The Dolphins traded a couple of their star players, Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick, for future draft picks, and have lost games handily in the first month of the season. Thus the narrative of their “tanking” in 2019, intentionally losing games presumably to be in position to draft Tua Tuagolova or Justin Herbert or whoever will lead them to a special place. What's unsaid is that they are now being quarterbacked by one of those formerly much-hyped prospects, Josh Rosen who—according to the tanking narrative—is merely keeping the seat warm for someone a year or two younger than he is.
Let’s examine what exactly this “tanking” philosophy is and whether it makes organizational sense. I believe we definitely need a better word for this philosophy. And I know just the word:
Tanking implies that the entire organization embraces losing on purpose. Of course, that is not true. Players are still blocking, tackling, running; coaches are still working on game plans and schemes. So let’s be clear: This concept clearly does not apply to the active participants. Where the line becomes much less clear is with the management, although it is a philosophy long used in business and even sports.
Businesses regularly sacrifice short-term success for a more stable long-term future. Jeff Bezos has said that if Amazon has a good quarter (it has had a few), it is because of work and decision-making done three to five years ago. This certainly applies to sports. Successful teams in 2019 formed their roots in 2015-2018.
Unbeknownst to me, I was neighbors with former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie for several years. When I saw him at a conference a few years ago—we had never met—he came right up to me and said: “You’re fast!” “Excuse me?” “We lived down the street from you; I used to see you run by our house all the time. You're fast!” I’ll take it.
I have talked to Hinkie about the philosophy he brought to the NBA. He had learned through research and analysis that playing on the fringes of the playoffs amounted to being on a never-ending treadmill, your team going nowhere fast. Thus, the Hinkie strategy: tear down the structure and create a new foundation, mortgage present assets for potentially more valuable future assets, and create an opportunity to onboard transcendent players. And after several years working on an extreme makeover, the 76ers are now—without Hinkie—a legitimate championship contender with two transcendent pieces (Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons) flanked by talented veterans eager to play with the young stars. Hinkie made the phrase “Trust the Process” famous and gives us a better word than tanking: processing.
Although no NFL owners or general managers have been completely open in their “processing” philosophies, leadership in other sports has been more transparent. Mark Cuban admitted one year that once his Mavericks were eliminated from the playoffs, coaches opted for younger players over veterans. And the Houston Astros, now a model Major League Baseball franchise with sustained success, were honest about their years of “processing” towards their now-sustained success. The process is being trusted throughout team sports.
In my sports law class, I teach about a case, Finley v. Kuhn, in which MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn successfully vetoed purported “tanking” (although that word was not part of the sports lexicon back in 1972) by Oakland A’s owner Charles Finley. Fresh off a couple of championships, the A’s attempted to sell off three star players to the Red Sox and Yankees (some things never change). And in 2011, NBA commissioner David Stern disallowed a trade of Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) to the Lakers, although Stern said he was acting as the Hornets owner rather than commissioner, as the team was being run by the NBA while in receivership.
Despite the examples above, leagues now consistently allow “processing” throughout team sports. It is understood that there are various accepted ways to build a roster; the idea of Roger Goodell—or anyone else—intervening in Dolphins management, even after it traded away Tunsil and Fitzpatrick, is one that we don’t even contemplate.
We accept, as the league office does, that NFL teams are built in different ways, some with older and expensive rosters trying to “win now” and some in various stages of processing. The problem is that some of those “win now” rosters don’t win and have delayed roster development to be back to where they started, which is … mediocrity.
Every successful veteran player was once an inexperienced young player, sometimes only given an opportunity due to an injury to someone ahead of him. Successful front offices (such as the one I worked in for nine years in Green Bay) almost universally prioritize developing young talent. It is not only part of but often the most integral part of an organizational philosophy to achieve sustained success.
The NFL waiver wires in February and March are full of veterans who have been released to make room for younger players; are these teams releasing older players—to be presumably replaced by younger ones—tanking? Of course not, it’s simply the very short cycle of life for NFL players. My point is that we often dismiss “processing” in favor of other organizational strategies, such as signing a bunch of free agents, but “processing” is more common than you may know.
Dolphins vs. other “non-tanking” teams
Next year the Dolphins will have more than $100 million in cap room to go along with three first-round picks, two second-round picks, one third-round pick and 14 picks in total. And in 2021 they now have two first=round picks and two second-round picks.
The Jets went on a spending spree this offseason, paying “retail” for free agents such as LeVeon Bell, C.J. Mosley, Kelechi Osemele, Jamison Crowder and others. The Bengals have been a study in mediocrity with no heir apparent to quarterback Andy Dalton, currently in the last year of his contract. Washington’s roster has two veteran quarterbacks, a rookie quarterback now playing and an incumbent injured quarterback accounting for more than $21 million on their cap. And their best player, Trent Williams, refuses to show up to work. All of these teams are currently winless. Certainly an argument can be made that the “processing” Dolphins are better off than any of these non-processing teams.
The Dolphins have traversed various strategic models of team building over the past decade, often with big swings with free-agent signings such as Mike Wallace and Ndamokung Suh. Now, with a new coach and general manager plucked from the same system (the Patriots), they appear committed to avoiding quick fixes. Rather, they are “processing” to — as the plan goes — put them in position for long term success. And, to observers of the Dolphins failed strategies over the past decade, why not?
As with everything, time will tell. Trust the, well, you know…
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