Michael Lombardi: Why NFL teams don’t need to tank

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Don’t trust "The Process"

As many of you might know, unfortunately, I am a lifelong suffering, miserable, completely negative Philadelphia 76er fan. Honestly, I wasn’t born this way. The 76ers were made contemptible from years upon years of personnel mistakes, starting in my early fandom years with first-round pick center/forward Al Henry of Wisconsin. When Henry was called and told he was picked 12th overall by the team, he thought they were joking. He hung up the phone, called his coach, and both of them laughed. He lasted two years in the NBA.

The Sixers passed on Paul Pierce in favor of Larry Hughes, traded Brad Daugherty for Roy Hinson, and the list goes on and on. Then "The Process” made me even madder, not because they were losing, but because they were misevaluating all the high picks, from Nerlens Noel to Jahlil Okafor to Markelle Fultz. It never ends and continues today. So, when I hear fans scream for their favorite team to “tank,” I shake my head and tell them NFL teams don’t have to tank; it happens naturally. 

With only 13 NFL teams currently having above .500 records, you could make a case for most non-qualifiers to tank and get a quarterback. Are any of the remaining 19 teams going to win a Super Bowl? Tampa is the seventh seed in the NFC at 3-3 with zero chance to win a Super Bowl. They might make the playoffs, but winning three playoff games is as unrealistic as the 76ers making me their general manager. (If called, I would accept.).

You could make a case for the Bengals as one of the non-playoff 19 teams that could make the Super Bowl and win, if they can fix their offensive line and keep Joe Burrow healthy. Other than the Bengals, who else? The Jets? Please. The Rams? No way. The Vikings? Nice game last night, but no. 

Four teams believe they have their quarterback of the future—Chargers, Texans, Panthers, and Colts. And all four teams cannot win a Super Bowl this year for various reasons. Justin Herbert of the Chargers is a gifted talent who can make every throw, can do some incredible things when healthy, but he is slowly becoming this generation’s Matthew Stafford when he was with the Lions—great skills, not able to win close games, or games when the opponent scores more than 27 points. Herbert is 6-24 when the defense allows 27 or more points and 21-5 when they don’t. 

Bryce Young is only a rookie and hasn’t looked good—although he has been hindered by the play calling, play design and a poor offensive line. Thomas Brown will take over the play-calling duties from head coach Frank Reich, which might help Young and the Panthers offense. No one will bet the Panthers this week because of the past performances offensively and facing a good Texans team.

This game will be the Panthers’ Super Bowl. They want to prove their quarterback is as good as Houston’s. Don’t sleep on the Panthers. Anthony Richardson of the Colts needs to stay healthy for more than two games. In those two games, he showed the talent to potentially lead a team to the Super Bowl. CJ Stroud looks like the best rookie of the group and clearly gives the Texans hope for the future. 

The Vikings and the Rams have quality aging starters leading their team, and if both can stay healthy, both can make a difference if the supporting cast is good.  Last night might have been Kirk Cousins’ finest hour. The Vikings offense controlled the ball for 34:56 minutes. Cousins only threw 10 incomplete passes with 45 attempts, averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, and threw for two touchdowns, beating his former coach, Kyle Shanahan, and the 49ers.

His play last night should make a team like Pittsburgh want to pay him for the short term as they sort out their quarterback position. Cousins has value. If Derek Carr can get 40 million on the open market, what can Cousins bring? The Rams have no choice but to continue down the path with Stafford because of the guarantee, and there isn’t another viable option. If he stays healthy, understanding that’s a big “if,” the Rams can get two more solid years from Stafford based on his play. 

Arizona is willing to risk Kyler Murray getting hurt to continue to evaluate, which could prove costly and hinder their flexibility. The question for the Cards isn’t can Murray play, but rather is Murray a Super Bowl-caliber player? And that answer is already on the tape—all they need to do is watch his one playoff game when he attempted 34 passes and completed 19 for 137 yards and two interceptions.

The tape doesn’t lie. Murray’s lack of height and inability to play from the pocket will always keep Murray from being an elite playoff passer. Add in the lack of connectivity with his teammates and leadership skills, and I am not sure what more you need to study. One thing is for sure, the Cards will be able to trade Murray this off-season even though he has issues because teams get desperate in March. 

If you count Arizona as a quarterback-needy team in the 19 below .500 won-loss record, there remain 13 teams without a sure thing at the quarterback position. Now, you could make the case that Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Seattle could use a better version of what they currently have, but based on their situation and won-loss record, they would be out of the tanking conversation. The Jets have a short-term answer with Aaron Rodgers, and if they pick in the top five, they need to move away from Zach Wilson and find their long-term answer, so keep the Jets in the group of 13. 

So, will any of the 13 teams tank?  Will any of the 13 teams be “bet against” teams?  Not really. So far, only one team seems to be heading down the tanking road—the Tennessee Titans. They are planning on starting second-round pick Will Levis at quarterback and have begun to dump the few assets they have on the roster, trading their team leader and best safety, Kevin Byard, to the Eagles for middle-level picks next year.

The Titans’ secondary is already suspect, ranking 29th overall in yards per passing attempt, forcing just two interceptions in six games, and only getting their hands on 17 passes, little more than two per game, making the move seem like a salary dump.  Add in the uncertain future of their head coach, Mike Vrabel, and the franchise could be headed for a makeover. The Titans will play hard for Vrabel, and Vrabel will coach hard, but at the end of the day, they cannot overcome their lack of talent at the most vital position: quarterback.

And therein lies the rub: why NFL teams don’t tank—they don’t have to tank. They are prone to lose games because of their inability to gain productive play from the quarterback position. They don’t have to try to lose like the 76ers did; it happens organically. 

Legendary broadcaster John Madden once said that a great quarterback is the deodorant for everything wrong with your team. And that’s still true today. In today’s NFL, most coaches try to protect their quarterback from losing the game. From Matt LaFleur to Josh McDaniels to Brian Daboll, all of these coaches are attempting to manage the game to keep the quarterback from losing the game. Yet, for all the conservative calls, they still screw it up. The Raiders haven’t fumbled all season, yet have turned the ball over 15 times, all on interceptions. Even when trying not to lose, they still find ways to lose, which is why they don’t need to tank. 

It’s painful for the fans to watch—but for a team like New England, Las Vegas, Tennessee, Chicago, or Green Bay, the only way to get into the Super Bowl conversation is to get a high pick in the draft this year. Everyone loves the 49ers personnel and what Kyle Shanahan has done with his team.  Everyone forgets the struggles and the losing. He inherited a two-win team, then won 10 games over two years.  During the rebuild, the 49ers picked second overall, then ninth, then second again before they won games. After winning 13 games, they went back to winning six, and now they have been a consistent winning team.  Winning doesn’t happen overnight. It requires patience.

The moral of the story for all teams and us as bettors is that all teams will keep trying to win and keep competing, but understand that without any help at the most important position, they will still lose and gain a high pick. And for us as handicappers, we have to keep doing what we are doing to break down the teams and never assume a team is trying to lose—that’s NBA talk, not NFL. 

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Michael Lombardi, a seasoned NFL executive with over 35 years of experience, boasts three Super Bowl wins and a career spanning roles with the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers, Oakland Raiders, and Cleveland Browns, where he was the general manager. Lombardi's extensive background includes coaching, executive roles, and media analysis, with TV appearances on CBS Sports, Showtime, and NFL Network. He has also contributed to NFL.com and Sports Illustrated, among other media outlets.