The tank is on! Why defeat for this American football team could lead to a great victory

The Raiders are officially tanking,” declared USA Today’s Touchdown Wire last month. It’s not the first time this has been suggested by those covering the NFL for a living in response to the team’s dismal season.

The contention that there’s nothing accidental about the losing streak is based on the notion that a lowly position in the final NFL standings this season would secure a favourable position in next year’s NFL draft. It allocates the first pick from each year’s pool of eligible players from the college game to the worst team, and then proceeds in reverse order, with the Super Bowl winner going last in each of seven rounds. Just over 250 rookies, many of considerable quality, are selected in this manner.

While no one from the team would admit it, and certainly not coach Jon Gruden (who indeed has flatly denied it), the suggestion that the Raiders are “tanking” was hard to dismiss during the 34-3 loss to the crosstown San Francisco 49ers at the start of November.

It was a truly dreadful performance. Michael Wilbon, one of the hosts of ESPN’s talk show Pardon the Interruption, was moved to describe it as “the worst I’ve seen” from one of the league’s marque franchises.

Having followed the Raiders for more than three decades, including through some very rough seasons, I couldn’t disagree.

Gruden is the returning prodigal son, a man who umpteen teams, both college and pro, had been trying to tempt back into the game from the broadcast booth.

He was head coach during the construction of the last truly successful Raiders roster. That squad went to the Super Bowl in 2002, but ironically Gruden had by then been traded by the late Al Davis, the team’s mercurial owner, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the Bucs won that game.

Gruden got one of the rings traditionally handed to the winners, but critics sniffed that he did it with the team of his predecessor, Tony Dungy, who himself went on to win it all with the Indianapolis Colts.

Bent upon moving the Raiders franchise to Las Vegas, Davis’s son and successor as team owner Mark needed to make a splash and create some excitement. He did it by re-signing Gruden in January, courtesy of a reported 10-year, $100m deal that is unprecedented for an NFL coach. The package offered Gruden the chance to do things his way.

With the sort of security no other NFL coach has, the man nicknamed “Chucky”, after the horror movie character, for his facial expressions during games has set about tearing apart a team that went 6-10 in 2018 but had made the playoffs the previous year.
Homegrown stars such as defensive wrecking ball Khalil Mack, one of the league’s best players, and the talented, if inconsistent, receiver Amari Cooper, were traded away for future draft picks, with the team fielding a combination of ageing castoffs and ultra green rookies this year.

Mack wanted a monster extension, which he got from the Chicago Bears, his new home. Cooper, now with Dallas, would soon have been after a new deal of his own. Their departures, and other moves, have given the Raiders considerable head room under the NFL’s salary cap to spend in free agency. But this year’s team is a mess, and there were times when it looked like the players had quit on their coach during the Thursday night debacle in San Francisco. The Raiders made the 49ers rookie quarterback Nick Mullens, who had gone undrafted and had never started a game, look like 49er legend Joe Montana.

Could the critics have been correct? Were the Raiders throwing away a season to make themselves competitive for their projected 2020 arrival in the city of sin?

The idea of winning by losing is hardly unique to the NFL. World sport is peppered with examples, perhaps the most infamous being the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ in the 1982 football World Cup

The result of the trades is that the Raiders have not only accumulated spending money; they also have an impressive five picks in the first round of the NFL draft over the next two years.

The position of the Raiders’ traded future picks from the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bears will be determined by the records of the latter two teams. The better they do with the help of the Raiders players they have acquired, the worse the return to the Raiders will be (and the Bears look like a lock for the playoffs, with the Cowboys in with a decent shot).

The Raiders’ own picks, however, will be determined by the team’s record, and after losing to the LA Chargers on 11 November following the 49ers debacle, they were in pole position for the top slot and a shot at another defensive wrecking ball, Nick Bosa, the Ohio State Buckeyes product, and brother of Chargers star Joey Bosa. He sits at the top of the draft boards of most experts.

It’s hard to see Bosa being as good as Mack. It’s hard to see anyone being as good as Mack. But the advantage with Bosa is that he will be stuck on a relatively cheap, league-mandated rookie deal for four years, with an optional fifth.

If Bosa is the man the Raiders are after, it’s easy to see how they could win by losing.

There was a similar case a few years ago, when quarterback Andrew Luck was coming out of Stanford, and was seen as an even more desirable commodity – a can’t-be-missed quarterback. A team prepared to “suck for Luck” would, it was said, be set for years. The Colts won that derby, and jettisoned legend Peyton Manning as a result. Luck has been decidedly unlucky with injury, but he has looked incredible this year, and easily worth the pain of the two-win, 14-loss season the Colts endured before getting him.

The idea of winning by losing is hardly unique to the NFL. World sport is peppered with examples. Perhaps the most infamous in what Europeans call football was the “Disgrace of Gijon” in the 1982 World Cup.

