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The Dolphins Are Tanking. There's No Proof It Will Work.

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 9/19/2019 Andrew Beaton
a group of people posing for the camera © Bill Ingram/Zuma Press

The Miami Dolphins season began disastrously with a 49-point loss to the Baltimore Ravens. The next week, they marginally improved. They only lost to the New England Patriots by 43 points.

So what did the Dolphins do next? They traded away one of their best players. Their plan to get better is to get even worse.

There’s just one minor red flag with this approach. There’s no proof that tanking works in the NFL.

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It’s never been more acceptable for sports teams to be abjectly horrible. They’re willing to sit through the ignominy of losing seasons and count every loss as a win. In the NBA and MLB, fans even buy the promise that all of the misery will be worthwhile because it can produce enough top draft picks and young talent to build a sustainable championship contender in the future.

This has been of the most radical ideas in professional sports. Franchises worth billions of dollars have concluded that the best way to drastically improve their product is to begin by doing the complete opposite.

The Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in more than a century after deciding to be losers in order to become winners. The Houston Astros became the best team in baseball precisely because they historically bottomed out and amassed an abundance of young stars along the way. The Philadelphia 76ers have one of the best cores in basketball after stockpiling draft picks and turning them into Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

But football operates on a completely different paradigm. The NFL prides itself on the competitiveness of its teams and parity in the league. For 29 straight seasons at least one-third of the playoff teams weren’t in the playoffs the season before. Most games in a given week are expected to be close. The parity fuels the belief that any team can hope to contend in any season.

This year looks different, and this weekend shows why. The Dolphins and Jets are favored to lose their games by more than 20 points—the first time in decades that has been the case for two teams in the same week.

The Jets are bad by accident. The Dolphins are bad on purpose.

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Video by Sports Illustrated

Miami was already expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season, and that was before it began unloading some of the only notable talent it had. The week before the season started, the Dolphins traded left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills to the Texans in a deal that netted two first-round picks. This week, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick—the team’s first-round pick from last year—said he wanted out, and the team obliged by sending him to the Steelers for yet another first round pick.

“No one likes losing,” said Chris Grier, their general manager. “We’ve talked about building a team that’s going to win and compete for championships for a long time instead of being in this one year, and then you fall back for two or three.”

There’s reason to be encouraged by the lucrative hauls Miami received in its deals. There’s also reason to be skeptical of the theory behind it: there’s no precedent for this leading to success in the NFL.

Football teams have been accused of tanking before. They’ve pinched-pennies on the salary cap, rebuilt and set an eye toward the future. The Cleveland Browns may be the best example: They stunk, hoarded draft picks and now have one of the most enviable young cores in the league.

But that’s where the comparisons end and the questions begin. The Browns were already bad before they embraced being bad. The Dolphins were respectable in recent years before deciding to bottom out. They made the playoffs in 2016 and were 7-6 at one point last year. They took a roster that had been somewhat competitive and completely blew it up.

It also took Cleveland years of being the worst team in the league to amass its talent. They whiffed on top draft picks like Trent Richardson and Johnny Manziel numerous times before finally putting together its impressive roster. Miami, Grier says, plans to turn this around “quickly” and spend money as soon as possible.

Then there’s this: The Browns are 1-1 to start this year and still have their fair share of question marks. So it isn’t even clear that this was effective for a team that didn’t have fanciful ideas of doing it quickly.

The Dolphins deals have placed them in a strangely challenging position. There’s no expectation that they’ll win now. But they’re betting they can replace the skilled players they’ve given away with even better ones. They have an arsenal of future draft assets—five first-round picks and three second-round picks in the next two seasons. Except to get those, they had to give up players like Fitzpatrick, who’s just 22 years old and the exact type of player they want to draft. (After that trade, Miami cornerback Xavien Howard—one of the few valuable players remaining on the team—captured the despair when he tweeted a GIF from the final scene of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” when Will Smith’s character looks around the family’s completely empty house after everything has been moved out.)

And for all of those picks, just one of those is far more important than all the rest combined: the one they spend on a quarterback. They’re currently starting Ryan Fitzpatrick and they also traded for Josh Rosen, a first-round pick from a year ago who was dumped by the Cardinals after they drafted Kyler Murray, before the season.

Which is why as the Dolphins head to Dallas this weekend, where they’re expected to be trounced by the Cowboys, their most important game is actually in Tuscaloosa: that’s where Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the potential prize of their tank, will be playing.

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

Related slideshow: Best of 2019 NFL season (Provided by imagn)

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