Barnwell: Are the Dolphins really doing this? How they could tank ... and win - 26 minutes read
Through three weeks, the Miami Dolphins are the worst team in NFL history. Brian Flores' team has been outscored 133-16, for a point differential of minus-117. That's 20 points worse than the previous record holder since the merger, the 1950 Colts, but at least those Colts briefly led in one of their three blowout losses. Miami hasn't made it out of the first half of the first quarter with a tie. It has scored one touchdown in three weeks, which isn't an NFL record. It has allowed 18 touchdowns over that same time frame, which is.
Of course, the Dolphins aren't trying to be competitive. While they might not be willing to admit it publicly, they are the latest organization to actively tank and show little regard for winning. They are both amassing draft capital by trading away talents like Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick for first-round picks and trying to ensure that their own picks land as high as possible.
You don't need to look far to find successful examples of teams tanking as part of their rebuilds. The Astros and Cubs parlayed years of dismal seasons into World Series victories. The 76ers, who tanked with gusto under Sam Hinkie, are among the favorites to win the 2020 NBA championship. The Browns haven't posted a winning season since the start of the rebuild, but with Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett, and Odell Beckham Jr., they have one of the most exciting young cores in the NFL.
The tenets of tanking roughly align with what research has suggested are best practices, particularly in football. Young quarterbacks playing on rookie-deal contracts are the most valuable players in the sport. In a league in which organizations are overconfident about their ability to identify ideal draft picks, acquiring as many picks as possible is the best way to build a roster. The Dolphins have gone 6-10, 7-9 or 8-8 in nine of the past 10 campaigns and haven't won a playoff game since the 2000 season. After a decade of mild incompetence, you can understand why the Dolphins might pursue a more aggressive strategy.
And yet, there are obvious arguments against tanking. Plenty of bad baseball teams have embraced analytics and traded away talent without enjoying a renaissance like the Astros or Cubs did. Hinkie and former Browns general manager Sashi Brown didn't keep their jobs long enough to see their tanking efforts through to completion. NFL teams such as the Chiefs and Eagles have managed to find their star quarterback and build around them without abandoning hope for years. Our Domonique Foxworth also pointed out the moral and ethical concerns inherent in asking players to put their bodies on the line for a team with no desire to contend.
Let's take a closer look at what the Dolphins are doing. Is this egregious? Are they doing a good job of tanking? Could they learn something from what the Browns went through? And then, even if they have a sound plan, is it likely to deliver the sort of turnaround they are hoping to achieve?
Jump to a section:
How bad are the Dolphins, really?
The draft capital for 2020 and beyond
The importance of infrastructure
When do tanking teams make it out?
The ethics of tanking, and the NFL's options
Just how bad is this team?
You might remember that the Browns went winless long enough to inspire a free beer promotion. During their rebuild, they were never as bad over any three-week span as the Dolphins have been during these first three weeks. The Browns' worst performance under the ill-fated reign of Hue Jackson was a 25-point loss to the Cowboys in 2016. Miami's best performance of the season so far is its 25-point loss to the Cowboys in Week 3 given that it lost to the Patriots by 43 and the Ravens by 49. With a 2018 Week 17 loss to the Bills included, the Dolphins are the first team since the AFL-NFL merger to lose four straight by 25 points or more.
There aren't many reasons to think that things are likely to get significantly better for the Dolphins this season, either. Their schedule will get easier -- they've played three likely playoff teams in the Ravens, Patriots and Cowboys -- but two of their first three games were at home. Their future schedule is the 22nd-toughest in the league, according to ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI).
The same model gives them a 13.4% chance of losing out and going 0-16, which is remarkably high given just how many chances they still have to win a game. For context, three weeks into Cleveland's 0-16 season, FPI thought the Browns had just a 0.4% shot of going winless. FPI thinks Miami's chances of going 0-16 are about the same as the Rams' chances of winning the Super Bowl, pegging the latter at 14.8%.
I think the Dolphins might have a slightly better chance of pulling at least one victory than FPI, owing to circumstance more than skill. In Week 17, Miami travels to New England for its rematch with the Patriots. Unsurprisingly, FPI projects a Patriots blowout, with New England expected to win by 29.9 points. The Pats have occasionally sat key players in past Week 17s, including the likes of Julian Edelman, Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Sebastian Vollmer in a 20-10 loss to the Dolphins in 2015. If the Pats rest some of their starters, the Dolphins' chances would obviously improve.
