“You play to win the game.”
If you’re the New York Giants, though, should you?!
These words from head coach Herman Edwards of the crosstown rival New York Jets are part of NFL lore and a GIF of sorts to those who bridge the millennial and Gen Z generations.
You will never find an individual around the NFL who disputes this quote. Of course, you play to win the game! “You don’t play to just play!” (Well, except if you’re Albert Haynesworth, maybe.)
Nevertheless, is it the right approach to the sport, in the long run? After all, football is, first and foremost, a business. Any savvy businessman knows there are times to cut one’s losses rather than trying to right a sinking ship. Most teams don’t think that way, though.
With the Giants starting a third-string quarterback, dealing with an incredible spate of injuries, and appearing to be largely talent-deficient, is trying to win even worthwhile? Or is it simply trying to right that sinking ship, only to cause a never-ending sink-and-float cycle without full-scale repairs?
Whenever a team is long out of playoff contention, there are two logical fallacies that can take hold within an organization. Both make sense on an individual level but cause significant issues when applied to a team.
The principal-agent problem is a chronic business issue and is ubiquitous in professional sports. It occurs when there is a conflict of interest between an individual (principal) and the representative (agent) they select for a particular situation. A classic example of this issue is when a stockbroker is hired to represent an investor and promptly makes risky investments that could pay off with higher commissions.
In the NFL, this manifests when a coach and general manager are entrusted with directing a team through a losing season. The best interests of the coach and general manager are nearly always to win at all costs. Their livelihoods are often tied to their win-loss record. Many a coach has saved his job by bringing a team back toward respectability in what seemed like a bottom-feeding season.
However, for the organization, those victories may come at a significant cost. For example, former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores accused owner Stephen Ross of offering him $100,000 for every game the Dolphins would lose. Flores took it as an affront and won five games that season. While the team has had success with Tua Tagovailoa in recent seasons, it’s hard to argue that they would not be better off overall with Joe Burrow. Flores, though, was not about to put his own job in jeopardy by doing less than his utmost to win.
Some would argue that it’s not a principal-agent problem because the principal also desires the victories. Perhaps many (if not most) NFL owners do. But that in and of itself can lead to another logical fallacy, one that is perhaps even more pervasive than the principal-agent problem.
The sunk-cost fallacy occurs in everyday life at an alarming rate. It refers to a situation where a person is reluctant to abandon a course of action because they have already invested heavily in it, even if it is causing them significant loss. As a minute example, consider an individual looking for parking in New York City and opting to keep circling around closer to the destination, doubling and tripling down rather than resigning to a longer walk.
Every NFL team has invested heavily into the product they put on the field. From scouting, negotiations, free agency, drafting, training camp, roster cutdowns, and practicing, there’s an incredible amount of work that goes into constructing a roster. When that roster thuds to the ground, it’s difficult to admit that all is lost and take time before going back to the drawing board the following season.
As a result, GMs and coaches double down on their current roster, perhaps gaining a victory here or there but ultimately losing the chance to truly start from scratch. The hope garnered from those few victories often fools decision-makers into thinking the end-of-season investment was worthwhile or “worked.” Think of the Giants’ 6-10 season in 2020 as a prime example.
From the players’ perspective, there is no such thing as tanking. Each player’s biggest assets are his body, physical talent, and production on the field. No player would risk even one of those assets for the sake of the “greater good,” even those who might seem to have a guarantee to continue with the team long-term. The NFL changes in a heartbeat; one injury or one change of leadership and the completely secure player becomes expendable.
Therefore, tanking is not a player issue. It is mostly at the discretion of the head coach (and perhaps the coordinators), specifically in terms of personnel usage and play-calling.
This is where the debate gets really interesting. Does any sports fan want to see their team tank? The arguments will likely be quite vociferous on both sides.
The question is really about the essence of fandom itself. The diehards will disdain anyone in favor of tanking, calling them “bandwagoners” for not sticking with the team through thick and thin. On the other hand, the pro-tank fans will fire back that they’d prefer to see their team with a chance to build in the long term rather than watching a few wins at the expense of true team-building.
Is football about immediate pride or watching meaningful games for years to come? Late-millennial Giants fans who grew up in the Eli Manning heyday and then witnessed a decade of futility might have a different response than older or younger fans. Or maybe it’s not a generational issue but rather a personal preference.
