The delicate art of refueling in professional sports

You’ve heard the slogans before. Suck for luck. Armor for Tua. Stop trying for Zion. In today’s modern sports world, where teams tend to sign long-term contracts with their own franchise players, the draft is the best place to find new elite-level talent. One only has to look at Super Bowl 2022 to see the two sides of this coin. Joe Burrow was drafted by the Bengals with the first overall pick, and within a few years he had them in the championship game. Drafted overall by the Lions, Matthew Stafford won very little and eventually ended up with the Rams, whom he led to the Super Bowl in his freshman year there.

The Rams certainly didn’t tank to get Stafford; they just waited until his time at Detroit was up. The last two times the Rams drafted a quarterback in the first round, they got Sam Bradford and Jared Goff. Sometimes losing doesn’t work.

But it often works. Unfortunately, this year’s World Series Champions are the Houston Astros. Newer baseball fans may not remember it, but not so long ago the Astros were terrible. They were the worst team in the league. They turned this into one top draft pick after another, and between 2011 and 2015 they drafted George Springer, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker with first-rounders. These players formed the core of a team that has posed a threat to the World Series for nearly a decade.

Refueling these days…

Tanking is most closely associated with the NBA these days, and tanking as a concept began in the early 1980’s. The Clippers’ new owner, the nefarious Donald Sterling, publicly commented that he wanted his team to finish last so they could draft Ralph Sampson in 1983. Well, Sampson was a good player, but the Clippers didn’t draft him; They took Byron Scott instead and traded him to the Lakers, where he had a good career.

The Clippers would have been much better off taking 14th overall pick, Clyde Drexler, who went to Portland and had a career in the Hall of Fame there. In 1984, the Rockets tanked and benched their starters for most of the latter part of the season. For their efforts, they got Hall of Fame Center Hakeem Olajuwon. Just two picks later, the Bulls took Michael Jordan. Olajuwon won two Finals titles when Jordan was out of the league for dubious reasons. You know very well what Jordan has achieved.

The process

The Philadelphia 76ers went so far as to codify refueling and called it “The Process”. This earned them Joel Embiid but no championship rings. In most basketball seasons, tanking makes sense because of the 60 players who get drafted, two or three could be all-star talent. Getting one of them can be the difference between a memorable season and one where a team can make a serious run.

The NBA differs from the NFL and MLB in that it has a draft lottery. In baseball and football, the worst team gets first pick, period. In basketball, the worst team has the best chance of winning first place, but there are no guarantees. So you can be the Knicks, fuel up your 2018 season and end up with RJ Barrett. Or you can be the Grizzlies and bring in Ja Morant and become an instant playoff contender even though you don’t have the best pick.

Are the Las Vegas Raiders about to tank?

This week’s opponent for the Raiders is the Colts. The Colts fired head coach Frank Reich and replaced him with former center Jeff Saturday, whose only coaching experience is at a Georgia high school. There is no longer anyone on the Colts staff who has called games at the NFL level. After stepping out of Carson Wentz’s contract during the offseason, they brought in Matt Ryan as quarterback, and that experiment failed as Ryan turned out to be a shell of his former self. The Colts are in the same position as they were in 2010, only this time they’ve taken a far less measured approach to tanking.

Colts owner Jim Irsay is no dumb man; He knows he has a good quarterback-less team, and with several blue-chip quarterbacks available in the upcoming draft, he’s determined to get one of them. Jim Irsay also knows that as a wealthy football owner with a reputation for instability, he has no obligation to make sense in front of anyone, not even himself, and so Saturday is the coach now.

The Colts are no strangers to refueling…

The Colts are no strangers to tanks. In 2010, a year after Carolina made her way to Cam Newton, Peyton Manning underwent neck surgery and left Indianapolis with a gaping hole in the quarterback. They switched to tank mode in hopes of recruiting Stanford’s generational talent, Andrew Luck. The Colts started with Curtis Painter completely unprepared for a starting roll, and the Colts were terrible. But the Colts with Luck had the same problem as ever: an elite quarterback with a subpar offensive line and defense that limited their potential.

