The Zone Read: The conundrum of tanking

If you root for the Miami Dolphins, odds are that you’re watching the rest of the NFL more than your own team. No one can blame you. The Dolphins have comically achieved a points differential of -153, with only a single win against the near-winless Jets to show for it.

There’s a company in this misery too. If you root for the Bengals, Redskins, Jets or Broncos, you haven’t been given many reasons to be optimistic in 2019. Some other teams like the Falcons or Chargers have been wrought with misery, but at least they boast squads that recently made the postseason, thus giving a reason for some excitement on game day.

The Dolphins have drawn lots of press for seemingly embracing the tank. They have jettisoned tons of talent in exchange for draft picks. Standout left tackle Laremy Tunsil, dynamic running back Kenyan Drake and dominant defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick all reside in new homes now. These players have made significant impacts with their new teams, making their dealing away all the more painful for Miami’s fans. The on-field result of this and many other trades is a team that has embodied failure in the purest sense, setting their season’s tone with a 59–10 trouncing by the Baltimore Ravens in their home opener.

Just last Sunday, the Dolphins gleefully picked apart a reeling Jets squad to notch their first win of the season. It is with this win that they are presenting their fans with a true dilemma. Does a fan root for a win, or relish in failure, knowing it pushes them closer to that coveted No. 1 draft pick?

This problem played out in my living room with my brother not too long ago. Watching the San Francisco 49ers back in 2017, they were playing host to a then-dominant Jacksonville. The 49ers had subjected their fans to a season of deep misery, having lost the bulk of their games and looking forward to the draft instead of the postseason. However, newly acquired quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was picking apart that vaunted Jaguars defense, leading the 49ers to an entertaining, convincing and rare win. As I sat and cheered on my hometown squad, my brother sunk deeper into his chair and grumbled, “This is going to mess with our draft pick.”

It’s objective and practical thinking. The 49ers could no longer contend for the postseason, so the only impact a win had was on draft position. The less fun outcome of the match was suddenly the most appealing, lending some value to an event farther down the road. But I had a blast watching that game, and it gave me hope for the future in the same way a higher draft pick would.

My brother and I represented two differing philosophies in watching football, and I’m not here to say one was more right than the other. Fans should figure out for themselves what they care about more. As long as it gives you pride for your team, at the end of the day that’s what really matters.