The first NBA-style “trust the process” tank job isn’t going unnoticed.
“It’s unethical and morally reprehensible as far as I’m concerned,” former NFL Players Association president Domonique Foxworth recently said on ESPN, via the Miami Herald.
“We understand how dangerous football is as a game. Putting guys out there in this type of danger is a problem. You can put that aside. As an employer you have an obligation to provide as safe a working environment as you can and also provide people an opportunity to succeed. These young men have committed their lives to getting to the NFL.
“The expectation is once you get to the NFL, the team will do the very best they can do to make sure you succeed. They are not doing this there and that’s not fair. These guys are physically paying the price. These guys are putting bad film on tape because they’re not trying to win and it’s going to shorten their careers.
“You know who’s going to benefit from them? The owner, General Manager, and maybe the potential future coach. These guys aren’t going to benefit from it. These guys are going to be out of the league having their careers ruined by a selfish team like the Dolphins.”
That may be a bit extreme, but Foxworth has a point — if it’s true that the Dolphins are deliberately taking their lumps this year by trading away assets and not trying to win as many games as possible in 2019, but hoping that today’s losses will lay the foundation for tomorrow’s win, the players on the field aren’t getting the benefit of the protection that is inherent to having the most competent teammates possible around them.
Owner Stephen Ross essentially has admitted to a big-picture tank job in multiple private conversations, without ever expressly calling it that. Publicly, he recently came extremely close to flat-out confessing.
“The goal isn’t to try to patch some holes to go 9-7 and make the playoffs,” Ross recently said, not in off-the-cuff extemporaneous remarks but in a typed email to David Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I want to compete for and win Super Bowls. We took an objective look at our situation at the end of last year and realized that we were a long way away from where we need to be. Our roster, salary-cap situation, everything. We’ve won 72 games in 10 years and that’s just not good enough. I take responsibility for that, and as I said back in March, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. The moves that have been made were all made in the best interest in trying to build a championship organization.”
In other words, the Dolphins decided not to try to slap together a team that would potentially make it to the fringes of playoff contention and possibly steal a wild-card spot. The Dolphins decided instead to take one (or more) steps back in the hopes of at some point becoming the franchise in their own division that the Dolphins have chased in futility every year since 2002, with the sole exception of 2008.
Basically, the Dolphins have opted to pursue a strategy of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em . . . and the only way to join ’em is to quit trying to beat ’em.”
So, as many have asked in recent days, will the NFL do anything about it? The answer is simple: Definitely not. The NFL knows that a real temptation to tank exists in the NFL, especially in December after teams are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention and management decides to “evaluate” young players and other backups, in the unspoken hopes of landing a higher spot in the draft order. But the NFL can’t and won’t acknowledge that tanking is even a possibility, because once that cat’s out of the bag, the integrity of games becomes irrevocably undermined.
Why do you think the NFL doesn’t have a draft lottery? It would become another major offseason tentpole event, driving intense interest and generating plenty of money. The league could hold it in a public place in one of the cities that is vying for the first overall pick, and the NFL could turn the whole thing into a spectacle on par with the Ultimate Reality Show About Nothing that is the draft. It quickly would become a huge deal, commanding attention throughout the sports world and beyond.
It also would throw a floodlight on the temptation to tank, especially if the lottery were weighted to give the worst teams the best chance at securing the first overall pick. And the NFL does not want to admit, expressly or implicitly, that this temptation exists.
So even if the Dolphins aren’t following the first rule of Tank Club (i.e., don’t talk about Tank Club), the NFL stubbornly will continue to honor it, which actually makes it even easier for teams that are committed to tanking. Because the last thing those teams have to worry about is getting in trouble with the league office.