A Cautionary Tale of Tanking in the NFL

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The Bills are a good test case

The Buffalo Bills are one of the feel-good stories of the early 2017 season. They have vaulted to the top of the AFC East with a 3–1 record, including wins over Denver and Atlanta, on the strength of a dominating defense that leads the league in points allowed and an offense that has committed just one turnover. With the Patriots struggling to keep opponents out of the end zone in the early going, a sliver of hope has opened up for the Bills to actually make a move in the AFC East.

But wait, weren’t these guys supposed to be tanking this year?

This was the team, after all, that spent much of August trading away valuable players for future draft picks. Sammy Watkins, Ronald Darby, and Reggie Ragland were all sent packing for a combination of lesser players and picks. While we can debate whether those moves made sense given the contract status and contributions of those players, there’s no doubt that the Bills would be better this season if those trades had not been made. Between the draft picks they added and the expectation that they would be drafting higher because of those trades, the Bills have at least put themselves in the position to build something better in future seasons.

That certainly sounds like tanking.

There are several ways one could look at this, and in the end, none of them are favorable. Well, you could claim that this was addition by subtraction, that the Bills knew that the players they got back, Jordan Matthews and E.J. Gaines, were actually better than Watkins and Darby. That would be a surprise to just about everyone who analyzes football. There are two explanations that are more plausible:

  1. The Bills undervalued their own talent, as well as the likelihood that the Patriots would stumble. Figuring that this year was a lost cause, they elected to shed some payroll and accumulate some draft capital for the day when Tom Brady no longer blocks their path to the playoffs. In doing so they failed to realize that day might be now.
  2. The Bills, as you would expect from the team with the longest ongoing NFL playoff drought, can’t even get tanking right.

The first explanation seems more likely. The Bills have outscored their opponents in each of the last three seasons, which is a better indication of their talent level than their won-loss record. Buffalo projected as a 9–7 team last year that didn’t get lucky and had a better point differential than three playoff teams. It wouldn’t have taken too much optimism to expect their luck to go the other way this year and end up 11–5. They do have the second oldest roster in the league, but Watkins and Ragland are both 24, and Darby is 23, so these trades hardly represent a youth movement.

The Bills probably viewed themselves as a team in limbo and decided that wasn’t tolerable. One reason they find themselves in limbo is their ambivalence over their quarterback. Tyrod Taylor signed an odd contract in 2016 that guaranteed that he would either by grossly overpaid or released in 2017. The Bills got out of that mess by giving him what amounted to a one-year deal for this year, but they face the same dilemma after this season. The backup quarterback is rookie Nathan Peterman, who might be great but if that’s the case he’s hidden it well so far.

Taylor is currently the seventh-rated quarterback in the NFL, and most of the guys above him are making around $20 million. One theory behind all the trades was that the Bills were trying to position themselves to draft a franchise quarterback, but it would take a lot of luck for them to come up with one measurably better than Taylor, and while they wait for the new guy to figure things out, their roster would just keep getting older. There are only a few quarterbacks at any given time who are capable of winning a Super Bowl, and if the Bills have decided that Taylor isn’t one of those, they are right to move on rather than sink a ton of money into him.

But the evidence that tanking is the best way to find a franchise quarterback is thin. One reason tanking works in the NBA is that the NBA Draft is more predictable. The first pick in the NBA draft will almost always have a better career than the twentieth pick, so there is real value in moving up a few spots in the draft. Projecting the career trajectory of a college football player is simply more difficult, which is how guys like Tom Brady happen and how teams like the Browns miss on top-five picks year after year. The first pick in the NFL draft will probably have a better career than the twentieth pick, but it’s by no means as certain as in the NBA, probably not certain enough to intentionally wreck an entire season in order to get one.

Beyond that, three good draft picks can make an NBA team a championship contender. That makes tanking more of a temptation. With 22 starters on an NFL team, you have to get every pick right for multiple drafts in order to build a contender. You also have to keep guys healthy and manage roster turnover in a league with non-guaranteed contracts, fewer restrictions on free agency, and an average career of fewer than three years. In that environment, tanking doesn’t make sense.

The Bills will probably deny that they were tanking, especially if they are still fighting for a playoff spot come November. That’s when these moves will probably bite them. The NFL season is a grind, and the teams that prevail are usually those who have the depth to survive injuries, slumps, and bad matchups. By trading three of their more productive players, the Bills have put themselves at a significant disadvantage in that regard, without deriving enough future benefits to justify it.

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