We have a difference of agreement here at The Big Lead. Jason McIntyre is a staunch “I want my team to tank and get a franchise QB” guy. I am a “put a good product on the field, try to win, and find a quarterback any way possible” guy.
So I’m going to lay out the case for why tanking (which I think rarely actually happens in the NFL–I’m looking at you, Jim Irsay) is not an optimal strategy. And I’m using tanking here as a term to include unintentionally being terrible as well, when talking about what teams have done.
Six years ago, I wrote this on teams that hurt their draft position by winning late in the year despite having bad records, and compared them to teams that “tanked” by losing down the stretch.
The examples are few and far between of teams actually having prolonged success after dropping down and being really bad, snagging their franchise quarterback, and then going on a run of dominance. You can go all the way back to John Elway with the Broncos (and that was a trade) and Troy Aikman with the Cowboys to find your archetypes for this model. More recently, but still not too recent, you can point to the most successful cases of Peyton Manning with the Colts and Donovan McNabb with the Eagles. If you want to limit it since the 2000’s, the most successful franchises are the Giants (two Super Bowl wins, but missing the playoffs more often than not), the Panthers with Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and the Falcons, and Andrew Luck and the Colts.
Even in the Colts’ case, we are in year 6, with so many question marks because they never established a quality team around Luck. They’ve missed the playoffs three years in a row and the future is very uncertain.
Make a list of the most successful teams in recent years, and it probably includes:
- New England: Never tanked, had one bad year between the late 90’s and Belichick era, and got Tom Brady in the 6th round;
- Pittsburgh: Had a 6-10 year back in 2003 but most definitely did not tank, as they started 3-7 but then won 3 of the final 6 to cost themselves a top 5 pick. Took Ben Roethlisberger 11th overall, so 10 other teams had an opportunity;
- Seattle: Were mediocre going from the Holmgren/Hasselbeck years to Carroll, but tried to sign Matt Flynn and drafted Russell Wilson in 3rd round;
- Green Bay: Took Aaron Rodgers 24th overall while they still had Brett Favre;
- Kansas City: Got Alex Smith when they hired Andy Reid;
- Denver: got Peyton Manning as a free agent;
- Arizona: got Carson Palmer for a late round pick.
Those seven teams, along with Carolina, have the most regular season wins since the start of 2013.
In my opinion, teams should establish a winning mindset, not accept losing. Now, this is different from making personnel decisions with one eye toward the future, and always trying to remain competitive. If a veteran is no longer good and you want to see if a young guy has it, try him. But what I think is a bad strategy is to intentionally try to have a losing culture.
Here’s some more evidence that the “tanking for a QB” strategy is overrated. Peyton Manning is a rare beast. Most quarterbacks, even those drafted early, are not that good, and the hit rate is around or below 50% on just getting a decent starter.
I went back to the 1997 season through 2012 (Luck’s draft) and found the three worst records each year (plus ties). I also included the two expansion franchises that started in that time. I then looked at what they did at the quarterback position. So these are teams that bottomed out.
24 teams either had a veteran that had already started with that franchise, and stuck with him a year later, not adding a starting option in the draft, or added a veteran in free agency/trade.
28 either drafted a QB early in the draft, or had just previously drafted him early and were still in the rebuild.
11 drafted a quarterback, but not in the top 5 picks (examples such as the Bengals taking Andy Dalton, or the Raiders taking Andrew Walter), or had a recent draft pick they elevated to starter.
Here were the results:
The Veteran teams: 9 of 24 reached a Conference Champ Game or further in next six years. 19 made playoffs in next six years. They made 16 total championship games, and made playoffs 31% of time.
The Bottom Out and Draft a Franchise QB teams: 8 of 28 reached a Conference Champ Game or further in next six years. 17 made playoffs in next six years. They made 11 total championship games, and made playoffs 27% of time.
The Draft a QB, But Not Early teams: 2 of 11 reached a Conference Champ Game or further in next six years. 6 made playoffs in next six years. They made 2 total championship games, and made playoffs 21% of time.
Yes, those veteran acquisitions on really bad teams include Drew Brees (New Orleans). But it includes several moves that might have been for a journeyman or stopgap at the time. Chris Chandler signing in Atlanta, and going all the way to a Super Bowl in two years. Oakland staying with Jeff George and then acquiring a relatively unknown Rich Gannon two years later. Carolina going with Rodney Peete as a stopgap in John Fox’s first year, then getting to multiple title games and a Super Bowl with Jake Delhomme.
The numbers are the numbers. Teams that bottomed out have had more success when they have turned to stopgaps or veterans than those that thought they got their franchise guy. Over 40% of the teams that drafted their guy failed to make the playoffs even once in six years after the terrible season. That’s a lot of losing to tolerate.
You might notice that all those playoff percentages over the next six years after being one of the worst teams are low. The league average should be making it 38% of the time (6 of 16). Despite the NFL’s trumpeting of parity, bad teams tend to stay bad. I wouldn’t want to actively join the bad.
I’m not anti-drafting a quarterback early, at all. I just don’t think it should be an active strategy to become so bad to get that pick. The most important thing is to have a staff that can evaluate quarterbacks and put the pieces in place around them. Losing just to be in position to take a quarterback is no magic bullet.