By David Mullen
Tanking should not be confused with dunking the school principal into a pool of water at the PTA carnival.
In professional sports, tanking is purposely losing regular season games for the sake of a better draft position. The practice is considered unethical, rarely works and has come to the forefront today as the Dallas Cowboys and their fans suffer through a season of unforeseen ineptitude.
One of the reasons a team — allegedly — tanks a season is to be in a position to draft a franchise-changing player. Some leagues, like the NHL and NBA, have put in safeguards to prevent a loser-take-all draft position. Non-playoff teams enter a lottery, weighted by the worst record, to determine the final draft order. The worst team has the best chance at a No.1 pick. However, it doesn’t always turn out that way.
But there needs to be a franchise player available for the rumors to begin. For NFL teams, that may not be the case. And for the Cowboys, it is even more unlikely that a first or second draft position will fill their most pressing need.
On his regular radio interview on 105.3 The Fan, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones addressed the issue.
“Tanking has nothing to do with the performance of a player, the performance of a coach, the performance of getting better, the performance of the things you do to try to win the ballgame in my mind,” Jones said. “Could you make a decision to play a younger player more or a player that you’re going to be pretty firm that you’re going to be going forward with in, contract-wise, than a different situation? And the answer is I can see that. I can see that you make sure that you get these guys those reps. The only way to have and get better in the NFL is for reps and game reps are precious, hard to come by.”
Although taking the longest verbal route to get there, Jones is on point. Some college players look great … in college. Until a player makes the pros and actually plays, a team truly never knows what it has. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2007 and a “can’t-miss” player, is the biggest bust in NFL draft history. Four-time Super Bowl champion Joe Montana was a third-round pick.
Six-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick. Hall of Famer Kurt Warner went undrafted.
It was not long ago that the Dallas Mavericks were accused of tanking in the 2017-18 season. They weren’t alone.
The Mavericks were with the Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. All were having losing seasons and there was no clear-cut favorite for last place. Mavs owner Mark Cuban was typically forthcoming. Cuban admitted he felt that “losing is our best option.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for his remark and warned teams that there would be consequences for teams suspected of tanking. The Mavericks ended up with the fifth overall pick, traded it and a No. 1 in 2019 to Atlanta for the third pick and secured the rights to Luka Dončić. The Suns drafted Deandre Ayton first and the Kings took Marvin Bagley III second. Both are good players, but the clear advantage goes to Dallas.
Tanking can be traced back to the 1980s, when both the 1983-84 Houston Rockets and Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to lose in order to get the number one pick in their respective drafts.
The Rockets prize was center Hakeem Olajuwon, who led them to back-to-back championships. Ditto when the Penguins selected Mario Lemieux. They won two consecutive Stanley Cups. Ultimately, those picks contributed to the leagues instituting a draft lottery. By the way, in taking Olajuwon, Houston passed on a guard from North Carolina named Michael Jordan.
Tanking should not be confused with rebuilding. The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros were cited for giving up and having a couple of poor seasons. Soon after, they went on to win World Champions through drafts, free agency acquisitions and letting the young players gain valuable experience. The fans suffered through the droughts, but were ultimately rewarded.
In 2018, four teams — including the Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics — faced a grievance from the MLB players union that alleged they were not using revenue-sharing money to improve their teams.
The A’s went on to win 97 games, the Rays won 90 games in the highly competitive AL East, and the Marlins built a team that qualified for a playoff spot in the, albeit truncated, 2020 season.
The 2009 NFL Draft was called “The Matthew Stafford Sweepstakes” for the Highland Park High School and University of Georgia star quarterback. Stafford was selected No. 1 by the winless Detroit Lions. With Stafford, the Lions are 0-3 in playoff games across 11 seasons.
Back to the Cowboys — the top prizes in the 2020 NFL Draft seem to be quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Justin Fields of “The Ohio State University,” which, until the injury to Dak Prescott, didn’t seem to be a team need. They desperately need a top flight defender and should be able to get along without a top two pick.
There is no need to root for the Cowboys to tank the rest of 2020. The Cowboys are doing a good enough job of losing on their own without taking to tanking. Their season is already under water.