The Tanking Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins organization should be embarrassed by the start of their season which has seen the team outscored 102-10 in their first two games. Miami turned themselves by choice into an expansion team this offseason taking on over $50 million in dead money charges and doing their best to pretty much move any player with a pulse without a significant contractual guarantee to ensure they get the number one pick in the draft. The Dolphins could have gotten there anyway with a team that at least puts up a little fight rather than one that just rolls over and plays dead but Miami opted for the latter approach to make sure nothing could really get in their way. Is it worth it?

The concept of tanking isn’t necessarily new in the NFL though I’m not sure we have seen it happen under these circumstances. Indianapolis did it in 2011 in the “Suck for Luck” season but that occurred because of an injury to Peyton Manning and subsequent poor start with veteran Kerry Collins that ended with him landing on IR halfway through the year. They then kind of embraced being bad but it wasn’t by choice and the actual total roster teardown took place the following year.  The Raiders hit the reset on their roster in 2013 simply because they had mismanaged their roster and salary cap so badly that they had no other option but to rip themselves apart. The closest example would be the Browns in 2016 taking a cautious approach to their offseason but even they were out there attempting to win, they just didn’t and made the most of a bad situation.

In my mind Miami is going to be the real test case for the concept. They have amassed over $110 million in cap space for 2020 and multiple draft picks through their trades. Even the harshest critic of the Dolphins approach can’t complain about the haul they received for left tackle Laremy Tunsil in what may be the most lopsided trade in the NFL for a player since the Herschel Walker trade in 1989. In the process though they have fractured the organization and the locker room, making one wonder if they can attract free agents to Miami if there are similar financial offers elsewhere in a league that is going to be filled with teams with big cap surpluses.

The success of the strategy really hinges on being able to draft a spectacular quarterback to finally be the heir to Dan Marino’s legacy. That is of course no guarantee. The first question to ask is will a quarterback be available that is worth the number one pick. In the salary cap era of the NFL the following QBs were drafted number 1 overall: Peyton Manning (1998), Tim Couch (1999), Mike Vick (2001), David Carr (2002), Carson Palmer (2003), Eli Manning (2004), Alex Smith (2005), JaMarcus Russell (2007), Matt Stafford (2009), Sam Bradford (2010), Cam Newton (2011), Andrew Luck (2012), Jameis Winston (2015), Jared Goff (2016), Baker Mayfield (2018), and Kyler Murray (2019). That’s basically around 60% of NFL drafts in which we see a QB go number one. Its 72% since Manning’s draft so a bit higher since 98.  

The second hurdle is who on this list is so good that it’s worth being this bad to get?  Peyton Manning is really it. Vick was spectacular for some time. Luck was pretty good as was Newton. None turned a team into a perennial Super Bowl contender. Players like Palmer, Stafford, Eli Manning, and Smith have all had very solid, long careers and Eli did win his two Super Bowls but for the most part they would put Miami right back to where they were before tanking- a team that trends around 500 with the occasional season that sees them qualify for the playoffs. Better than most of the Tannehill era? Sure, but worth not trying for a season?  That’s hard to say. Couch, Carr, Russell, and Bradford were all busts. Winston is trending toward that category. Its too early to say on the other three. Goff has the most experience and looks to be in the solid but not spectacular category. Lets call it 60% they find a decent QB, 30% a flop, and 10% a legit game changer.

Have there been other game changers in the draft?  Sure but you could have gotten them without the number one pick and while they are going to have their shot at moving those guys up the board since they will control the draft Im not sure why we would expect them to pass on a Trubisky for a Mahomes if the majority of the NFL thought that was the correct pick. Realistically what the number 1 pick does is prevent them from getting stuck with the Ryan Leaf or RGIII player if it is a two person draft with a QB needy team ahead of you in the draft and ensures that if it’s a one QB draft that they get the guy. Clearly there is a benefit to locking those scenarios in, but how great is that benefit? 

