The Value of Things: Tanking (Part One)
“What gets us in trouble is not what we don’t know. This is what we know for sure that is simply not the case. -Mark Twain
Studying the past carefully seems tedious. We can simply ask a question and answer it simply because we know the answer. Sometimes we think we know and we just don’t know. I’m ashamed to say it happens to me all the time. We make assumptions about things and people without really thinking about it. We make these assumptions because we have been conditioned to do so and it benefits us most of the time.
In the last edition of The Value of Things, we talked about whether to trade Brandin Cooks and/or Laremy Tunsil. Dealing with the cooks has been a hot topic lately, the idea would be to salvage a second-round pick and give the team more fuel for rebuilding. Houston now has eleven picks in the draft later this month. What could they do with twelve? If they had six picks before the end of Day 2, would that be enough to revive the Texans’ next big team?
You don’t have to be a negative Nancy to see the playoffs aren’t in the cards this year. The ultimate question is whether there is value to lose. Can you build a winner from the ashes of a franchise. We will divide the research into two parts. First, we’ll look at the other two major sports and significant austerity/tank examples.
Does tanking work in other sports?
Unfortunately, we have a bit of a bias here locally. the Houston Astros were a tanking product. They have been at World events three times in the past five seasons. They have been at the ALCS for five years in a row. They were one of the few teams in history to win 100 or more games in three consecutive seasons. Yes, other franchises have had more successful runs. In the modern game, it’s hard to imagine a team being more successful than they’ve had.
2010-2014 = 308-502 (.380)
2015-2019 = 481-329 (.594)
Historically, it would be wrong to assume that the Astros’ turnaround is normal. However, they were cited as a shining example for other teams. One could argue that the Baltimore Orioles are currently being dismantled and rebuilt. After all, their management team was in Houston. Of course, without careful consideration of all the factors, we would be wrong in assuming that they were successful.
the Chicago Cubs saw a similar rise at exactly the same time. They were 346-464 (.427) in the same years the Astros were bad. They weren’t as successful, but they did win a World Series in 2016 and went 471-339 (.581) over the next five seasons. The Astros drafted Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Lance McCullers. They also drafted Brady Aiken and Mark Appel. The Cubs drafted Kris Bryant. They also had more than their fair share of misfires.
The NBA probably sees more tanking than any other sport. teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kingsand Golden State Warriors apparently went decades without winning. The Warriors from 2008-2013 saw their record drop to 161-233 (.409). After that 2012–13 season, they went 316-94 (0.771) collectively over the next five seasons. That included three championships and probably should have been all five.
the Philadelphia 76ers were so transparent that they called their tanking a “process”. Trust the process they always said. They were 109-301 from 2012 to 2017. They have been 247-144 since. It involved a lot of lottery choices and like these other organizations some of them worked and some didn’t. They turned Ben Simmons into James Harden. Obviously, this post-season hasn’t played out yet.
Obviously, you can’t suck and improve automatically. the Houston Rockets are currently trying it. They are in the second year of what will probably be a three or four year period of austerity. Still, if they land one or two more stars in the next two drafts, you can imagine them doing the same as the 76ers.
The difference is of course that the NBA has a draft lottery, and MLB hasn’t, but is implementing it next season. The lottery randomly chooses who can get the first three choices of the NBA Draft for teams that don’t make the playoffs. Losing games doesn’t go that far in the NBA.
Tanking can work in the NBA and MLB, but it requires expert management. It’s a combination of using your draft capital efficiently and using the financial savings of not paying star players efficiently. Some people would naturally assume you could do the same thing in the NFL.
Does tanking work in the NFL?
First, we need to define our terms. Long-term tanking is rarer in the NFL than in the NBA and MLB. Teams can be bad for a season or two, but normally they bounce back pretty quickly. The Texans will have a third straight season with ten or more losses in 2022. If that were to happen, it would be the first time in franchise history. As much as we could sacrifice the Texans, they didn’t have the kind of prolonged misery these teams highlighted above.
The Lions have been through two or three five-year droughts. They have lost ten or more games in five straight seasons on three different occasions this century. They were mediocre for the other five seasons. They had Matthew Stafford, Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson. They could be three of the most talented players in their position and it still didn’t matter.
Clearly, this is the second straight team to be worse in their second five years than they were in their first. The Browns have pushed austerity to its logical breaking point. They even faced (Name Redacted) just so they could get an extra second-round pick. All of that savings and all that draft capital has led to a playoff appearance in the last five years.
The Jaguars went to a AFC Championship. Otherwise, they did nothing. Truth be told, we could add last season, as they are the first team in recent memory to have two consecutive overall picks. Suffice it to say, the tanking theory didn’t work for them either.
Final Analysis and the Texans
We could look at similar five-year periods for other teams and we would get similar results. The results were somewhere between terrible and average. No NFL team has seen its fortunes rebound after a five-season tenure in NFL hell. Some teams have come back after a year or two of decline, but that falls outside the definition of long-term tanking.
The why and why in these situations is always the most important thing. There are three possibilities as to why teams don’t take advantage of tanking opportunities. The first is that there really aren’t that many opportunities. Teams can’t cut payrolls to the bone like they can in other sports. Additionally, the strict cap makes it impossible to combine the savings into anything meaningful in terms of player spending. Additionally, there are other rules involved. We will explore this in a later post.
The second is that even with increased drawdown capital, there really is no guarantee that the additional capital will lead to anything. The Texans have three additional first-rounders in addition to additional mid-round picks. They will likely be back in the top five next season. All this does not guarantee anything. So, one of the questions is whether there is a science to copywriting or is it just blind luck. We will look at that too.
Finally, we have cultural considerations. Winning becomes a habit. Losing becomes a habit. Teams that get used to losing keep losing. While this certainly seems true based on the evidence above, we have to be careful of ad hoc post hoc error. Just because B happens after A doesn’t mean A caused B. I know most of us hate the word culture here. I understand. My impetus to avoid it isn’t based on it becoming a four-letter word. My motivation for avoiding it is that I cannot measure it. I can measure drafts, free agent signings, on-field performance and basic coaching skills. I cannot measure attitudes. So we will continue to focus on what we can measure.