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New Rule Proposal: How to Reduce Tanking in the NFL

Image: Miami Herald

Remember what former New York Jets coach and current ESPN Analyst Herm Edwards said: “you play to win the game”. Well, what Herm forgot to say was: “except of course when your draft spot is on the line”. 

For years, professional sports has had a problem with tanking (i.e. intentionally losing games for better draft position). When a team is “mathematically” eliminated from the playoffs, it benefits them to prioritize losing (under the current system). Not only does a team receive better draft position, that better draft position creates more value and equity in their picks. The team can then leverage that pick for more draft capital and/or players if they so choose. 

In extreme situations, teams will even tank an entire season, knowing the next crop of talent is too good to pass up by being “competitive” or “average”. This is often cloaked under the guise of “rebuilding” or “retooling”. Salary cap spending is slashed, good players are traded away in hopes of getting better faster by losing more. 

You might ask yourself: what’s so wrong with that? Why is it a big deal if the team is losing games to better plan for the future? For starters, tanking goes against a fundamental desire in sports and competitive nature to win. Intentionally losing affects the quality of the games played, as well as the integrity of the sport. How can you ask a fan base to invest time and money in a game if the team doesn’t care about the outcome? Why would they buy tickets? Merchandise? However, until the incentive to lose is gone, teams will continue to do this. 

The NBA Lottery System

The only such effort created in professional sports to reduce or eliminate tanking is the NBA Lottery. This system sets odds for each draft pick based on a team’s record to end the year. And like your Powerball and Megabucks Lotteries, the fate of NBA franchises relies on a bunch of ping pong balls. It still doesn’t stop teams from tanking.

The Philadelphia 76ers, for example, tanked for years after the Lottery was set up. In fact, they actually created a name for it: “The Process”. For 3 seasons, the team won 47 of their 246 games (19% winning percentage). That’s a lot of bad basketball for the 76er fans to endure. And has it really paid off? Look at their top picks during that span (Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz). All picks from the Top 3. Only one of those players is still with the team. A Ben Simmons trade led to the acquisition of James Harden and other role players that are contributing to the current roster. However, Fultz and Okafor were complete misses. 

Houston and Detroit are in similar (more recent) “skids” for their respective franchises. In the last 3 seasons, the Rockets winning percentage is under 25%. The Pistons (over the last 4 years) is 27%. This is entirely way too long to be this bad for your fan base. Time will tell whether or not this works out for either franchise but it is already hurting the product on the court. 

The NFL and the Lottery?

Could the NFL adopt a system like this? Sure. The Lottery is a televised event that makes money for the NBA and its TV networks. And if there is anything we know about the NFL, they love to make money. However, the Lottery doesn’t resolve the issue of providing more quality regular season games. And as you can see from the NBA, teams will still tank every year and the product on the court suffers.

Past Tanking Issues in the NFL

In the NFL, tanking is prevalent because finding the right QB can turn your franchise around for the next 10-15 years. That’s why over the past 12 years we’ve had “Tank for Tua” and “Suck for Luck” campaigns around the league. Specifically, the Brian Flores’ discrimination lawsuit against the NFL alleges that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross (who reportedly wanted Tua that year) offered Flores additional compensation for each game that he lost in 2019. The Colts were in a transition from Peyton Manning in 2012 and saw Luck as the heir apparent. However, they needed to ensure they got the top pick because no one was trading that pick if they got it. 

In 2020, the New York Jets fans were upset with their team because they had “won” a late season game vs the Los Angeles Rams. Had they lost that game, the Jets could have had the opportunity to draft first and take Trevor Lawrence (instead of Zach Wilson). 

And just this past year, the Chicago Bears were “rewarded” with the first overall pick by losing their final 10 games. They were helped by a Texans team that decided to win their Week 18 game in thrilling fashion. By virtue of that win, Chicago got the first overall pick and has since traded that pick for two 1sts, two 2nds, and DJ Moore. 

But what if the Bears won their last game? Or the Texans lost? The Bears arguably would have never been in a position to receive such a significant compensation package from the Panthers. It’s as if the Bears got rewarded for losing and the Texans got punished for winning…doesn’t seem fair does it??

So how do we curb the issue? 

The solution is rather simple. How do you stop someone from doing something you don’t want them to do? You punish them right? Or reward them for doing the opposite? (for our Seinfeld fans I’m not talking about George Costanza’s stance on the opposite).