Otherwise, FPI isn't enthusiastic. The algorithm thinks the Dolphins' best shot at a victory will come in Week 6, when they'll host a Washington team that might be debuting rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Even there, against one of the worst teams in the league at home, FPI projects the Dolphins to lose by seven points and believes they have just a 30.3% shot of winning outright. Home games against the Jets and Bengals are the only other times Miami isn't projected to lose by double digits.
What's disconcerting, too, is that we might be seeing the most talented version of the Dolphins here in September. Their roster took several hits from the Tunsil trade during the preseason, and they have less talent in their secondary after trading Fitzpatrick to the Steelers. They've benched quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick for Josh Rosen, and while I fully support the move to get as long of a look at Rosen as possible, there's a chance that he simply isn't an NFL-caliber quarterback. The Dolphins will also inevitably deal with injuries as the season goes along, having already put starting offensive linemen Julie'n Davenport and Danny Isidora on injured reserve.
They also could opt to trade away one or more of the veterans on their roster. Fitzpatrick would presumably be an upgrade for some of the teams hit by injuries at quarterback, and he's not exactly needed in Miami. Running back Kenyan Drake and wide receiver DeVante Parker are pending free agents. Wideout Albert Wilson isn't healthy, but the Dolphins will likely look to release the former Chiefs wideout after the season if they don't need his deal to help hit the spending floor.
The last star left on the roster is cornerback Xavien Howard, who was signed to a five-year, $75.3 million extension in May. Perhaps knowingly, the Dolphins structured Howard's deal in such a way to make it reasonably tradable. Miami would owe only $7.1 million in dead money on its cap if it traded Howard, most of which would come as a $5.6 million charge in 2020. Any team acquiring Howard would be picking up a 26-year-old star corner for what amounts to a five-year, $61.3 million extension starting in 2020. That's roughly what Malcolm Butler got in free agency in 2018, and Howard is a much better player.
How Miami has loaded up on draft picks
It's clear that the Dolphins are willing to write off the 2019 season if it means accumulating valuable draft picks down the line. Even if you disagree with their plan, you can probably understand their logic. The Adam Gase teams of 2016-18 weren't going to win a title as constructed with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, even if they managed to ride a bunch of close victories against subpar opponents into the playoffs during Gase's debut season. The Dolphins are stuck in a division with a dynasty, but one whose quarterback is 42. The Bills and Jets made their moves to go after young quarterbacks and try to be the best team in the division after Tom Brady retires. Miami clearly projects itself to be good right around the time the Patriots will need a new quarterback.
Unsurprisingly, FPI projects the Dolphins to finish with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. It believes Miami to have a staggering 77.6% shot of finishing with the top selection, either through its own pick (76.6%) or the first-rounder the Dolphins got from the Steelers for Fitzpatrick (1%). The Pittsburgh pick is projected to come in as the ninth selection, while the first-rounder the Dolphins acquired from the Texans as part of the Tunsil deal is expected to be the 23rd selection.
In all, the Dolphins will have three first-round picks in the 2020 draft and two in the 2021 draft. They have two second-round picks in both 2020 and 2021, their own third-rounders in each season, and if we assume they'll get a fourth-round comp pick for losing offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James, an extra fourth-rounder in this year's class. The Browns had five first-round picks from 2017-18, including consecutive first overall picks, and used them to acquire Mayfield, Garrett, tight end David Njoku, cornerback Denzel Ward and safety Jabrill Peppers, with the latter then sent to the Giants as part of the OBJ trade.
Quietly, though, the Dolphins were already starting to accumulate picks during the offseason in advance of the April's draft. Before the draft, they made a pair of swaps that didn't attract much attention at the time, but ones that helped indicate just how they were going to value draft picks during their rebuild.
First, in lieu of cutting Tannehill, they restructured his contract before sending their former starter and a sixth-round pick to the Titans for a seventh-rounder and a 2020 fourth-round selection. As part of the restructure, the Dolphins paid Tannehill a $5 million bonus, leaving the Titans to pay Tannehill just $2 million. Essentially, the Dolphins bought a 2020 fourth-round pick for $5 million and the swap of late-round selections in 2019.
Meanwhile, on March 15, the Dolphins chose to pay Robert Quinn a $1.1 million roster bonus as opposed to cutting the former Rams standout. They likely didn't expect to keep Quinn on their roster, but paying him the bonus assured Miami of time to trade away the edge rusher. The Dolphins ended up netting a 2020 sixth-round pick from the Cowboys as part of the swap, with Quinn taking a slight pay cut to join Dallas.
