To tank or not to tank — that is the question.
The answer depends on who’s asking.
It’s really an age-old debate in the world of professional sports. Are there times where it’s better to lose? I have a hard time imagining the late Al Davis crying, “Just lose, baby.” Nevertheless, the conundrum prevails.
Turns out that the 2020 Dallas Cowboys are the perfect case study for such a quandary.
Once a piddly 2-7, the Cowboys have won four of their past six games and will enter their Week 17 clash with the Giants with a chance to inexplicably claim a division title. Granted, it may be the worst division in NFL history, but it’s still a seat at the playoff table, right? All the while during the Cowboys’ playoff push, it’s been fair to wonder — is it worth it? Should this team be trying to win?
Again, my original premise holds true. The answer totally depends on who’s asking the question.
If it’s the players themselves, the answer is obvious. It’s kind of insulting to even pose the query. If you coach or play professional sports, you’re out to win. You’re too well-compensated not to take that approach. You should have too much self-respect not to take that approach.
In the immortal words of Herm Edwards, “Hello! You. Play. To. Win. The. Game.”
Nobody should ever find fault with a team trying to win. That’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s their job.
It’s also kind of beside the point.
The “should we tank?” question becomes decidedly more complex when it’s directed at the front office. Ideally, management ought to want to win games and, ultimately, championships. But the ownership group also wants to make money. It’s basic economics. Pro sports owners didn’t just buy their teams for bragging rights at the country club. They expect a financial return on their investment. Sometimes that means cutting costs, to the detriment of the on-the-field product.
Or perhaps they’re willing to suffer now in hopes of celebrating later. There are scores of ways to build a team. Almost all of them have mixed results. A well-traveled path takes teams through the Valley of the Shadow of Perpetual Losing (which can feel a lot like death to the fan base, who we’ll get to later.) The idea is, you bottom out so you can stockpile assets for the future. It’s the easiest way to gather high picks in the draft. Then it’s up to the general manager and his staff to be both good and lucky in the way they use those picks.
Teams have employed this method for decades. The NBA created the lottery system in the mid-1980s with the sole intention of disincentivizing losing on purpose. Stink all you want, the NBA said, but it’s not going to guarantee you the No. 1 pick anymore.
In the NFL, bad teams know that 1-15 might hurt now, but it could bring healing down the road. Usually in the form of a No. 1 pick, which often turns into a franchise quarterback. Remember when Colts fans implored their favorite team to “Suck for Luck?” More recently, Jacksonville fans (apparently they do exist) seemed more than happy to Tank for Trevor or Lose for Lawrence.
The danger with the bottom-out tactic is that it doesn’t always work. The Philadelphia 76ers of the mid-2010s famously asked their fan base to “trust the process” when it came to their blatant tanking. Then-Sixers GM Sam Hinkie shipped out players who might’ve made Philly a bit more respectable in the present tense, in an attempt to grease the wheels for advancement in the future tense. The Sixers won 19 games in 2014, 18 in 2015 and then bottomed out with a measly 10-win season in 2016.
Naturally, Philly amassed plenty of lottery picks, adding the likes of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Embiid even earned the nickname The Process.
But can you really trust the process? (And, yes, I mean both the 76ers’ approach and the mercurial, oft-injured Embiid.) Philadelphia is far more successful these days, as it has won 61 percent of its games over the past three seasons. But it still hasn’t even reached the conference finals with Simmons and Embiid as its franchise guys.
A more compelling case for the tank-top look would be the Houston Astros of the same era. They pinched pennies from a payroll perspective at the start of the 2010s, and it led to three straight 100-loss seasons and dwindling fan interest. One Astros game in 2013 famously drew a 0.0 Nielsen rating in the Houston area.
But all the losing helped then-GM Jeff Luhnow replenish Houston’s farm system. It helped the Astros add future stars like Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Alex Bregman. And in 2017, it paid off handsomely with the franchise’s first World Series championship. (You can fairly charge the Astros with stealing signs on the way to that title, but the talent upgrade was still apparent, trash can or no trash can.)
Which brings us back to the Cowboys. Dallas expected to contend this year. But Dak Prescott mangled his ankle, Ezekiel Elliott regressed, and the Allas Efense (no D deserved in either word) couldn’t stop anyone. Through Week 9, the Cowboys were 2-7, and the two wins came by a combined four points.
But, again, the Cowboys’ place in the lowly NFC Least and a recent three-game winning streak has Dallas in position for a playoff spot. They’ll need a win and some help, as they require the Eagles to beat the mascot-less Washington Football Team. If both things happen, the Cowboys would be playoff-bound at 7-9.
You have to wonder if the Cowboys’ management was really cheering this recent surge. Is it really beneficial for the franchise long-term to go to the playoffs and be cannon fodder for the Bucs or the Rams in the wild-card round? Or would it have been better for Mike McCarthy’s bunch to keep on losing and set the team up with a better draft spot in 2021?
Yes, you’ve got to be in it to win it. Nevertheless, it’s hard to envision a scenario where these 2020 Cowboys — who undoubtedly are playing much better over the past three weeks — can vanquish the likes of the NFC’s Packers or the Seahawks or the Saints and make the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance since the 1995 season.
So, finally, let’s pose our original question to Cowboys fans: Is it better to tank or not? Which do you prefer? When the team was 2-7, were you wishing for a 3-13 season, or would a 7-9 playoff season and NFC East title be more acceptable? I suspect the Cowboys fans’ opinions are all over the map. Nobody likes seeing their team lose, and fans are generally not known for their patience. But sometimes if you can wait it out, it’ll work out down the road.
Ricky Bobby said, if you’re not first you’re last. But in the NFL (and in the Bible), the last shall be first, at least in the draft. That can be fun, too.
As an Astros fan, I’m not sure I had that kind of foresight back in the doggedly-bad dog days of 2011-13. When the team suffered losses, I suffered along with them. But by 2017, I was happy the work it all worked out.
Tanks for the memories, you know?