Having played all its group games, Algeria had four points (at the time it was two for a win). Two of them came from the shock of the tournament when the north African side beat West Germany 2-1, the other two from a 3-2 victory over Chile. The intervening game was a 2-0 loss to Austria. With West Germany having thrashed Chile, a complex situation was created ahead of the final game between the Germans and Austria. The upshot was that they could both qualify and prevent Algeria from becoming the first African side to reach the knockout stages if the Germans won by either one or two goals (a third would push Austria out).

After a 10-minute barrage Horst Hrubesch found the back of the net for West Germany. The rest of the game was a depressing spectacle, with lots of passing taking place in the two teams’ own halves, and an almost complete lack of any effort to find a goal. The crowd cried foul. Actually, they cried “fix”!

Both teams denied collusion and Fifa considered no rules to have been broken, but from the 1986 World Cup onwards the final pair of group matches has kicked off at the same time with the aim of preventing a repeat.

Cricket is a sport in which accusations of match-fixing regularly crop up, mostly as a result of players allegedly manipulating the outcome of games (or specific in-game elements) to the benefit of gambling syndicates.

But teams have been known to do it for their own advantage too. The most notorious incident of this type came when Somerset captain Brian Rose declared his side’s innings closed after just six balls during a match in the early stages of the one-day format Benson & Hedges Cup of 1979. Rose had worked out that his team would qualify for the second round from their group as long as they weren’t overtaken on strike rate, which was the formula in use for splitting teams at the time (it has since been replaced by net run rate) – irrespective of the result of the specific match.

Unfortunately for the county, the game’s administrators intervened, calling an emergency meeting that led to Somerset’s expulsion. The rules of the game were subsequently changed to prevent declarations in one-day games.

It isn’t just at the top level that the sort of shenanigans deemed “just not cricket” occur either. The supposedly genteel world of village cricket has seen it too, and in more recent times. Last year Carew Cricket Club made headlines nationally after declaring at 18-1 during their Pembroke County Cricket Club title-decider against second-placed Cresselly. They were 21 points clear, with 20 available for a win. But their opponents could potentially make up the gap through batting and bowling bonus points if they were to win handsomely.

To prevent this from happening, Carew closed its innings early, losing the game but winning the title by ensuring no bonus points could be scored. A Twitter storm ensued and a disciplinary panel was set up, leading to Carew’s relegation to a lower division, a fine and a ban for the team’s captain. But Carew kept the title. So they could still be said to have won by losing.

In addition to the potential of securing an advantageous draft position – and all the big four US sports of American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey operate a variation on the draft theme – it’s the absence of any threat of relegation that facilitates throwing away not just a game but the entire season in US sports. At least in theory.

It might seem extreme to do it, but if you’re not a top-of-the-table contender there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain for a “rebuilding” operation. It’s more or less accepted practice in baseball (where around half the professional teams are essentially building for the future) to throw in the towel come the end of July, at which time Major League Baseball imposes a trade deadline.

The truth is that losing is anathema to professional athletes, particularly those who put their bodies on the line like American football players do

Teams with no chance of making the end-of-year playoffs regularly swap their stars for prospects from contenders’ minor league “farm” systems. The Boston Red Sox got a pitching ace (Chris Sale) from the Chicago White Sox for four prospects in 2017, and a closer, Craig Kimbrel, from the San Diego Padres for another four in 2016. Those two were important parts of the team’s world series run this year. No one’s complaining about what the Red Sox gave up in return. Meanwhile the Padres lost 96 of their 162 games and the White Sox 100. The problem with “tanking” for tomorrow is that tomorrow doesn’t always arrive. It doesn’t matter how many prospects you accumulate if they don’t work out.

The NFL draft is no more certain to improve your team than baseball prospects are. It’s a crapshoot, and although some are better than others at finding hits, Gruden’s record at Tampa wasn’t great.

There is, however, a postscript to the story. The Raiders found themselves in Phoenix, Arizona on Sunday 18 November, facing the Cardinals, another struggling team in rebuilding mode and with no chance of making the playoffs. Gruden’s men won a thriller courtesy of a field goal in the last second that was set up by a drive engineered by quarterback Derek Carr. Such comebacks were a hallmark of his during the 2016 playoff run.

In so doing, the Raiders arguably hurt themselves, dropping from first to third in the notional draft order. They lost by winning. One headline writer said they were even managing to screw up tanking.

But the truth is that losing is anathema to professional athletes, particularly those who put their bodies on the line like American football players do. The raucous celebrations in the visitors’ locker room after the game showed how much victory meant. The members of the Raider nation who made their way out into the desert to watch were similarly delighted. Gruden looked pretty happy too.

As the late, great Al Davis said: “Just win, baby.” Because winning’s much more fun.

Still, the season isn’t over. And the road ahead will be a rocky one. The Raiders proved that by getting blown out by the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday. The remaining schedule sees the team facing the potentially Super Bowl-bound Kansas City Chiefs (twice), the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos in the weeks to come.

It isn’t hard to see them losing the lot and still having a very realistic shot at that first pick in next season’s draft. The tank is still more or less on track.

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