But seriously, why not take that philosophy and apply it to the NFL? Why don’t we develop a system that rewards late season wins? That’s exactly what I’ve come up with. The ultimate goal in tanking is to get the best Draft Pick possible because it adds equity to your team by losing. But take away that benefit by promoting winners and suddenly the mindset to lose disappears.

The Proposal: “Anti-Tanking” Rule

  1. The first 10 picks of the NFL Draft would be reordered based on the outcome of their final regular season game;
  2. All of the teams in the Top 10 who WON their Week 18 game, will be given “Top Priority” in the NFL Draft. Of these teams, the order shall be determined based on the length of their winning streaks to end the season;
  3. Contrary, the teams in the Top 10 who LOST in Week 18 will be repositioned AFTER the teams who won. The order will be determined based on their record for the season;
  4. Any additional tie breakers needed will be determined by: (1) regular season record, then, if necessary (2) strength of schedule;

The basic idea behind this proposal is simple: PROMOTE WINNING. Why not give the teams who won their final game better draft position? This creates an environment of competition amongst the entire league and gives the fans exactly what they want: GOOD FOOTBALL

The Incentive is on the Team

The other wrinkle to this proposal is that the Front Office is the immediate beneficiary, not the coach or the player. With that said, because it is the organization that ultimately benefits, owners may be inclined to add incentives to contracts for improving draft position. And it wouldn’t be against the rules because unlike now, they would not be negatively impacting the quality and integrity of the game. 

Why do we need this rule now?

We are about to see some new tanking campaigns this upcoming season. Caleb Williams and Drake May are projected as two of the best prospects to enter the league since Trevor Lawrence and Andrew Luck. Given the level of talented QB’s in the NFL, teams will be clamoring to get into position to add one of these guys to their roster. In fact, teams may already have a plan in place to tank if they start the season off slow. But what if the best way to get their franchise guy was to win their games at the end of the year? 

Example: 2023 NFL Draft

Putting this proposed rule into motion, let’s see how the 2023 Draft Order would have played out:

Original Draft Order Record ”Anti-Tanking” Order Week 18 Streak
Chicago Bears 3-14 Atlanta Falcons  W W2
Houston Texans 3-13-1 Houston Texans W W1
Arizona Cardinals  4-13 Denver Broncos* W W1
Indianapolis Colts  4-12-1 Carolina Panthers W W1
Denver Broncos* 5-12 Chicago Bears L L10
Los Angeles Rams** 5-12 Arizona Cardinals L L7
Las Vegas Raiders 6-11 Indianapolis Colts L L7
Atlanta Falcons 7-10 Los Angeles Rams ** L L2
Carolina Panthers 7-10 Las Vegas Raiders  L L3
New Orleans Saints*** 7-10 New Orleans Saints*** L L1
*traded to Seattle Seahawks, **traded to Detroit Lions, ***traded to Philadelphia Eagles


Under this rule, the Atlanta Falcons would have the first overall pick and control over the draft board. They can draft their franchise quarterback, take the EDGE Rusher that they need (Will Anderson), or trade it for a heap of draft picks. They would have this control because they won their final regular season game AND had the longest winning streak to end the year.

By virtue of their loss, Chicago would drop to #5 and would not have been able to make the trade that they did with Carolina this offseason. Arizona, Indy, and Las Vegas would all move down the draft board as well by not winning their final game. These teams would have less value and equity in the NFL Draft.

Under this arrangement, we would see more of these teams playing their starters at the end of the year. The front offices sure would expect that. The games would be better because the more talented players are on the field and the fans would be happy.

Additional Thoughts

Adding a “Protected Picks” Rule: for any team who previously traded their 1st round pick would earn their pick back IF they finish in the Top 3  by winning their final game. The team losing the pick, in this scenario, would have the option of either (a) future date the 1st round pick obligation to next season plus additional compensation; or (b) convert the pick to a 2nd round pick for this year; plus additional compensation.

Combo Option of Lottery and “Anti-Tanking” Rule: what if the NFL wants to do something about tanking but create (and monetize) another offseason event? Why not implement a combination of my “anti-tanking” rule and the Lottery system? Where the Top 10 is reordered based on the proposed rule above, but instead of guaranteeing that draft order, use an ‘NBA-like’ Lottery system to assign odds for the 1st pick. Then the NFL can television the actual drawing of the Draft Order of the Top 10.

While I don’t expect the NFL to do anything about tanking anytime in the near future, it would be nice to see it addressed at some point. Hearing fans and talk shows discussing tanking as a strategic plan for the future should never happen. Let’s get the sport all the way back to way it should be: “you play to win the game”.

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