The way we talk about tanking.
The Miami Dolphins won a football game last weekend, and it once again kicked up the conversation about tanking. The Dolphins blew their tank job was the conventional wisdom. The Jets (whom the Dolphins beat) aren’t even trying to lose and the Dolphins beat them, that’s how much they suck. But this just underscores my point – the way we talk about losing is all wrong. Not all losing is tanking. There are different types of losing.
The Miami Dolphins are not a good football team. They have not been a good football team for more or less the last 20 years. They have cycled through useless, no-name, random quarterbacks, and useless, no-name random coaches ever since Dan Marino retired. Here’s a list of Dolphins starting quarterbacks since Marino’s retirement in 1999:
That list rivals the Browns list of starting quarterbacks that inspired this work of art. The Dolphins have only had three quarterbacks in that time span start all 16 games (Fiedler in 2001, Pennington in 2008, and Tannehill did it four times). They started two guys named Chad in the same season!
This franchise has been the dumpster fire gif ever since Don Shula left town in the mid-1990s. Jimmy Johnson and Jimmy Johnson’s hair finished out the Marino era with three playoff appearances but since then they’ve only been to the playoffs four times. Four! Melania has let Donald Trump hold her hand in public more times than that. The Dolphins franchise is part of the reason we have to deal with the Patriots every year.
The Dolphins suck now, they’ve sucked before, and before this season started, I would have told you that they would keep sucking for the foreseeable future.
But see, the Dolphins have started a smart and orchestrated rebuilding process that is poised to set them on the path to success in the short and medium term. That rebuilding process started in the offseason, and ramped up when the Dolphins traded away Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick, two of their only remaining above-average NFL players, for draft picks. Ryen Russillo started getting at this on his podcast, but doesn’t quite get at the larger point. That yes, because they don’t have a Harvard guy running things we talk about the Dolphins differently. But I also think it’s because we lack any sort of nuance when we talk about teams lose a lot. Shocking that the internet lacks nuance, I know.
The idea of losing on purpose came into the mainstream thinking in basketball with the Philadelphia 76ers and The Immortal God That Is Sam Hinkie (aka Tigtish). Tigtish certainly wasn’t the first person who realized that, because of the way the league’s incentive structure, being bad was the best way to get good players. Tigtish was the first team executive to openly acknowledge this, and not only that, but to implement a strategy that included taking advantage of this structure not just for one year, but for multiple years. And that’s where The Process was born. The Process wasn’t ‘we are going to be bad this year.’ The Process was, ‘we are going to be bad for the next three years’. Tigtish didn’t event something new – he just openly admitted it and extended the length of it.
Tanking, on the other hand, does not equal rebuilding. Tanking does not equal The Process. Tanking is done on a game by game basis. Tanking is Mark Madsen taking seven 3-pointers in a game when he’d not taken a single 3-pointer in the previous 135 games and 1617 minutes. Tanking is trading your best player for an injured one in order to keep a Top 7 protected draft pick.
When ‘losing on purpose’ is done in the short term, it’s tanking. When ‘losing on purpose’ is done as part of a larger strategy, and is coupled with things like smart contracts – think the Hinkie Special – and shrewd trades, then it becomes more than tanking, losing on purpose becomes…ummm, errr….a process.
That last point is key to distinguish rebuilding or, Processing, from just straight up incompetence. Lots of teams can be bad for long periods of time and because they have no long term strategy, because they don’t sign players to smart contracts or make shrewd trades or invest heavily in scouting and player development and analytics, they just suck. New York team, both Jets and Knicks, follow this model. The Sacramento Kings used to fit this description (and still might tbh). The Baltimore Orioles and Miami Marlins fit this model. And, until this year, so did the Miami Dolphins.
But now the Dolphins are coupling their terribleness with shrewd trades. They have nine picks in the first and second round over the next two drafts. According to Spotrac, they are due to have $110 freaking million in cap space next year. Will they use it wisely? I have no idea. Will they draft good players? I have no idea. But at least there is a clear plan in place. At least the losing means something this time.
At least they won’t have to cheer for a quarterback named Chad again.