In all, they paid just over $6 million for fourth- and sixth-round selections in the 2020 draft. (The price would be slightly more after we account for moving down one round.) It's reminiscent of the infamous 2017 trade the Browns made for Brock Osweiler, when Cleveland essentially absorbed his $16 million salary for a second-round pick from the Texans. That deal didn't make financial sense at the time unless the Browns were able to move Osweiler along for future compensation or get something out of him as a player, neither of which ended up occurring. The pick ended up coming in higher than expected, as a disappointing Texans season meant that their second-rounder was the 35th pick. The Browns used it to draft Nick Chubb.
A quick poll of a handful of NFL executives suggests that most teams wouldn't pay $6 million to acquire those picks, especially given that the picks were more than a year away from being realized. The money would represent a bargain if the Dolphins are able to find a quality starter in either round, but the chances of an average team finding that sort of player in the fourth or sixth rounds isn't particularly high. It's defensible, and buying picks is likely a better way for the Dolphins to use their money than handing it out to veterans in free agency, but it's tough to see it as creating surplus value.
The moves to trade away Tunsil, Fitzpatrick and receiver Kenny Stills make more sense. In each case, the team was realistically blown away by an offer for promising talent. The Dolphins picked up two first-round picks and a second-rounder for Tunsil, Stills and fourth- and sixth-round picks. Compare that to what the Raiders got for Khalil Mack, who cost the Bears two first-rounders, a third-rounder and a sixth, but who came with second- and fifth-round picks from a terrible Raiders team.
Using the Chase Stuart value chart and projecting each team to be league average besides the Dolphins, who we'll conservatively project as the fifth-worst team in the league in 2020, the Texans sent more to the Dolphins for Tunsil and Stills than the Bears sent the Raiders for Mack. Tunsil still has time before free agency, and Stills would have netted a late-round pick on his own, but Mack is the more valuable player.
The Fitzpatrick deal might be even better. While the Steelers were able to acquire a promising defensive back with four years of cost control remaining, they shipped off a first-round pick after starting 0-2 and knowing they'll need to start an untested backup for the remaining 14 games of the season. (Pittsburgh has suggested it won't drop off much from Ben Roethlisberger with Mason Rudolph under center, and the trade clearly backs up that confidence, but if the Steelers really felt like Rudolph wasn't much of a drop-off from Roethlisberger, they shouldn't have given the 37-year-old Roethlisberger a $68 million extension in April.)
Fitzpatrick is unquestionably talented, but this deal gives the Dolphins a chance to draft a player whose cost-controlled years better align with their window for contention. It also allows them to trade down for a better haul without having to pass up the opportunity to take a quarterback with their own first-round pick. If the pick is high enough -- and FPI projects a 25.2% chance of Pittsburgh's selection falling in the top five -- they could plausibly draft a quarterback and then trade Pittsburgh's selection for a boatload of picks to a team that wants to draft another one of the signal-callers.
The importance of infrastructure
There's a lesson to be learned from Cleveland's tanking, though I'm not sure it applies clearly to the Dolphins given their circumstances. Early in their process, the Browns let three of their most talented young players leave in free agency. Wide receiver Travis Benjamin, safety Tashaun Gipson and offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz all left Cleveland, with the Browns picking up compensatory selections in return. (They also lost center Alex Mack at the same time, though he had wanted to leave years earlier and was forced to stay when the Browns matched a Jaguars offer sheet. At the first possible opportunity, he opted out of his contract and left for the Falcons.)
Cleveland wasn't able to use draft picks to replace its missing starters. It drafted several wideouts, including first-rounder Corey Coleman, but had to trade for Beckham and Jarvis Landry to solidify its receiving corps. It sent quarterback DeShone Kizer to the Packers for defensive back Damarious Randall in what appears to be one of new general manager John Dorsey's best trades after taking over for Brown.
Schwartz, though, was a loss the Browns have yet to solve. The offensive line remains Cleveland's biggest weakness, even after Brown spent millions to bring in the likes of JC Tretter and Kevin Zeitler. Dorsey followed by signing former Steelers tackle Chris Hubbard, but the departure of Schwartz and the retirement of future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas has been a problem Dorsey has yet to fix. The line issues have instilled worrisome habits in Mayfield, whose propensity to panic under the hint of pressure and bail out of the pocket repeatedly reared its head against the Rams last Sunday.
I suspect that Mayfield will overcome those issues, but the issues the Browns have had protecting their quarterbacks reiterates how important it is to have the right infrastructure around a young quarterback. For so many passers -- guys like Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky come to mind -- their rookie year was essentially a waste of time without the right weapons and/or the right protection. Each of those quarterbacks needed their organizations to go on an offseason spree before we could even pretend to realistically evaluate their chances of success.
