We’re at a point in the NFL season when a number of teams have little left to collectively fight for, except maybe the all-too-familiar pride. But why do teams that are eliminated from the postseason actually compete for victories when every win only punishes them come draft time?
If you regularly follow the never-silent collection of football fans and writers on Twitter, you’ve probably already seen the countless many—whose meaningful season has long been over—pleading for their favorite team to tank the remaining few games to strategically improve their draft position.
For those who don’t know, "tanking" is the term to describe a team that purposefully loses a game to fulfill some alternate agenda.
This annual plea from the Twitterverse around this time of year seems to have picked up steam over time. So much so that it now feels as if people are genuinely rooting for flailing teams to concede defeat, hang up shop and pack it in for the season.
In some respects it seems reasonable to want to position yourself in the best possible situation for a brighter, more promising future. Once the rewards of a playoff appearance can no longer be realized, why not go in the opposite direction to seek a higher draft pick—even if it does mean losing the remaining games on the schedule?
This is the unfortunate reality for those countless fans of struggling teams around the NFL like the New York Jets (3-12), the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-12), Tennessee Titans (2-13), Oakland Raiders (3-12), Washington Redskins (4-11), Chicago Bears (5-10) and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13).
When you think about it, these fan bases can get pretty fed up dealing with the constant pain of disappointing losses. If only we can find a way to rejoice in those failures while eagerly anticipating a better tomorrow.
After all, trying to trade up into the top half of the first round of the draft can be a costly endeavor for any franchise. These are the coveted slots where the highest ratio of game-changers can be found. If losing a few “meaningless” games can move you up the board for free, it should be looked at as a long-term benefit, right?
After the Jets’ Week 15 victory over the Titans, there seemed to be a wave of disappointment from Jets fans because the win put the team out of the running for the first-overall selection in the 2015 draft.
If the first-overall pick ends up being Oregon QB Marcus Mariota and he goes on to become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, that lonely win over the rebuilding Titans will seem more like a curse than a valiant display of pride and character.
We also saw a similar reaction from Raiders fans after they played spoilers to the Buffalo Bills last week:
Here’s the problem with tanking in order to better your chances in the draft. To start, no coach or general manager would ever be able to effectively instruct a group of professional athletes to intentionally lose a game while still preserving his ability to ever teach the importance of winning, never giving up or giving your all. If a coach did encourage his players not to try or go all-out for a particular game, he would be heading down a slippery slope, one that potentially cannot be reversed.
A critical aspect of coaching is instilling good habits and a winning attitude into your players. If at any point in that process you introduce tanking, all of your previous teachings and emphasis will be permanently nullified.
One of the biggest risks they’d face would be setting a precedent that could poison the entire team.
To clarify, the nature of professional athletes tends to be dominated by a common thread. Nearly every single NFL player worth anything is fueled by an incredible competitive edge. This edge allows them to survive and thrive under the pressure-filled spotlight that is the NFL.
Sure, raw talent can get a guy’s foot in the door, but it’s his competitive edge that keeps him in the league. Take this edge away, and you’ll find a long line of talented athletes who failed miserably on the big stage before busting out of the league in just a few years' time.
Connected to the competition aspect of this thing, you also have to understand most players treat every game as a direct reflection of their legacy and/or viability for continuous employment. In other words, at the very least, these guys are playing for their jobs. At their best, they’re playing to establish a legacy of greatness. Neither of these fundamental motivational forces allows any room for tanking.
How, exactly, would a coach or organization instruct their players to practice and prepare during a week where they’re instructed to roll over for the opponent?
Such a scenario would create nothing more than chaos and dysfunction all throughout the week and paralyze any attempt to orchestrate an NFL practice.
What’s worse, this form of organizational dysfunction would easily bleed into the offseason, training camp and beyond if the same coaching staff was retained.
This should rule out any plausible scenario involving overt cases of tanking.
But that still leaves room for coaches and GMs to strategically deactivate their key players for the smallest nicks and bruises, or they can play unproven backups under the guise of deep personnel evaluations.
This is perhaps the most plausible form of tanking that could (and perhaps does) occur. But these roster moves mentioned above are primarily done because there is no reason to force your key players to play through injuries and increase their wear-and-tear during meaningless games.
As for the personnel evaluations, that is a real part of the NFL and is one of the few benefits afforded to a team with nothing left to lose. This allows teams to give their backups (who are often young and unproven) a chance to get some valuable experience while also seeing what they can bring to the table in real-game scenarios.
This is not the same as tanking by any stretch, because the goal of everyone involved in that organization would still be to win the game and for every participant to give maximum effort.
As former Jets head coach Herman Edwards famously said, “You play to win the game!”
Oftentimes, fans may not agree with this strategy. However, any fan who genuinely wants their team to lose games on purpose is coming from a place of ignorance. They just haven’t thought the entire scenario through.
How disrespectful would it be if a team were to show up to a packed stadium full of loyal, excited fans—with most of them having paid the price of a small vacation to attend—only to see their beloved franchise play like a team completely uninterested in winning. That would be shameful and embarrassing for everyone involved.
So, to those out there wishing for your team to "Suck for the Duck," or any of that nonsense, just be careful of what you wish for.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player writing for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter.