careers with one team, with cases like Carson Palmer and Drew Brees as the exceptions. The same is true for most of the league's star pass-rushers. The steady rise of the salary cap after the new collective bargaining agreement has made it easy for teams to hold on to the players they want.
If you hit on a star player at the top of the draft after tanking, he would likely spend the entirety of his 10-year career with your team. While the NBA has tried to create incentives for players to stay with their teams -- most notably allowing teams to go over the salary cap to retain players with their Bird rights -- star players change teams far more frequently in NBA free agency. When was the last time an NFL player as good as LeBron James or Kevin Durant left town?
High draft picks have more trade value in the NFL than they do in the NBA. The NFL draft's value curve is flatter than the curve Kevin Pelton estimated for the NBA, although the difference isn't quite as stark as it was before the new CBA, when Richard Thaler and Cade Massey's landmark study found second-round picks to be the most valuable selections in the draft. There are also nearly four times as many picks in the seven rounds of the NFL draft as there are in the two lone rounds of the NBA's selection process.
As a result, there's far more of a trade market for picks during the NFL draft than there is during the NBA draft. Trading down is more likely to deliver useful selections in the NFL than it is in the NBA, given the frequency with which NFL picks after the first round make an impact in contrast to those same selections in the NBA. Tanking for a high pick creates the best path to a great player or an opportunity to trade for a bevy of selections. The Tennessee Titans weren't tanking in 2015, but after an ugly season, they were able to trade the first overall pick to the Los Angeles Rams as part of a series of deals that eventually delivered them two top-10 picks.
Disadvantages of tanking in the NFL
It's harder to turn an NFL team around with one player. Even committed NBA teams don't want to tank for multiple seasons. The ideal tank job would be that of the San Antonio Spurs, who were great for a decade before losing David Robinson for most of the 1996-97 season with back and foot injuries. San Antonio went 20-62 and ended up with the first overall pick, which it used on Tim Duncan. The Spurs won the first of their five NBA titles two years later and haven't had a losing season since.
The closest comparison to those Spurs would be the Indianapolis Colts, who were great for years with Peyton Manning before the future Hall of Famer went down with a neck injury. Indy went 2-14 in 2011 and earned the first overall pick, which they used on Andrew Luck. Luck and the few veterans remaining on the Colts' roster were enough to push Indianapolis to three consecutive 11-5 seasons, but even Luck hasn't been able to compensate for years of subpar drafting and decision-making in free agency.
NBA teams need two or three stars to compete at the highest level, but with elite players worth as many as 20 wins on their own, a moribund team can make a massive step toward turning things around by adding one great player, regardless of position. That isn't always possible in football, where teams can only really pull off that sort of massive improvement by adding a quarterback. If a surefire passer were available at the top of the draft every year, tanking would be more logical, but that's hardly the case.
It's more difficult to scout and develop lone NFL players worth tanking for. While there are players who fail to live up to their promise at the top of both the NBA and NFL drafts, I suspect observers who pay close attention to both sports would agree that football is the tougher of the two to scout. The differences between college and professional schemes are often more dramatic in football than they are in basketball. There are far more interaction effects to account for in an 11-on-11 game than there are in a 5-on-5 contest. There are also fewer college football games to draw from in evaluating a typical player than there are in college hoops, although top basketball prospects often leave school earlier than their NFL counterparts.
As a result, there is (or should be) more uncertainty about the value of tanking in the NFL because it's harder to gauge whether the player for whom a team is tanking is actually going to be a useful pro.
The 16-game season makes it harder to tank than an 82-game campaign. It's a simple rule: the smaller the sample, the larger the variance. A truly great team will have a much better shot at standing out over a longer schedule because it has more chances to press its advantage and prove its strength. There will be short stretches in which dominant teams play poorly -- the 103-58 World Series-winning Cubs of 2016 had a 5-15 stretch -- but it's easier for good teams to stand out over longer stretches of time.
The goal with tanking is to be bad on purpose; so bad, in fact, that a team ensures it ends up with the worst possible record and the best odds of nabbing the top overall pick in the draft. Just as it's easier for a mediocre team to look good over a 16-game season, the same is true for a decent team to struggle and look terrible in a small sample, a scenario that might get in the way of all that tanking for a truly bad team.
