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To tank or not to tank, that is the question

Sitting at 5-9 with nothing to play for do wins trump draft positioning?

2017 NFL Draft Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

As former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards once said, “You play to win the game”. It’s why players spend so much time in the offseason training. It’s why coaches spend sleepless nights reviewing film. It’s why owners spend $100,000,000 on filling their roster. It’s why the residents of Hamilton County spent billions to build a stadium for watching eight home games in Cincinnati. It’s also why fans show up at the games and tune in via televisions, radio, and streaming internet.

Everybody wants to win. There is something exciting about being on the winning side. But the purpose of winning goes beyond winning just for the sake of winning. It leads to the playoffs, and ultimately the Super Bowl. But what if you are cut off from reaching the playoffs? What if a victory provides no other purpose than winning for the sake of winning? At that point is winning still worth it – especially if there are potential benefits from losing?

The argument for losing

The only real argument for wanting to see your team lose (short of hoping it gets rid of an undesired coach) is for better draft positioning. For a team like the Bengals who build thru the draft, getting higher picks in each round of the draft is desirable because it gives the team a better chance at players who can make more of a positive impact on their success.

One only need to look at the 2017 draft when the Bengals “settled” for wide receiver John Ross, while receivers Corey Davis and Mike Williams were selected just a few picks before them. And if one looks at the previous draft, in 2016 the Bengals missed out on the wide receivers they wanted in the first round, who were taken right before them, and missed out on Sterling Shepard and Michael Thomas in the second round, selected right before them. Because they missed out on those wide receivers in 2016, they used their 2nd round pick on Tyler Boyd, and followed that up with a receiver in the first round in 2017.

The other benefit from having higher draft picks is their trade value. With more elite players found earlier in the draft, having a higher pick is a more valuable commodity to trade to teams looking for elite players.

The argument for winning

There is no guarantee that the Bengals will take advantage of the higher pick. Consider last season when the Bengals were sitting at 5-7-1, and had a chance to finish with a winning record. Instead they lost two of their final three games for a 6-9-1 finish. Had they won all three games, they would have finished 8-7-1. By losing those late games, they improved their draft positioning from #16 to #9. But they still ended up drafting John Ross, a player who was generally considered to be a mid-late first round talent, who they would have very likely still ended up with at the #16 overall pick. In this scenario losing did not provide any benefit in the draft and the losses were just meaningless losses.

Missing out on a top-10 player in the draft may force the team to change its philosophy and actually look at acquiring a proven commodity in free agency. Granted, you can’t teach an old Mike Brown new tricks, but without the comfort of a high pick, perhaps that and a new coach could be enough to push the team to at least sign one quality free agent. Perhaps.

History is not always on the side of tanking for picks. It has worked out well for the Colts, who have had a pair of horrible seasons over the last two decades, which they converted into Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. But those were “luck”-y years were an elite quarterback prospect was available and the team had the top overall pick. Those years are few and far between. Just look at the Browns who perpetually have high picks, and yet perpetually stay bad. There is no guarantee that high picks, or many picks, will lead to success on the field. One can also look at the Bengals Week 16 opponent, the Lions, who had a top 10 pick every year from 2002 to 2006, and wasted them on guys like Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, and Mike Williams. All they got from their high picks, was another high pick the next season. The Patriots haven’t had a pick in the top 28 selections since 2012, and haven’t had a top-10 pick since 2008. If you had your choice between being the Browns and their annual plethora of high picks, or the Patriots and their annual dearth of high picks, I think most fans would pick the Patriots, because draft picks are no substitute for success.

New York Jets v Baltimore Ravens
You play to win the game!
Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images


At the point in the season when a team is eliminated from playoff contention, winning is still nice, as it is a payoff for the players and coaches for the time and effort they put in. And it’s a reward for fans who watch the games. But it comes at a price. That price is draft positioning.


Do you prefer the Bengals Win or Lose over the final 2 weeks?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Win. I like to see them win.
    (69 votes)
  • 72%
    Lose. Play for the picks and reset for next year.
    (179 votes)
248 votes total Vote Now