The Miami Dolphins dedicated their offseason to the purposeful degrading of their roster, and on the NFL’s opening Sunday their plan prospered. They lost, 59-10, at home to the Baltimore Ravens, dragging a score reserved for college football guarantee games into the NFL. Veteran Dolphins players reportedly called their agents pleading to be traded. In just one week, the Dolphins achieved the wretchedness they sought.
The Dolphins want to be bad now so they can get good later. Coach Brian Flores insists they are not tanking, in the face of obvious evidence that they are. The Dolphins can call it their version of the Process, that odious, overused phrase popularized by the Philadelphia 76ers. In following an allegedly savvy trend, the Dolphins are embarrassing themselves for no good reason, to the detriment of the future glories they think they’re concocting.
In trying to assert their intelligence, the Dolphins are only showing they learned the wrong lessons from how the 76ers and Cleveland Browns orchestrated overhauls. There is nothing wrong with rebuilding or sacrificing present assets for future resources. Understanding contention cycles is part of sound franchise building. But the Dolphins are missing the point, and they are needlessly alienating constituents in the stands and in the locker room.
The 76ers’ plan made sense in the NBA. The Browns have been lauded for their theoretical turnaround, but their plan revealed the misconception that what works in the NBA isn’t necessary in the NFL. To get what they want, the Dolphins don’t have to be this bad.
In a conversation this summer, an analytically minded former NFL executive, whose outlook generally supports the creative concepts former Browns chief executive Sashi Brown brought to the NFL, laid out how the Browns actually got their teardown wrong by mimicking the Sixers, regardless of the fruit it seemingly bore. It applies to what the Dolphins are doing now.
“It is not the same model,” the former NFL executive said. “You don’t have to be terrible to make a ton of decisions that will give you an advantage. You don’t need a top-five pick. You don’t need cap space. Every team can generate a lot of cap space. In this NFL, there’s really not enough money to spend.”
The NBA and NFL are different universes in how resources are allocated and how top rosters are constructed. In the NBA, title contention is impossible without superstars. The best way — and the only way for many teams — to acquire them is to tank into a high draft pick. NBA teams receive two draft picks every season, and only the top five or so can reliably be counted on to yield a star player.
Roster-building resources are scarce in the NBA, but the NFL gives teams a bounty of resources every year, regardless of record. Teams receive seven draft picks, and most of them have significant value. The 15th pick of the NBA draft is usually a dice roll or yields a safe, complementary player. In the NFL, that pick could allow a team to pick the best player at his position. Every single year, any NFL general manager can find a trade partner willing to turn his second-round pick into a future first-rounder.
Super Bowl-caliber NFL rosters of course contain elite players, but NFL championship contention demands quality depth. The bottom of each roster churns constantly, and teams constantly have opportunities to find castoffs who may be undervalued or fit their roster better than a rival’s.
There are marginal ways to improve in the NBA, but those efforts mean nothing without superstars anchoring a roster. There are splashy ways to improve in the NFL, but those efforts mean nothing without a lot of solid players anchoring a roster.
Another way to put it: It took skillful maneuvering and savvy drafting for the 76ers to land Dario Saric and Robert Covington, whom they used to acquire superstar Jimmy Butler. Players of comparable value in the NFL are available all the time, whether as free agents or in the middle rounds of the draft.
“It’s a lot harder in the NBA,” the former executive said. “It’s really hard. In the NBA, you have so few swings. In the NFL, you have a million.”
There is a major difference in the NFL that the Dolphins could argue validates their extreme tanking. There is no other position in sports with the importance of quarterback, and by landing the top pick this year, Miami would put itself in position to land Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa or, if its ineptitude lasts into 2020, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
Still, one great player, even a quarterback picked first overall, will not make a contender by himself. The Browns provide an example. We don’t need to overreact to the Browns’ dismal opener to say there are concerns about Cleveland’s roster underneath all the glitzy, high-end talent. Those worries existed before Sunday’s 43-13 home shellacking at the hands of Tennessee. If Cleveland had an operation capable of winning, say, four games rather than zero two years ago, maybe a few more players from that era would still be around and useful.
Even if the Browns rebound and validate their status as a chic Super Bowl pick, the road traveled to get there still matters. Cleveland forced its fans to sit through a two-year span of 1-31 football. It gave the Browns more resources and high picks. But they would have been able to rebuild as efficiently, the former executive theorized, by winning a handful of games each of those seasons. It’s meaningfully harder to climb out of the rubble of a winless season than to do the same after winning a few games, based on both talent level and the culture around a team.
There is also the matter of simple fairness to players and fans. When an NBA team tanks, it does not place its players in physical peril, the way quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen have been treated in Miami. The competitive negligence will force some fans away, and not all of them will come back if and when a contender emerges.
The Dolphins have made some sound, even excellent decisions. Dealing left tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills to the Houston Texans for two first-round picks was a steal. But their roster before that deal was unnecessarily bereft. It would have not hurt the Dolphins’ rebuilding project to sign more mid-tier veterans on short-term contracts to boost their respectability while still maintaining a large amount of salary cap space and future draft assets.
The Dolphins sure seem to be facing the prospect of a winless season. They have manufactured a disaster in the name of someday being great. But they don’t have to be this bad, and it’s only going to make their goals harder to reach. This is not a process worth trusting.