Consider a quick Monte Carlo simulation with two teams. We know that Team A, over an infinite number of games, will win 25 percent of the time, equivalent to a 4-12 team in the NFL. Team B, meanwhile, will win 50 percent of the time, akin to an 8-8 squad.
If we sim 1,000 16-game seasons with each of those teams and use a random number weighted by those probabilities to determine a winner, the variance is huge. In 100 of the seasons, about 10 percent of the time, even though we know Team B is twice as good in reality as Team A, Team B's record will be identical to or worse than Team A's. If we do the same study over an 82-game season, however, there's no comparison. One out of every 1,000 seasons -- 0.1 percent -- result in the average team matching or underperforming the mediocre one.
The point is that teams have less control over the results of their tanking attempt across a 16-game season than they do over an 82-game campaign. Other teams that aren't trying to tank might still piece together a disastrous season. Even worse, a team might try to tank and accidentally piece together a mediocre-to-competent season with a subpar team -- the worst possible outcome of a tanking attempt.
How to tank
Move on from unnecessary veterans but try to retain enough of an infrastructure to evaluate the young talent on the roster. Tanking teams have no need for luxury. They don't need shutdown cornerbacks, flashy wide receivers or running backs who keep opposing defensive coordinators awake at night. If anything, bleary-eyed defensive coordinators should be thanking tanking teams for giving them hours of blessed sleep during a long season.
At the same time, though, it's naive and short-sighted for organizations to dump all of their talent in a way that makes it impossible to evaluate players at key positions. It's easy for even a talented quarterback prospect to develop bad pass rush-related habits if he doesn't have a competent offensive line protecting him. It's no surprise that teams like the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns have rebuilt their respective rosters while investing heavily along their front five, although Cleveland did make the misstep of allowing Mitchell Schwartz to leave for Kansas City in free agency last offseason.
Acquire additional draft picks by trading down and amassing compensatory selections. As tempting as it can be for subpar teams to move up to grab a player they feel extremely confident about, we know those trades have a pretty low batting average. Teams like the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots have rebuilt and repeatedly restocked their rosters by trading down. Those are good organizations from which to steal ideas.
Likewise, losing organizations should generally avoid the temptation of free agency given how far they are from contention. If they do have veteran free agents whom other teams will want to steal, they're probably better off recouping compensatory picks and targeting players released by other teams (or waiting until the compensatory formula freezes in the spring). If they don't have many veterans likely to attract serious free-agent attention, teams should be more aggressive in free agency. It's no surprise the Browns mostly stayed out of free agency after the 2015 season before investing more heavily this spring.
Take a shot (or don't) on a quarterback. Rebuilds hinge on identifying and acquiring a franchise passer, a move which may not (and perhaps should not) be the first decision a team makes. It doesn't do a team going nowhere much good to go after a decent quarterback like Jay Cutler, given Cutler won't be enough to push it toward the two poles at the top and bottom of the standings that NFL teams want to target.
Instead, bottoming-out teams should think about their quarterback situation differently. They can look for a veteran who they can pretend will develop the hopeless quarterback prospects on the back of their roster, as the Jets have done with Josh McCown. Smarter teams will target options with higher ceilings and lower floors, as the Browns did with Robert Griffin III last year. RG III didn't work out, as he was alternately injured and ineffective, but the Browns ended up with the first overall pick in part as a result.
Teams that could tank
New York Jets: Despite what Matt Forte recently suggested, the Jets are pretty clearly at the beginning of a lengthy rebuild and have little intention of competing during the 2017 season. Years after the missing draft picks from the Mike Tannenbaum era and absent the selections from the frustrating reign of John Idzik, the Jets are bereft of young talent and several seasons away from contending.
Idzik's one contribution was clearing out the Jets' cap for replacement Mike Maccagnan, and while Maccagnan spent heavily to build a 10-6 team in 2015, the house of cards collapsed last season. Instead of doubling down, the Jets were right to rebuild. They cut a handful of their veterans and added to the bunch by releasing Eric Decker and David Harris this spring.