NFL Draft: Risky business
A compelling counterargument to the concept of tanking is the complete toss-up that is the NFL Draft. Having a top draft pick, even the No. 1 overall pick, even in a season with a “generational” quarterback coming out, does not guarantee anything. Around one-third of quarterbacks drafted in the top half of the first round ever become franchise quarterbacks.
Still, if you look back at the quarterbacks drafted No. 1 overall since 2000, the track record of becoming at least good players is pretty solid. Here is the full list.
- Michael Vick (2001)
David Carr (2002)
- Carson Palmer (2003)
- Eli Manning (2004)
- Alex Smith (2005)
JaMarcus Russell (2007)
- Matthew Stafford (2009)
Sam Bradford (2010)
- Cam Newton (2011)
- Andrew Luck (2012)
Jameis Winston (2015)
- Jared Goff (2016)
Baker Mayfield (2018)
- Kyler Murray (2019)
- Burrow (2020)
- Trevor Lawrence (2021)
- Bryce Young (2023)
Of the 16 quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall this century (not counting the rookie Young), eight have become franchise quarterbacks. Of course, that may vary depending on your definition of “franchise,” especially if the player did not stay in that category for particularly long or did not necessarily succeed for the team originally taking them. If you add in passers who have become above-average players, that’s 11 out of 16.
Russell is the biggest bust, while Carr never had much of a shot. Bradford, Winston, and Mayfield all had their moments but never went beyond that.
Taking a quarterback first overall is no guarantee, but you certainly have a chance to get your quarterback for the next decade-plus. That probability diminishes as the draft moves on, even if you do find diamonds in the rough.
Overall, if you look at the top 15 quarterbacks in the NFL by Pro Football Focus grade, 10 of them were taken in the top 10 picks of the draft, and five were taken in the top two. That’s not an insignificant percentage even though finding the right quarterback can be so difficult.
Is it not worth tanking for that opportunity?
Winning is not the only thing
Another iconic football quote states, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The great Vince Lombardi could certainly say that when he had a roster stacked with future Hall of Famers. But what of the rest of the NFL?
Sometimes delayed gratification produces more wins in the long term rather than the immediate gratification of a victory. The problem is that it is usually not in the agents’ best interests to delay that gratification.
The Giants’ situation
Entering this past Sunday’s game against the Washington Commanders, the Giants were slated to have the No. 2 overall pick, per Tankathon. At 2-8, they had an opportunity to lose out and likely draft Drake Maye, who seems to be the consensus second-best quarterback. If the Panthers somehow stumbled into a victory, perhaps the Giants could have even snatched the No. 1 overall pick from the Bears and grabbed Caleb Williams.
Instead, third-stringer Tommy DeVito led the team to victory, pushing the Giants down to No. 5. They can move back up slightly with a loss to the Patriots, but still, they now have more wins than both Carolina and Arizona. While the Cardinals have a shot to win more games with Kyler Murray, it might be difficult for the Giants to stay worse than three of Carolina, Arizona, New England, and Chicago, not to mention Tennessee (3-7) and Washington (4-7, two losses to the Giants).
At this point, the No. 1 pick is likely out of reach, and the chances for the No. 2 pick are not that great. The Giants clearly need a new quarterback, and while there are certainly many other names out there, none seemingly have the clout of the top two. Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, and others may demonstrate how the biggest names are not always the best players at the NFL level, but the numbers dictate that the top names have a more likely shot.
With so many injuries and a practice squad player at the helm, it made (and still makes) the most sense for the Giants to tank. Their roster is not quite as bad as those of some of the other teams who have been in this position. While they definitely have holes, they have enough talent to potentially turn things around quickly with the right player under center. They just need to be bad enough to get that pick and not settle for another Daniel Jones.
In this case, tanking would mean sitting players who are ailing even somewhat, giving Saquon Barkley more rest, evaluating younger players by giving them more playing time, and sitting Tyrod Taylor when he returns (especially to evaluate if DeVito can possibly stick around next year). None of those are totally unreasonable decisions for a team in the Giants’ situation.
After this long-winded exposition, you can start slinging the turkey my way, Giants fans. Should the team have tried to lose against Washington? Should they tank or try to win each game, as Ed and Tony argued?
I’m ducking out before I find myself running around like a turkey — er, chicken — without a head.