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Examining the state of tanking in the NFL

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets recent decision to release wide receiver Eric Decker has shined light on a practice that by some is looked down upon, but one that, if done well, can alter the path of a team for years to come.

The New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers are two extremely bad football teams. But neither have done themselves any favors by dumping off their top players through cuts, or letting them walk away in free agency. The 49ers have lost quarterback Colin Kaepernick as well as linebacker Gerald Hodges this offseason, and the Jets no longer have wide receiver Brandon Marshall, Decker or safety Calvin Pryor on the roster. These have been management decisions that many in the NFL world would regard as tanking.

Tanking is the process of teams purposely playing poorly or rostering a bad team in order to improve their draft position. It is something that has become somewhat commonplace in the NBA as teams try to improve their chances of winning the lottery and getting the best possible pick.

It’s even simpler in the NFL, as the worst record will have the best pick. No NFL general manager has to endure nightmares involving ping pong balls.

In the NBA Draft, the early first round picks typically have immediate impacts on their team, as many of them will be starters. In the NFL, this is largely the case too, teams expect their first round pick to be able to influence the team positively in their first year.

The ability to get a franchise changing talent is tantalizing, and it’s the biggest reason why tanking has become prominent in the NFL. Making the right pick in the first round leads to increased ticket sales, improved jersey sales, and most importantly, more wins.

Just look at the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. After falling to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round in 2014, the Cowboys suffered a huge blow when Tony Romo went down with an injury in 2015. The Cowboys, however, made no attempt to trade for help at quarterback. Instead, they were content to tank for the best possible pick they could get.

The Cowboys wound up with the fourth overall pick, and selected Ezekiel Elliott, a running back out of Ohio State. You’ve probably heard of him. All Elliott did in his rookie season was lead the NFL in rushing by over 300 yards.

While Elliott was the biggest result of tanking, the Cowboys also selected a quarterback from Mississippi State in the fourth round named Dak Prescott. Again, you might have heard of him.

The Cowboys proved with Elliott the positive effect that tanking can have, and with Prescott, the Cowboys showed how important drafting well truly is. Their success is what has lured the Jets and 49ers into taking their chosen path.

The Cowboys however are an anomaly. Their is one reason that both the 49ers and Jets are tanking. It is the same reason that all teams that tank should make the decision to do so. That reason is just one simple word: quarterback.

More than any other position, the quarterback can change the course of a franchise. Make the right pick, and your team could be a playoff contender for the next decade.

For reference, here is a list of the quarterback on the Jets roster: Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. Here is a list of the quarterbacks on the 49ers roster: Matt Barkley, C.J. Beathard, Brian Hoyer and Nick Mullins. Yeah, not too inspiring.

Both teams know that making the right draft pick at quarterback could change everything, and they are both setting themselves up in position to be at the top of the draft board, with the ability to have their pick at the quarterbacks.

Let’s flash forward to the 2018 NFL Draft, one which looks to boast talent on the offensive side of the ball in spades. No position in this coming draft has drawn more attention than the quarterbacks.

The 2018 quarterback class projects to be absolutely loaded, headlined by Sam Darnold of USC, Josh Rosen of UCLA, and Josh Allen of Wyoming. All three are expected to go in the top five of the 2018 draft, which makes it far from surprising that teams are already jockeying for position to have their pick of the litter. In other words, they are tanking for the quarterbacks.

It is a situation like the 2018 draft where tanking does make sense. Teams like the Jets, 49ers and Cleveland Browns all need a quarterback to build around, and purposely having a poor season gives them the ability to get that player, that franchise altering player.

In recent years, teams have aggressively pursued quarterbacks through trades, giving up a large ransom of picks in order to vault up the draft board. However, time and time again, we have seen these trades backfire, and the team moving back and getting many more picks often gets the better end of the deal. Just look at the Browns and the Tennessee Titans.

Many teams still use trading as an option to get the player they desire, but it’s possible that tanking has proven to actually be a safer method of getting to the top of the draft board. The team will get a better selection without having to give anything up for it.

The process of tanking can be painful, it takes many fans out of the stadium. But come draft night, celebrations break out in the cities of the failing franchises, as the fans know that change could be right around the corner. It began in the NBA, and it is beginning to translate to the NFL, to go from a bad team to a good team, tanking is becoming the method of choice.