At this point, the Jets should basically be tanking and amassing as much young talent as possible in the hopes of building a deeper roster and finding contributors. To his credit, Maccagnan traded down or for a superior future pick five times during this year's draft, a sign that the game is changing in New York. The Jets are going to be bad this season, but if USC quarterback Sam Darnold is as good as expected -- and the Jets are as bad as their roster looks on paper -- they should be able to acquire a franchise asset as early as next year.
Cleveland Browns: The worst of the tanking for the Browns should be over. Their roster looks far better than it did a year ago, with a viable offensive line and a front seven that might be good as early as this year if first overall pick Myles Garrett stays healthy. They're still in need of a quarterback, but Cody Kessler was relatively competent as a rookie and might be a high-level backup, while second-rounder DeShone Kizer could eventually emerge.
If everything fails, the Browns will again be in the running for the first overall pick. They have two first-round picks, three second-round picks and two fourth-round picks in the 2018 draft. Their rebuild may not work if they never find the quarterback, but Cleveland is in shockingly good shape compared to where it was two years ago.
San Francisco 49ers: Former general manager Trent Baalke was fond of acquiring extra picks and planning for the future by drafting players who fell in the draft for injury-related reasons, but too many of his selections failed to pan out. Now, with John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan around for the long haul, the 49ers have to approach 2017 like an experimental season. If prior reports that it takes a full year for Shanahan's offense to take off are accurate, the 49ers can't really expect to compete this season, anyway.
San Francisco has extra second- and third-round picks in the 2018 draft and a defensive line full of first-round picks. If the 49ers can nab Kirk Cousins next offseason, they'll be well on the way to recovery. If Cousins signs an extension in Washington, tanking would leave the Niners with the best shot at adding a quarterback like Darnold.
There are other teams that might want to consider tanking if they get off to a slow start during the 2017 season. The Buffalo Bills can get out of Tyrod Taylor's contract after this season and might not have the talent required to seriously compete with the Patriots or even the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East anytime soon. The Arizona Cardinals were hit by a massive exodus of talent on defense this offseason and are propped up by veterans like Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald on offense; if they age quicker than expected, Arizona might be in line for a short-term rebuild.
Should teams tank?
There's another concern with football that seems worth mentioning, and it's moral. The incredibly high attrition and injury rates of football, relative to other sports, raise reasonable concerns about whether teams should be willing to field a deliberately uncompetitive roster. It's one thing for a baseball team to throw a bunch of replacement-level pitchers onto the mound when the only people in line to get hurt are the beer vendors in the bleachers with their backs to line drives; it's another to run a quarterback out behind an unqualified offensive line. On the flip side, I suspect that the replacement-level players who might get an opportunity for meaningful reps from a tanking team would be delighted to get their NFL shot.
My suspicion is that tanking, as a general philosophy in football, isn't a great idea. The number of truly transformative players in the NFL is so few -- and the single-season variance is sufficiently high -- for it to be a low-reward philosophy. The exception would be in a year in which there's at least one and preferably two or more true franchise quarterbacks available in the draft, but those opportunities are few and far between. While teams like the pre-Reggie McKenzie Raiders might bottom out after years of bad draft picks and useless free-agent spending, deliberate tanking seems ill-advised.
At the same time, some of the methodologies that come with tanking could be considered savvy practices for teams trying to be competitive, too. Trading down for additional picks and grabbing compensatory selections while mostly avoiding free agency is exactly what the league's smartest teams do, even after they've become perennial playoff contenders.
Tanking as a philosophy exists because the upside is obvious: Teams need superstars to compete, and the best way for teams like the 76ers, Astros and Cubs to acquire those stars was via the draft. It's not a foolproof philosophy, but the traditional method is hardly foolproof and less likely to deliver stars in the process. In that sense, NFL organizations bucking the norm and trying something out of the box to achieve long-term success would be doing the right thing. Being realistic about your roster and its path to contention isn't as engaging of a term as tanking, but it's a better descriptor of how teams like the Browns and Jets might rebuild their way to the playoffs.