NFL tanking is discussed to a silly degree considering—for the most part—it’s a fictional idea, especially for the 2020 New York Jets.
Fantasy or reality? So many of the world’s current topics revolve around that exact idea. Thanks to serious polarization, courtesy of news organizations growing further apart from one other while social media helps further the divide, the average American must first grapple with the legitimacy question whenever a topic surfaces.
Included in these topics is what’s happening in Florham Park, NJ.
The 2020 New York Jets currently sport an 0-9 record, the organization’s worst all-time start. Joe Douglas’s team leads the Jacksonville Jaguars by a game in the race for Trevor Lawrence. Or, more appropriately conveyed, the Jets lead the race for the right to pick No. 1 in the 2021 NFL draft.
There’s no guarantee Lawrence enters the draft. Remember, the kid is recovering from COVID-19, and his team’s loss to Notre Dame is another potential reason he’ll want to stay for that final season. It’s a thought Jets fans vehemently thumb their noses at, yet it remains a realistic possibility.
That’s just one topic when attempting to analyze fantasy from reality. The others make it extraordinarily clear that NFL tanking is much more fictional than one could imagine in this clickbait world of headlines.
Every game is precious
What did you see on Monday Night Football? Did you witness a Jets team hilariously failing and flailing at every turn, or did you witness an Adam Gase-led squad doing everything in its power to win a game?
New York’s offense took nine deep shots in the game. Two of them went over 15 yards while the other seven traveled well over 20 yards. Gase’s offense was out for blood. Bill Belichick’s aggressive early look—similar to what this offense has faced all season—found itself vulnerable the moment Joe Flacco and company started seeking downfield chunks.
The Jets wanted to taste sweet victory in an otherwise lost season—much to the chagrin of a great portion of the fandom.
What’s often overlooked is the independent contractor status within this league. Players, coaches and front-office executives treat each game with incredible concern. This isn’t baseball. It’s not even basketball or hockey. There are only 16 games a season, meaning each contest is precious when looking to make an impression on the rest of the league.
Each contractor is playing for his own livelihood in spite of a possible team tanking goal. Every play means the world to every man’s future in the NFL. Look no further than the words of a youngster.
Bryce Hall on the NFL:
"Every rep matters. … So much detail goes into one snap."
This is the independent contractor mindset youngsters need to conform to, making it really difficult to tank in the NFL. Every game is so precious to players, coaches, GMs. #Jets
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) November 16, 2020
“Every rep matters,” rookie Bryce Hall told the media on Monday’s conference call. … So much detail goes into one snap.”
Hall conveyed just how challenging the NFL is as opposed to college. Conforming to the independent contractor role isn’t easy, but it’s something all rookies must attempt if they plan on sticking.
Then there’s the head coach. Desperately wanting to prove his own worth in a lost season, every game’s importance takes on a new meaning—especially during a lost season that’s come thanks to a dreadful 0-9 start.
Does anybody truly believe Adam Gase is willing to help the ship sink any further?
But what about legitimate tanking examples?
Of course legitimate tanking has happened previously. Well, sort of.
The greatest example hit us back in 2011 when Peyton Manning was lost for the season. Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian decided to roll with young and unproven Curtis Painter at quarterback. Well, again, sort of.
Veteran Kerry Collins started the season as Manning’s replacement. Painter didn’t show face until Week 3, while Dan Orlovsky didn’t get into the action until much later in the season. Indy used several quarterbacks that season—something that opposes the idea of a full tank.
Polian went as far as to combat the tanking narrative at every turn.
“Tanking is not in my vocabulary,” Polian said a few years ago. “We tried to win every single game.”
In fact, the Colts did win two of their final three games that season, finishing 2-14. It was still enough to land mega-prospect Andrew Luck but only thanks to a tiebreaker advantage over the then-St. Louis Rams.
Other than the 2011 Colts-Luck example, there isn’t much tanking evidence. And even in the Colts’ case, it’s tough to fully believe in the tank when the team won two of its last three contests.
Elsewhere, the firesale-driven Miami Dolphins looked the part a year ago. Losing their first seven games of the season, they were thought of as a lock to land at No. 1—ultimately landing then-top prospect Tua Tagovailoa.
Miami won five of its last nine games, including a victory over the Jets in Week 9 for its first win. The Dolphins ended up in the five-hole, and in a crazy twist of fate, they still found their way to the Alabama lefty.
From Tanking for Tua to actually winning five games and still winding up with the same exact guy several months later is just another example of why NFL tanking is more of a media mirage than flat-out truth.
The other recent example brings us to Tampa. The Buccaneers pulled many of their stars (Mike Evans, Lavonte David, Vincent Jackson) in Week 17 of the 2014 season after leading the New Orleans Saints 20-7 at halftime. They ultimately lost 23-20 en route to Jameis Winston as the team’s quarterback in the one-hole of the 2015 NFL draft.
Other less significant examples exist, but for the most part, it’s rarely happened in the NFL.
Joe Douglas just won’t have it
Culture, development and growth are not exactly words that help support the idea of a Douglas tank. Douglas surely understands the importance of Lawrence (and the quarterback position as a whole), but he’s just not the type of guy who’d let anybody think his franchise is tanking games.
Joe Flacco‘s Monday night performance ranks atop the squad’s leaderboard this season, making many believe the Jets have a better chance to win with the former Super Bowl MVP. Darnold, who was once simply “managing the pain,” has now been ruled out for the Los Angeles Chargers game six days prior to the date.
It can all be a coincidence, no doubt, but the organization’s transactions don’t support one particular pattern. The entirety of the team’s moves doesn’t support a tank.
Reputations around this league are ultra-critical. Knowing this isn’t the NBA, excellent personnel men understand there are multiple paths to glory. The league that once showcased an obviously-tanking San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan) wouldn’t know parity if it smacked Adam Silver in the face. (It’s not his fault; it’s simply the nature of the game.)
The NFL, on the other hand, can feature one-year turnarounds of epic proportions. (Just glance at the current state of the once-narrative-driven-tanking Dolphins.) To most involved, tanking just isn’t worth the loss in reputation and rarely equates to an all-or-nothing game.
In Douglas’s case, it’s that much more important while navigating a team whose laughingstock reputation far outweighs objective reality. He’ll certainly do a few things here and there en route to a Trevor Lawrence possibility, but it’s doubtful anything blatant hits our headlines.
That’s just the reality of this particular topic in a land littered with fantastical headlines. NFL tanking exists but at the “barely” level.