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Miami Dolphins and the Art of ‘Tanking’

'Tanking’ is becoming popular in North American sports, but should the Dolphins be doing it and will it work?

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Image Credit: Airman st Class Trevor T. McBride

It's been a miserable season so far for the Miami Dolphins, 0-7 after seven games with heavy losses against most teams they have faced. Both the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens beat them by over 40 points, the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers had at least 20 points on them, whilst they had smaller losses against the Steelers, Bills and Washington. How is it possible to build a football team that’s this bad on purpose? The answer lies in something that has been given the name tanking.

There’s no relegation in North American sport, the way leagues such as the NFL try and close the gap between the top and bottom teams is through the draft, where teams pick players coming out of college. The teams with the worst records from the season before get the highest picks in the draft and therefore the best chance of getting the best talent. So, teams that recognise that they don’t have a chance of a Championship with their current core of players, remove the players they can trade and end up with a bad squad. The bad squad then performs poorly, and the team ends up with high draft picks, and bonus draft picks from trades. This is nothing new in the NFL, the Buffalo Bills tanked for OJ Simpson, the Buccaneers did it for Jameis Winston and the Browns have recently gone 1-31 in an attempt to ‘reboot’ the team. Trading key players and making the team worse for the season has also been seen in the past, the best example of this being the Dallas Cowboys trading away key player Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings, in return for multiple first and second-round draft picks. The Cowboys show how to make this form of thinking work as they turned that single trade into three Super Bowls.

This is what the Miami Dolphins are seemingly doing. Before the start of the season, they traded Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills to the Houston Texans in return for a haul of draft picks, including two first-round picks and a second-round pick. When trading Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Pittsburgh Steelers after week two, they got another first-round pick. This has deprived the team of its best players and meant that the Dolphins have been playing with what some pundits have called “the worst team in NFL history” - they have had the worst points differential since at least the 1940s. It looks likely that the Dolphins will return the worst record in the league this season (though there is a strong challenge from the Bengals). If they have the worst record, it will give them the first overall pick and reportedly Miami have their eyes on Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (even though they traded for QB Josh Rosen in the offseason).

So, is tanking acceptable? Clearly teams do not think so as Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores has said he “wouldn’t disrespect the game” by tanking, many other teams who have been accused of tanking have said much the same thing. Morally, there is a strong argument that tanking isn’t acceptable: not only are you charging fans the same price to come and watch a team that you have made deliberately poor, but in a sport of high attrition like the NFL, a poor team can lead to more injuries which means that you could be putting your own players in danger. A poor O-Line, for example, can and has affected the careers of players who have been hit and therefore injured more than average. Doing all of this for what could amount to little more than a punt on a better future for the team seems like it might be a risk not worth taking.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL; however, the one thing that does seem certain that this season is going to be incredibly tough for Dolphins fans. It can be hard to see the theory when it doesn’t always work and when it makes the football this tough to watch. It takes several great picks, trades, and signings to make this work, as well as management that is talented and patient. Whether the Dolphins will turn this into a dynasty or stay in the cellar of the NFL is still to be seen.

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