BBD Contributor: Ryan Glaze
Sunday’s loss to the beleaguered Pittsburgh Steelers brings with it a near-certainty that the league’s longest playoff drought will continue. The Buffalo Bills have not made the playoffs since 1999, and with their current record of 3-7, that streak seems destined to continue.
Though it feels a bit earlier than some years, the question of how the Buffalo Bills should approach its remaining games is being asked again. Should the Bills sit their veterans, treat every hangnail as an IR-worthy injury and test the mettle of its young backups, fully knowing this will likely lead to more losses? Or should they – whether out of respect to the rest of the league, in the interest of fostering a competitive culture, or simply to build player confidence – continue to fight hard and try to win each remaining game?
Both arguments have merit, but although this may seem like a prime year to tank, the Bills should continue to work toward building positive momentum through the rest of the season.
With the second-lowest remaining strength of schedule this season, the Bills have a number of winnable games ahead, and more wins would certainly help Coach Marrone’s effort to develop a new culture of winning throughout the organization.
On the flip side, this is a Bills team with a roster in flux. Some might argue that finding a hidden gem buried on the depth chart or stolen from another team’s practice squad could ultimately have a greater long-term impact than a few meaningless wins, and come with the side effect of improving a draft pick in a talented draft.
There are those who insist that tanking doesn’t actually happen in professional sports. I believe it does. While no general manager wants to build a long-term strategy around purposeful failure, it makes more sense in certain situations to build with a long-term view in mind. If you’re not convinced that tanking happens, ESPN The Magazine recently published a story in which an NBA GM anonymously admitted to tanking his upcoming season.
Tanking happens — at least in the NBA — but should it? There are countless ethical arguments against the idea — ruining the integrity of the game, ripping off the fans and developing a losing culture among them — but don’t we see similar tactics throughout sports? Tanking is a short-term sacrifice in an already hopeless situation with the intended goal of long-term improvement. Through improved draft position, development of younger players and opportunities for injuries to heal, the goal of tanking one season is to be improved in the next.
So I ask then, aside from scope, what is the difference between tanking at the end of a lost season and a sacrifice bunt in baseball, a late-game intentional foul in basketball or even spiking the football to stop the clock? Why are the latter three examples heralded as heady plays by ultimate competitors, determined to do anything it takes to win, while the former gets labeled as weasely?
I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve been a strong advocate of tanking in the past. Talent is hard to come by for a small-market team like Buffalo, and harder still to keep. So there have been times where I have felt as though any extra help in the draft warranted a few extra losses, once the postseason became an afterthought.
Take the 2005 season for example. With a Week 16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bills dropped from the third pick in the 2006 NFL draft to the eighth, a difference of being able to select Virginia offensive tackle D’Brickshaw Ferguson to reaching for Ohio State safety Donte Whitner (cue Price is Right failure music).
The Bills have not appeared to be big on the idea of tanking. Of the seven Bills teams since 2001 that have won six or less games in a season, five of them won a game in the last two weeks of their seasons.
This season, I could argue tanking should be in order again. The 2014 NFL draft looks to be very deep and talented at a number of positions of need for the Bills, and landing a top player like USC wide receiver Marquise Lee, UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr or Baylor guard Cyril Richardson at one of those positions would certainly fill a major hole with a terrific talent.
This year, however, feels different. Coaches Doug Marrone and Mike Pettine feel different than the Bills’ bargain-bin coaches of the past. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and the Bills’ young talent core, strengthened by talented veteran leaders, are a more promising group than years past. The transition to Russ Brandon from Ralph Wilson handling day-to-day operations, the general manager change to Doug Whaley from Buddy Nix, the development of a Department of Analytics – it all feels different for the Bills this year. The Bills’ losses this year do not feel hopeless but rather hopeful experiences being learned to be applied in the future.
The young Bills roster is desperately in need of cohesion, experience and playmaking. It needs its young talent, such as Manuel, running back C.J. Spiller, outside linebacker Nigel Bradham, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver T.J. Graham, to step their games up. If those players can replicate the growth left tackle Cordy Glenn and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus have shown this season, the struggling Bills franchise could be well on its way to turning around.
Benching talented players won’t help that development. Despite a myriad of injuries, the 3-7 Bills have been competitive in all but two of their games this season. They have done that while learning new coaching systems on both sides of the ball and relying on rookies at key positions, and have already had to play six opponents this season who came off long weeks (from Thursday night games) or bye weeks. Even with its poor record, Buffalo should feel good about the positive momentum it has built this season.
As the saying goes, success breeds success. Unlike the waning stages of past seasons, late-season wins this year could actually lead to bigger and better things in the future.