A Lesson in Tanking

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The 2017 New York Jets are essentially guaranteed to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. They recently released two of their better and more experienced players in linebacker David Harris and wide receiver Eric Decker. The former will save $6.5 million and the latter $5.75 million against the cap according to Over The Cap. Cap space is a valuable asset to have, but these moves seem to signal that the team is purposely stripping itself of talent. It is likely that the team’s plan for 2017 is to tank and to be rewarded the number one overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. And that’s okay.

The Jets will likely be mocked from outside their organization by the media, their most avid supporters, and skeptics for the moves made, but let’s not pretend that doesn’t already happen on a routine basis. The Jets have been average at best over the last half decade. They’ve picked 6th, 20th, 6th, 18th, and 9th in the first round during that span – and were never good enough to reach the postseason. They only have Jamal Adams, Darron Lee, and Leonard Williams to show for their rough seasons as they recently traded 2014 first rounder, Calvin Pryor to the Cleveland Browns, and their 2013 first round pick, Dee Milliner, did not play a down in the NFL in 2016. Since Mike Maccagnan took the general manager role in 2015 the team has done better adding blue chip players in the first round, but the roster is still mainly devoid of talent overall.

Tanking is one way to go about adding assets in the forms of draft picks and cap space that eventually turns into quality players. At least that’s what every team that employs this strategy hopes for. To cite baseball, the Houston Astros are a successful sports franchise turnaround as of late. The Astros are currently 46-23 – the best record in MLB. It was only a short while ago that Houston was 51-111 in 2013. While comparing baseball to football isn’t easy due to the nature and rules of the respective leagues it helps to get an idea of what teams do around sports in order to acquire assets while in a state of rebuilding.

According to Joshua Green of Bloomberg, “(General manager Jeff) Luhnow has done to the Houston Astros what Mitt Romney used to do to steel companies while at Bain Capital: stripped them down with ruthless efficiency to build them back up again, stronger and better than before.” Houston achieved success through tanking. You can’t tell coaches and players to lose on purpose, but you can field a poor team. With their extremely low payroll of $27 million, the Astros invested in other areas like their analytics department and setting up academies in the Dominican Republic that will help strengthen their product in the future. Tanking allowed Houston to invest in their process and pick towards the top of the draft. Often times that was number one overall – pre-Luhnow and early on during Luhnow’s time as GM.

In 2014 the Astros selected a high school pitcher, Brady Aiken with the first pick in the draft. However, they offered him just $3.1 million after medical reports said that Aiken’s ulnar collateral ligament was “unusually small” according to the Bloomberg article. UCL injuries are an epidemic among some of baseball’s most talented arms in the game today. The Astros and Aiken did not come to an agreement which gave the Astros the 2015 second overall pick. Which they used on their current major league third basemen, Alex Bregman. According to Green, “The suspicion around baseball, fanned by Close, is that Luhnow cut his offer not because he worried about Aiken’s elbow but because he saw an opportunity to increase his draft haul. The Astros’ final bid of $5 million left them just enough money under the league’s collective bargaining agreement to sign two additional pitchers, Jacob Nix and Mac Marshall – but only if Aiken accepted. In the end, Luhnow missed out on all three.” While the result did not turn out how Houston wanted the intention was to increase the overall talent added. Signing more picks would increase the probability of adding major league talent to their farm system.

What does this have to do with an NFL team? Well, an NFL team has been exhibiting the tanking strategy as well as trying to increase their draft haul. That would be the aforementioned Browns. Since the hiring of ex-MLB executive Paul DePodesta, Cleveland has been deemed the NFL’s “Moneyball” team. DePodesta helped in the process of rebuilding the Oakland Athletics and New York Mets. While he’s not the GM, DePodesta has some say in how the Browns’ process is run. In an article by the MMQB, Peter King called DePodesta the brain behind the Browns rebuild. And this paragraph by King on what DePodesta actually does sounds somewhat like how the Astros went about tanking as well. Developing a process of how to go about doing daily tasks and making their organization a sustained winner:

“I really focus on process as much as anything else: process for how we evaluate players, process for how we make decisions, process even for how we hire people internally, process for how we go about integrating our scouting reports with guys watching tape in the office. It is really about how we do the things we do. I think part of the reason they brought me in is because I am completely naive about the National Football League. I have no preconceived notions about how things ought to be done or how they have been done in the past, and I can look at it with a fresh set of eyes.”

This is common ground between the two sports despite the differences in how the games are played. DePodesta later states that he is really just attempting to figure out ways that give the Browns a competitive advantage. That competitive advantage is seemingly through an abundance of draft capital. According to King’s article DePodesta and the Browns don’t feel they’re anymore special at drafting than other NFL franchises where the evaluators are all extremely talented. The team does believe there is a way to increase their success rate, however. That is to increase the amount of picks they have. Essentially the team believes that quantity matters in a competitive setting like the NFL. According to Cleveland’s website, the Browns have made 24 selections in the last two drafts and have five picks in the first two rounds in the 2018 draft.  Smart and savvy trades like the one with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016 for the number two overall pick and the trade for Brock Osweiler helped net them two extra second rounders in 2018.

Let’s circle back to the Jets for now, though. They’re currently led by journeyman Josh McCown at quarterback who signed a one-year $6 million deal this offseason. But, with the direction the franchise is going the team may hand the reigns to Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg at some point this season. All three quarterbacks should lead the Jets to a miserable season, especially with the inexperienced players surrounding them. Figuring out what New York has in Hackenberg should be a goal for 2017. As for McCown, he also played a role in the Browns tanking seasons. Based on the way team’s talk about him it seems like he’s a good mentor to have for younger players on your team. Which is a plus if he’s going to be on the sidelines at some point

New York is in the first stages of their rebuild. Which is ridding themselves of all their previous assets. A strategy that hurts in the short term, but if you have the correct people running your franchise you’ll lay a proper foundation to reap the benefits in the long term for success. The latter part is foggy for the Jets. Their owner Woody Johnson showed restraint on firing head coach Todd Bowles this past December, but will he be able to maintain his temperament and retain his head coach if the Jets finish 3-13 next season? It is ideal for the team to go through the growing pains with the head coach of the future allowing the process and ideology to permeate throughout the organization. I believe Maccagnan is attempting to do that and has a decent amount of leash left, but your head coach plays a significant role in a team’s day-to-day tasks while being in contact with the players.

In Cleveland, Hue Jackson embraces the Browns organizational philosophy at the top and the top embraces Jackson. It’s vital to have a happy marriage between the front office and the coaching staff. Rebuilding takes time and patience. There’s no guarantee the Browns’ methods work toward building a winner. Although, they do have parallels to the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys in regards to the amount of draft picks. One has to admire the process and the ability to try something different when the other method is clearly not working.

The Jets are probably going to be terrible in 2017. If they’re really going to end their era of dysfunction, they’ll have to take their lumps while acquiring the right assets for two to three years down the road. Tanking may be frowned upon, but it can be an efficient way back to relevancy by acquiring assets like high draft picks and cap space.

Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Kareem Hunt’s superior balanceJames White doing his job in Super Bowl LI, and Chris Godwin’s separation ability.

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