If we assume that the Dolphins will draft Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa or Oregon's Justin Herbert with the first overall pick in 2020, they'll face the same issues. After trading Tunsil and letting James leave for a huge deal from the Broncos in free agency, the Dolphins have one of the worst offensive lines in recent memory. While they're enthused about undrafted free-agent receiver Preston Williams and will still have Wilson under contract for one more season, they will also likely need to invest in weapons for their new quarterback.
Louis Riddick has a problem with the seemingly tanking Dolphins starting a young quarterback in Josh Rosen over Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 3.
When you tank, though, you aren't exactly a desirable landing spot for veteran free agents. While it's fair to suggest that Miami as a city might be more appealing to the average player in a vacuum than Cleveland, the Browns had to pay over the odds to sign free agents or keep the talented players they acquired. After they traded for Jamie Collins, they were only able to coax the former Patriots star into staying by giving him an extension averaging $12.5 million per season, the largest for any inside linebacker at the time.
Zeitler, likewise, got the largest average salary for any guard in league history to leave the Bengals. Their other multiyear deal in free agency went to wideout Kenny Britt, whose nine-game stint with the team cost Cleveland $10.5 million. The Dolphins will need to surround their quarterback -- whoever he is -- with the sort of talent that creates good habits. Those players likely aren't on the current roster.
How long will it take to get back to the playoffs?
One other frustrating reality of tanking is that there's no timetable on when things will turn around. Getting a promising young quarterback is great, of course, but the Colts were never able to parlay Andrew Luck into a Super Bowl trip. Trubisky and Deshaun Watson haven't yet won playoff games. Neither has Matthew Stafford. Jameis Winston and Sam Bradford, both first overall picks, have combined for zero playoff berths over 13 seasons in the league.
History tells us that it takes time for the absolute worst teams in league history to rebuild their roster to the point where they're competitive, even in the era of the salary cap. Twelve teams in NFL history have lost 15 or more games in a season. Two of those teams were the 2016-2017 Cleveland Browns, whose future still remains unknown.
The track record of the other 10 teams suggests the Dolphins could be in for a wait. Those teams took an average of 3.7 years before they returned to the postseason. If you set the standard for completing a rebuild as a postseason win, the 10 organizations averaged more than 7.5 years before celebrating a January victory, and that number is rising. The Dolphins (1-15 in 2007) and Lions (0-16 in 2008) haven't yet won a playoff game since bottoming out.
The worst-case scenario belongs to the 1980 Saints, who went 1-15. It took New Orleans seven years to post a winning record or make it back to the postseason. Jim Mora's teams made four postseason appearances without winning a game; it took them 20 years from that 1-15 campaign to win their first playoff game in franchise history.
On the other hand, three teams -- the 1989 Cowboys, 1996 Jets and 2001 Panthers -- won a playoff game just two years after their 1-15 seasons. The Cowboys are the most interesting team of the three for a couple of reasons. For one, they tanked before the term was even introduced. Long before analytics were widely adopted across professional sports and studies suggested that teams were smart to trade down and acquire additional picks, Jimmy Johnson rode the bounty of the Herschel Walker trade and several other trade-downs to amass a huge amount of draft capital. Three years after going 1-15, the Cowboys were Super Bowl champions. Fifteen of their 22 starters during their second Super Bowl run in 1993 were players Johnson had drafted.
The other interesting element with those Cowboys? Johnson was the only coach from this bunch who ran the team during their 15-plus loss season and then remained in charge long enough to win a playoff game with the same team. Every other coach was fired by the time the team got good, which is also true for the teams on our list that haven't yet won playoff games after their dismal campaign. This was also the case for the Cubs and Astros, who bottomed out with one manager and won the World Series with another. Sixers coach Brett Brown, one of the few holdovers from the first days of the Hinkie era, is one of the few exceptions to this rule.
All of this leaves Flores in an awkward situation. The former Patriots defensive coach has publicly suggested that the Dolphins aren't tanking. Owner Stephen Ross hasn't been a patient man since taking over from Wayne Huizenga; no coach has finished a fourth season under Ross' ownership. Reports have suggested that Ross was onboard with the rebuilding plan, and he's surely been consulted as the Dolphins have made further trades to shed talent, but Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was all-in with the analytics-driven movement in Cleveland until his team went 1-31.
