The New York Jets are tanking -- at least that's how the story goes. By cutting Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall and, most recently, Eric Decker, then signing Josh McCown to be their quarterback, the Jets are thought to be giving up on their 2017 season, hoping for a record that's bad enough to get in the sweepstakes for the No. 1 pick in a thoroughly unimpressive 2018 draft class. (Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen is the top prospect -- hardly a "suck for Luck" sweepstakes.)
And while the Jets front office may be looking ahead, clearly showing no intention of mounting a long-shot Super Bowl campaign or even a run to the playoffs, tanking is the wrong word for the situation. The NBA this isn't. NFL teams can't tank. They can only try to.
Maybe the Jets will indeed go 2-14 and draft the quarterback they want to build around. But if it happens it'll be because the team is too terrible to win games, not because it's trying to lose them. Perhaps those concepts are interchangeable, but it's an important distinction.
NFL general managers and owners can only do so much self-sabotage in football. Tanking is impossible in the NFL. Here's why:
There are 53 players and 23 coaches trying their best to win games
The're a simple reason NBA teams can tank: Rosters are small enough to affect with one or two personnel moves, and doing so creates a culture of ineptitude and apathy.
Manipulating a roster is easier when there are five starters and maybe four guys coming off the bench to play meaningful minutes. Dump salary, get some young talent, watch them figure themselves out like Bambis on ice and, boom, 13-win year. Players will still give a reasonable effort because it's their livelihood, but with guaranteed contracts and the tacit acknowlegement from management that this season is merely a stepping stone, they buy into the tank, too.
In football, you have 45 players dressed for every game and, with the exception of four or five recent draft picks, none has any job security beyond Week 1, let alone for 2018. Look how quickly Darrelle Revis went from one of the most coveted players in the league to an albatross. Now imagine how quickly it can all end for a third-year nickel corner fighting for playing time.
Without any guaranteed contracts in the NFL, every game is a job interview for a position that has a shelf-life of a few years. The 76ers can stash players on the injury/inactive list and they'll accept it knowing they're preparing for the future. With the exception of an established quarterback, maybe, no player on a bad NFL team would play along with such shenanigans. There's no NFL Ben Simmons.
The same goes for coaches. Todd Bowles is in Year 3 in New York. He was almost fired after Year 2. He's going to take a dive?
NBA front offices can work around this by making the roster so bad that effort and care won't be enough to save a record. NFL teams can't play puppet master like that.
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There's too much variance in 16-game seasons
In a stat-obsessed world, it's still amazing how beholden to NFL win totals we are. The sample size is so small and games hinge on so little that it's remarkably easy for a mediocre team to post a great record, a good team to post a bad record and a horrible team to somehow go 7-9 with an upset of the Patriots. The Raiders and Broncos went 12-4 and 9-7 respectively. One had a great season and the other was a disappointment. No one cares that the teams were basically equal.
So there may be a perception that the Jets are a bad team, their record may or may not cooperate. Play the season 1,000 times (or have an 82-game season, like the NBA) and teams would eventually settle into their proper position. It's the law of averages. Outliers come back to the norm. In a 16-game season you can't rely on the law of averages.
Youth doesn't equal ineptitude
One point keeps coming up in discussion about the Jets' tanking: The team only has four players over 30, and two are the main skill-position players (QB Josh McCown, 37 and RB Matt Forte, 32). It sounds damning, right? They're all young! No veterans! Et cetera! And then you look at the construction of other teams.
The Cowboys, a team with Super Bowl aspirations, have five players older than 30. The Redskins have six. The Patriots, who always seemingly have a roster that could be collecting social security, only have eight.
Remember, those Cowboys lost Tony Romo last year, replaced him with a rookie fourth-round pick and posted the best record in franchise history. "Players over 30" is about as reliable a metric as QBR.
NFL teams (most non-NBA teams, really) have proven impervious to tanking
It happens every single season. Teams win games in December that they'd (in theory) be better off losing. It's New Year's Day, your team is 4-11, and the difference between a win and a loss might be six spots in the draft. But, for the reasons mentioned above, players pay no heed. That's for the fans and talk shows. Players, especially NFL players, are independent contractors. They play to win the game. (Hello?)
It's proven time and again in all sports. One of the most remarkable anti-tank jobs was back in 2009 when, heading into the final three-game series of the year, the Seattle Mariners held a 1.5-game "lead" over the Washington Nationals for the No. 1 pick and the right to draft Stephen Strasburg. Surely they'd drop the games on purpose to get the best pitching prospect of the millennium. Yet the Mariners swept, the Nationals got swept and Washington went on to become the winningest regular-season team of the past half-decade. Players want to win. Delayed gratification is for owners and fans.
Except in the rarest cases, the draft is a complete crapshoot
What's the point of intentionally losing and alienating a fanbase all to take a wild stab at a player who might have a 25 percent chance of becoming an All-Pro?
If there's a Peyton Manning in the draft then, yeah, maybe tweaking the roster a bit in December to help coax a late-season loss is a reasonable idea. (It might not work, but it's worth a shot.) But there's been, maybe, one sure thing at No. 1 this decade, and even Andrew Luck has had his struggles.
Teams need a combo of smarts and good fortune and maybe not in that order. The Texans made a great pick in J.J. Watt, but it took 10 franchises passing on him in order to happen. If the Titans had gone with Watt instead of Jake Locker, maybe the Texans end up with Nick Fairley and are on the bottom of the AFC South instead of near the top. There's a thin line between luck and genius.
This is especially true in the NFL. The amount of NBA stars picked in the second round is minuscule. The amount of NFL stars who were taken outside the first round probably outnumber those taken in the first 32 picks. At least NBA tanking ensures more ping-pong balls. NFL tanking, if it were even possible, accomplishes nothing except maybe giving a team more opportunities at busts.
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The Jets (and other bad teams) need no assistance in being horrible
It might make everybody in Cleveland feel better to say that last year's 1-15 season was the result of tanking, but how does that explain the previous 25 years?
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