Their inability to build around Peyton Manning meant the most talented quarterback in NFL history won just a single Super Bowl, beating Rex Grossman in a monsoon. And just a few years later, the Colts’ shortcomings and refusal to strengthen their line led to Luck retiring from football for good. That doesn’t mean that gambling on luck was a bad idea. It means the Colts’ front office didn’t do their job beyond that and expected Luck to clean up all their messes for them.

Owners cannot publicly acknowledge refueling.

Pro leagues and owners don’t publicly condone tanking because it reduces fan interest in the games. Who wants to pay to go to a game they know their team isn’t trying to win? It doesn’t make sense for fans to support a team that isn’t serious about winning. But the fact of the matter is, there’s no virtue in missing the playoffs if you don’t end up with a top draft pick as well. That’s the way of 7-9 Jeff Fisher B.S That led to the Rams trading the moon for the best pick to capture Bradford. It’s called purgatory, and unless you have a scouting department that can find the world’s Drexlers midway through the first round, you’re not going anywhere.

That’s pretty much where the Raiders have been for years, midway through the first round with the occasional top ten pick. That’s a very difficult place to get out of unless you get lucky and drop someone like Aaron Rodgers onto your lap late in the first. That actually happened to the Raiders, and they drafted Fabian Washington.

What about the raiders?

The Raiders are having a terrible season by any measure. They’ve lost several big leads and are winless down the road. The coaching staff turns out to be incompetent, the fan base is angry. With the Chiefs at the helm of the division, a prospect unlikely to change for the next decade, the time for patience and measured moves is over. This is exactly the kind of team that should tank. The San Antonio Spurs had David Robinson and he got injured in 1996 so they tanked and brought in Tim Duncan and won a string of titles nobody saw because the Spurs are boring. But they won. Nobody can look at this Raiders team and say they’re not good enough to win. They are; They just keep screwing it up in monumental ways that would have the Jets side-watching them.

A massive influx of talent, including a top-five pick, would go a long way in bringing the Raiders back to respectable size. The Raiders have needs on offense and defense, as linebackers and in secondary. Another full off-season with a rich draft could do wonders to fix these issues.

The problems with the Raiders…

The Raiders’ tanking problems are threefold. First, the team isn’t actually as terrible as the 2010 Colts, and they can just come up with a bunch of wins like the Dolphins did when they were trying to tank for Joe Burrow. They have Tua Tagovailoa instead, and while he’s not a Burrow, the dolphins are respectable again as long as they don’t murder Tua by manipulating concussions. Second, fans would hate it because the Raiders already charge the highest ticket prices in the NFL. No need to worry, because guest fans will buy the remaining tickets anyway. The third problem is Derek Carr.

Derek Carr and his blanket…

The Raiders may have reached their cap with Carr, and that cap is a first-round playoff loss. It’s possible that Carr could go down as the best quarterback not to win a playoff game. Can the Raiders live with that? Carr has made it clear he only wants to play for the Raiders and would retire before playing anywhere else. If the Raiders tried to move him, what team would forgo proper compensation knowing Carr might never play for them?

Therefore, the best thing you can do is design Carr’s backup now and strengthen the offensive and defensive lines. To get a better player than Carr into QB, a tank is fine with someone like CJ Stroud or Bryce Young as a target. The Raiders have two elite quarterbacks in their division, and the only way to consistently beat an elite quarterback is with another elite quarterback. If Carr was truly elite, we wouldn’t be having this discussion in Raider Nation right now.

A tank is no fun. A tank is not beautiful. And a tank doesn’t always work if the actual choices you’re making aren’t good. But when you come up against those picks, like the Bengals or the Astros, or even the level of what the Jets have been doing lately, you can become an overnight contender. Raider fans have suffered for two decades. What is another year – one that’s already in the toilet? Save money on tickets and use that money to stock the liquor cabinet.

*Top Photo: Chris Unger/Getty Images

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