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Labriola on tanking in the NFL, tap dancing

INDIANAPOLIS – Ready or not, here it comes:

  • It is a formula the Houston Astros utilized on the way to winning the 2017 World Series. In the NBA, it has become so prevalent that the league office is considering all sorts of proposals/gimmicks to discourage the practice, because allowing it to continue unabated could threaten the integrity of the sport’s regular season.
  • This formula has been sold to the paying customers in a variety of ways – as “A 5-Year Plan” by some baseball teams, and as “The Process” by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers – but it has come to be known by a much clearer representation of what’s actually going on: Tanking.
  • Tanking, or losing on purpose, has come to be viewed as a path, first to being competitive and then to a championship, because professional sports are set up in a way where being bad is rewarded with high draft picks, which theoretically should bring good players to those bad teams and therefore spark an improvement that should – again in theory – allow bad teams to become competitive and then contend for a championship.
  • The following was written by Andrew Sharp and appeared on SI.com yesterday: “I've never been one to soapbox on the integrity of the game – in my experience, the people who complain loudest about tanking are generally not real NBA fans to begin with – but it's getting out of hand this year. As of Tuesday, the bottom nine teams in the league were a combined 3-22 since the All-Star break. None of them are incentivized to win over the next six weeks, so it's only going to get more egregious. Veterans are being benched, younger players suddenly have free reign, and most amazingly, ‘inverse analytics’ are apparently a thing now. It's a bad look for the league. It may also skew legitimate outcomes – with playoff races tight in both conferences, teams that play the most Tankathon contestants have a clear advantage down the stretch.”
  • Could the “tanking” disease spread to the NFL? Is what the Cleveland Browns have been doing over the previous couple of seasons in terms of hoarding draft picks and accumulating salary cap space the professional football version of tanking? Or is it their Process? And is there any real difference between the two?
  • The NFL has gathered here this week for the 2018 version of its Scouting Combine, the purpose of which is to accumulate as much physical and medical information as possible on 300-plus college players who have been deemed draft-worthy when that exercise begins on April 26.
  • Over time, each draft class is assigned an identity, and the 2018 version’s identity seems to be the unusually high number of top quarterback prospects it’s prepared to send to the NFL. And when it comes to how many might get drafted in the first round, Mike Mayock, NFL.com’s top draft analyst, has put the number at four definitely, and maybe as many as six.
  • The first-round locks, according to Mayock, are Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield, and the first-round maybes are Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph. If an NFL team was prone to tanking in order to cash in on this alleged quarterback depth, it most likely would have had to happen over the course of the 2017 season for the chance to pick one of those players.
  • But football isn’t like basketball, where there are only five players on the court at any one time and they play both offense and defense. There are 22 starters on a football team, and in the NFL there also are enough sub-package roles that adding a single individual could end up having the same impact as spitting into the ocean.
  • And what if the projections end up being wrong, as they were in 2012 when so many believed USC quarterback Matt Barkley was a sure-pop first-round pick and maybe the first overall pick of the draft. After his college season, Barkley ended up being a fourth-round pick and he’s been nothing but a journeyman in the NFL ever since.
  • And what if the projections end up being right, as they were with Andrew Luck, who actually became the first overall pick in a draft and showed every sign of actually being a franchise quarterback in the NFL, but because the 2-14 Colts roster he joined as that first overall pick in the 2012 draft was so bereft of pass-blocking offensive linemen that he was sacked 73 times during his first two professional seasons and hasn’t looked the same since.

  • And then there’s this: what if the architect of the tanking doesn’t get to see the process through to the end? As Jerry Glanville famously said to an official in that NFL Films clip, “N-F-L, that stands for not-for-long …”

  • Just ask Sashi Brown.

  • It never has come up, whether Mrs. Colbert sent her children to dance classes when they were very young, but based on his annual performance behind the microphone at the NFL Scouting Combine, Mrs. Colbert’s son Kevin has picked up the finer points of tap-dancing somewhere along the way.

  • Each year, as the Steelers’ general manager, Colbert is the franchise’s voice at the Combine, and this year he did make some definitive statements from Podium 1 inside the Media Room that’s now housed within the vast Indianapolis Convention Center. He said Ryan Shazier will not play football in 2018, and he said Martavis Bryant would not be traded. But when it came to issues associated with the upcoming draft, well, cue the orchestra.

  • Some examples:

  • Q. Do you ever remember a year when there were so many free agent quarterbacks combined with so many first-round caliber college quarterbacks?

  • Colbert: “The quarterback is the most important position, and I really can’t even address the free agents until the players legally become free agents, but the draft offers an intriguing group of college quarterbacks. You have to sort through that group and really make sure we can really predict their ability to succeed in the NFL, because a majority of them are coming from a spread concept and that lends challenges to us to be able to identify NFL traits within those concepts so that maybe we can make good decisions if we decide to pick a quarterback.”

  • Coming with a follow-up, the questioner decided to get more specific with his question: How many quarterbacks might get picked in the first round?

  • Colbert: “Whenever there’s depth at any position, it helps both if you’re picking that position, or if you’re not interested in that position (because) then other teams taking that position can flush players you’re interested to you. Depth at any position is important, and it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t take a player just because we have great players at a position, because you can never have enough good players at any position.”

  • With Ben Roethlisberger playing very well at this stage of his career and already having said he’s interested in playing for three more years, with Landry Jones under contract as the backup, and with Joshua Dobbs entering his second season, does anybody really believe the Steelers would use a draft pick on a quarterback – and especially the type of premium pick it would require to land one of Mayock’s to six prospects – when the team has a couple of pressing needs if it’s to reinforce a defense that played poorly in that Divisional Round loss at home to the Jaguars?

  • I don’t, but I’m betting that Colbert hopes so.

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