Flores is stuck with the toughest part of this rebuild. It's not his fault the Dolphins spent years drafting poorly while spending too much money in free agency to try to plug holes on a below-average team. He has to convince players who know the season is going nowhere to play hard. He has to bear the brunt of frustrated fans and serve as a media punchline. If he does his job well, there's a good chance someone else will get to reap the benefits. Flores knew all this when he took over, of course, and it speaks to his own mental toughness that Flores chose to take the job anyway. The odds are certainly against him.
The ethics of tanking, and the NFL's options
Flores, of course, is only putting his reputation and legacy on the line. His players are risking much more. While pitchers have a limited number of throws in their arms and basketball players are one false step from serious injury, football is a contact sport. The attrition rates are higher and the careers are shorter. Research by the Wall Street Journal suggested the average NFL career now lasts less than three seasons. You can fit an entire career into the bottom of one NFL team's rebuild.
In his video segment talking about the dangers of tanking, Foxworth went beyond the physical danger of players being placed in situations in which they don't have the appropriate support and talent around them. He correctly pointed out that the players who go through the tanking efforts are going to have bad tape and the stink of a losing season on their résumés, which will make it more difficult for those players to catch on elsewhere.
Domonique Foxworth thinks the team owes it to their players not to tank
Take the 1-15 Browns from 2016. Of the 15 players who played the most snaps for that team on offense, seven are out of football. The same is true for five of the top 15 on defense. Three more are either on practice squads or injured reserve. Many of those players who are still in the league are backups or roster fodder. Only two of those players -- guard Joel Bitonio and linebacker Christian Kirksey -- are still Browns starters. For a young team, that's remarkable. Just two of the Browns' 14 draft picks that year are still on the roster, linebacker Joe Schobert and wideout Rashard Higgins. It's possible that none of those missing players belong in the NFL on sheer merit alone, but I suspect either the bad film or the relationship with losing has closed doors on players who might have gotten better opportunities elsewhere.
To be fair, there are likely players who might not have ever gotten a shot at the NFL who will have a shot at launching their career. A more competitive Dolphins team might have tried to win, which would have meant signing veterans to meaningful deals. Instead, players like guard Shaq Calhoun will have opportunities to take snaps. Some (or most) of those players won't break through and have long careers, though, and starting behind the curve doesn't do them any favors.
I'd also argue that teams have been tanking for high draft picks for decades now. Consider the 2009 Rams, who were a combined 1-11 with Marc Bulger and Kyle Boller at quarterback before turning things over to the inimitable Keith Null. With the Rams tanking to get Bradford, Null averaged 4.8 yards per attempt and threw three times as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes (three). He went 0-4 and the Rams got the quarterback they wanted. There's not the wholesale trading of talent for picks, but teams have certainly given less than 100 percent at key positions in years past.
In the big picture, though, I agree with Foxworth. Tanking might be analytically friendly, but in football, it's distasteful at best and outright morally reprehensible at worst. The Cowboys might be the only truly successful example of a team tanking before positively turning their franchise around, and even they needed a once-in-a-lifetime trade offer for a running back to make it logical for their franchise.
At the same time, I'm not sure how you legislate it out of football. You could institute a lottery, but the NBA and NHL have both shown that teams will happily tank if there's a talented enough player at the top of the draft lottery. You could limit the number of draft picks a team can acquire, but that would artificially cap legitimate rebuilding plans that don't involve tanking.
The reality is that the NFL and the NFLPA built a collective bargaining agreement that makes drafted talent incredibly valuable. When the league switched to a slotted draft system in 2011, it incentivized teams to tank and target a quarterback who might be worth $60 million to $80 million in surplus value over the length of his rookie contract. Owners were frustrated with paying out record deals to players like Stafford before they ever stepped onto the field, but the pendulum has now swung too far the other way. Every other major U.S. sport operates under an economic system designed to make young prospects pay their dues while earning pennies of their full value.
The solution -- or part of the solution -- might be to raise the cost of draft pick contracts in the first round to try to make those picks less desirable. There's no innate reason Kyler Murray needs to make as much over his four-year rookie contract ($35 million) as Russell Wilson will make in cash this year ($35 million). If teams really felt like the risk of landing on a bust wasn't worth the reward, we wouldn't be seeing them swoop in with multiple draft picks to try to grab that passer of the future.
The other way would be for a star player to say that he won't go play for a team comfortable with tanking. First overall picks have failed to report and forced a trade before, including Danny Ferry in the NBA and Eli Manning in the NFL. If Tagovailoa had come out over the summer and said he would insist on a trade away from any team that actively tried to lose, there would be no debate. Until then, the Dolphins are likely the latest -- and most egregious -- example of tanking in the NFL.