The lack of game changers at the QB position is why I question this kind of approach to building a team. I’ve long been a fan of a team that has perfected the art of tanking, albeit unintentionally, in the New York Jets and I’m still waiting to see my Joe Namath. The Jets had the number 1 pick in 1996 but there was no QB and the Jets choice was Keyshawn Johnson. They had it again in 1997 but Manning decided to go back to college and the Jets ended up trading down (twice) and out of selecting a stud left tackle (Orlando Pace and later Walter Jones) for James Farrior and more draft picks. From 1997 to 2008 the Jets made the playoffs a few times and made the AFC title game in 1998.  The Colts the next year had number one and got Manning leading to a decade of greatness.   

If you are tanking what if that scenario happens to Miami? You have this war chest of draft capital to use that should, in theory, make your team in 2020 much better and out of the running for the number 1 pick in 2021. You have this giant war chest of cap room in 2020 that you would use to make yourself better and likely out of the running for the top pick in 2021.

While you can always trade back and out of the picks (Cleveland did this passing on Carson Wentz) the salary cap war chest is probably going to be very CBA dependent. Right now teams are allowed to carry over as much cap room as they want year to year but with the CBA expiring there is no guarantee that cap money that goes unspent in 2020 will carry to 2021. In the last CBA negotiation it was a fresh slate in terms of cap adjustments. The NFL also requires teams to spend 89% of the cap between 2017 and 2020 so Miami will have to spend money just to meet the 89% threshold.

While the Browns right now are considered the shining example of tanking and getting a QB in Baker Mayfield I think its worth noting that they did not really tank in the year they selected him. They signed a number of moderate to high priced free agents including Jamie Collins (they traded for him the year before), Kevin Zeitler, JC Tretter, Kenny Britt, and Jason McCourty and used their top draft pick on Myles Garrett.  While they were still carrying large amounts of cap space over to 2018 the goal was pretty clear that they were trying to be better and not finish the year winless. They happened to be that bad because of bad luck and coaching and landed Mayfield, who may or not be a game changer.

That brings me back to the same question- what if it doesn’t work in the 2020 draft? Do you then tank the 2020 season to ensure you get a top pick in 2021?  Sign players for other teams to meet your financial requirements and then trade them off? Hope the CBA is extended and carryover exists? What message does that send to the players in the locker room and whoever is showing up to the games? What happens if its no different than the 95/96 Jets when no QBs exist worth taking in the draft? Or do you just do what the Browns did and try to improve and see what happens? If you elect to do that well what was really the point of what you did this season?

And then I have the final question. Given that the only reason to do something like Miami is doing is to break the 8-8 funk and get to be a consistent 10+ game winner shouldn’t you not put all your eggs in one basket next year even if you do get a QB?  This is something that has never been done before in the NFL. I thought the Cardinals this year would be the first to take back to back first round QBs and have them battle it out, but they quickly decided Murray was the guy and traded off Josh Rosen (ironically to the Dolphins).

Given that the majority of top picks turn out to be good but not great I think for this to really work you not only need to try to optimize your chances for a top pick but also to optimize your chances at making the right pick. Miami stuck with Ryan Tannehill because they anointed him their guy in 2012 and luckily for them they never bypassed on anyone of note in the draft because of Tannehill but what if you were the Jaguars with a Blake Bortles causing you to pass on a Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes?  Or if the Cardinals because of Rosen passed on the potential upside of Murray.  If you are doing all of this to maximize your opportunities I think you should be approaching it that way if you have the chance to pick again until you know that the player you draft is indeed special.

All told I just don’t think that this is the best way to do things in the NFL. I think there were probably other ways to get to the same goal and at least play semi-competitive football. Maybe this wasn’t the Dolphins plan originally either. They did make a trade for Rosen and did sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, both of whom in theory should give you a better chance of winning games than signing a Christian Hackenberg off the street. Perhaps they just saw how bad things were looking in the summer and then made the decision to go much harder at being the worst team in the NFL right off the bat.

Perhaps I’m wrong and this is the best way. Maybe Miami is 100% sure of a guy in college that will be in the draft that they can not get if they are not number 1. Maybe there are other teams out there capable of winning just 1 or 2 games that could cost them the pick. If its indeed a successful offseason for the Dolphins they won’t be the last to go this deep into the tank. If it is not it will probably be the last for some time to just punt on a season before it begins.