Tanking: From the NBA to the NFL

Andrew Ford, Sports Editor

If you are an NBA fan, you probably recognize the term “tanking.”

It has become an increasingly popular strategy among basketball franchises. The general idea behind the term is that a team will purposefully trade away, or simply rest, its best players in order to lose games, and thus obtain a better draft pick in hopes of building for the future. The other team involved in the trade is close to competing for a championship and feel they are one good player away from that next level; thus, they accept giving up a draft pick for someone who can help them win now.

Teams tank when they have no belief in their current roster’s ability to win a championship. Samuel Hinkie, former general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, is the poster child of tanking. That process has turned out great, as the 76ers are now a contender in the Eastern Conference. Other teams, though, have found less success. The Sacramento Kings are still in the midst of their rebuild. The Phoenix Suns, who are hoping their recent tanking will pay off soon, are still not a playoff team. In general, there are mixed results regarding tanking in the NBA for the team giving up its players.

When it comes to the NFL, tanking has traditionally been nonexistent. Trading players midseason in football is not as easy as it is in basketball. Football teams have complicated playbooks that take a good amount of time to learn, so teams have not been actively trading partners when the trade deadline comes.

There is more to this story, however. The NFL has long been considered a league of parity, in which most teams have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Teams that believe they can earn a playoff berth are hesitant to trade away their best players to prepare for the future; teams would not accept a cheap draft pick for a player they valued. In economic terms, the supply of players was not available and would require a high cost to obtain them. Those teams near the top of the standings have never been willing to match the asking price of the limited amount of teams who were willing to trade players.

Moreover, the NFL is a win-now league. General managers and coaches are expected to create a contending team in a short amount of time. Unlike in the NBA, owners have a short leash for their management. For all these reasons, tanking has never taken off in the NFL.

This may be changing, though. This year, more teams appear to be willing to ignore the traditional non-tanking ideal of the NFL and embrace a more long-term approach. Jon Gruden, head coach of the Oakland Raiders, signed a 10-year, $100 million dollar contract this offseason. Gruden has also been given a significant amount of influence in personnel decisions.

His strategy? Tanking.

He traded All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for two first round picks at the beginning of the season. This week he traded star wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys for another first round pick. And more trades are expected. This house cleaning is unprecedented for an NFL team. But with the luxury of a 10-year contract, Gruden knows his job is to create a perennial contender and not just a decent team. And more importantly, he can construct his roster the way he sees fit.

The Raiders are not the only team tanking this year, either. The New York Giants recently traded away two contributing players for two draft picks. In each of these trades, the team acquiring the player is legitimately in the hunt for a playoff berth and on the edge of Super Bowl contention.

There is a shift occurring in the NFL this year, where tanking is an acceptable and attractive strategy for some teams, while others are in an arms race for a championship. With such an unprecedented amount of deals taking place, we will have to see if the results pan out for either side.