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Tanking is Not in the New England Patriots DNA



New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

Five games into the 2023 NFL season and the New England Patriots have won once. People are talking about firing Bill Belichick, replacing Mac Jones, and beginning the post-Belichick Era of football in Foxboro as soon as possible. Super Bowl contention is not in the cards this season, it seems. So, many are proposing the Patriots strive toward the opposite end of the spectrum. After nearly three decades of not drafting in the top five of the NFL Draft some suggest the Patriots try to shoot straight to the top.

These folks are using a four-letter word: tank.

Some think tanking to land a surefire star at the top of the draft is they want to go. Why not? This team is apparently going nowhere fast. New England is sorely lacking star power, especially on the offensive side of the ball.  It is argued that going all-out to finish 6-11 makes significantly less sense than cruising into a 2-15 finish.

But if anyone is holding out hope for the New England Patriots to tank their way to a franchise cornerstone in the 2024 NFL Draft, there is some unfortunate news; it’s not happening. The reasons are many.

Professional Athletes Do Not Tank

Fans and media might be concerned with how the 2024 New England Patriots and beyond will look. That is not the concern of the men currently playing for the New England Patriots. Mac Jones does not want to tank this season so that Caleb Williams or Drake Maye can replace him next year. Trent Brown, Hunter Henry, Josh Uche, and others are headed to free agency. They don’t want to hurt their potential pay days by putting out bad game tape.  And veterans like Matthew Slater might be retiring when the season is done. The longtime team captain and future Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee does not want to wrap up his career not trying to win games.

These men are professionals who take pride in doing their job well. The results may not always be there, especially this season, but these players work way too hard to suddenly not fully commit to winning. And in a sport as violent as professional football it is dangerous to not be giving maximum effort on every play. Potential injury for the player or a teammate is way too great to risk by going half speed in the hopes of landing a college hot shot.

Bill Belichick Will Not Tank

Losing on purpose is not in Bill Belichick’s DNA. He is the winningest head coach of the Super Bowl Era and is creeping up on becoming the winningest coach in NFL history. With Don Shula in his sights, even a 51-year-old Bill Belichick is not going to throw away a season. A 71-year-old Bill Belichick certainly will not do so. And while there are differing opinions on the longtime leader’s job security, losing more football games than necessary is certainly not a step in the right direction. While it made bode well in theory for the post-Belichick Era, that is not an era that Belichick himself is likely too concerned about.

And much like the players themselves, the New England Patriots coaches are professionals. They have dedicated their lives to this sport and their jobs. To throw away the countless hours of preparation to make the media and fans giddy on draft day is not part of their thinking. The only way this would even be remotely considered is if it was an order that came directly from the owner himself, Robert Kraft. And as for that owner…

Robert Kraft Wants to Win

Robert Kraft bought the Patriots nearly 30 years ago. The first draft pick under his ownership was USC’s Willie McGinest. New England selected McGinest with the fourth overall pick of the 1994 NFL Draft. They have not drafted in the top five since. So when The 2001-to-2004 teams won three Super Bowls, McGinest was the only homegrown top five pick playing in those Super Bowls. When the 2014-to-2018 Patriots teams won three more for the franchise, there were no such players. Robert Kraft has basically been winning since he arrived in the NFL, without needing a plethora of high draft selections to do so.

Does the 82-year-old Kraft want to take a few steps backward in order to right this ship? As with Bill Belichick, it simply doesn’t seem to be part of Robert Kraft’s DNA. In the 29 NFL Drafts since Willie McGinest was selected, 145 players have been top five picks; the Patriots selected zero of them. Yet in that timeframe no franchise has come close to matching the success of the New England Patriots (if anyone is claiming Tom Brady deserves all the credit, click here).

2020 Was the Season to Tank

If there ever was a year to tank in New England, that season was 2020. Tom Brady had just left to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The New England Patriots were held back with dead cap money that had finally caught up to them. There were more players on the Patriots roster to opt out of the season than any other team in the NFL. There was no clear succession plan in place at quarterback after Brady’s departure. For a while it was unclear if there would even be an NFL season.

In addition to all these things going against the New England Patriots on the field, there was also a clearly defined reason to tank: Trevor Lawrence. Once in a blue moon there is a franchise quarterback worthy of tanking for, and Trevor Lawrence fit the criteria by this writer’s estimation. That is not always the case (as stated below) but it was in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Instead of tanking the 2020 New England Patriots fought valiantly with Cam Newton under center and finished 7-9.

So now in 2023 the New England Patriots and everyone involved has more to lose by losing. The good will from their 2018 championship has long eroded and been credited to Tom Brady (despite a 13-3 win that Super Bowl). Bill Belichick could be coaching for his job. Mac Jones, a quarterback taken in the first round just two years ago, is playing for his job. And the vast majority of Patriots players not competing for their jobs have potential salaries at stake in free agency. They had a one-year window to tank and opted against it. They will not do so now.

New England Already Tried This

While some readers may be too young to remember, there was. a time when selecting near the top of round one was not unusual at all for the New England Patriots. In the 12 years from 1982-to-1993 the Patriots “won” the first pick in the NFL Draft a third of the time. Twelve drafts, four number one overall picks. If fairness to the competitive spirit of those How did that work out?

1982 – Kenneth Sims (DE) Texas. A two-time consensus All-American in three years with the Longhorns, Sims won the Vince Lombardi Award as NCAA Lineman of the Year in 1981. He was dominant enough to finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Sims played his entire eight-year NFL career in New England (1982-1989) and was a member of the 1985 AFC Champions. He was good when healthy but played 10 or more games only four times. He finished with 17.0 sacks in 74 career NFL games.

1984 – Irving Fryar (WR) Nebraska. Fryar played nine seasons with the Patriots. He made one Pro Bowl as a return specialist and had one 1,000-yard season as a receiver. Fryar was good but not dominant. For most of his time in New England he was the second option to Stanley Morgan. Fryar also had his share of off the field drama. He played eight seasons after leaving, for Miami, Philadelphia, and Washington. Over 17 seasons he was able to put up impressive career counting numbers, though never lived up to the hype of being a first overall pick.

1991 – Traded. It appeared Notre Dame WR/KR/PR Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was the top player available in the draft. He was certainly the player New England Patriots players were most excited about. But just before the draft he signed with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Dallas acquired the top choice in exchange for a first-round pick (OL Pat Harlow), second-round pick (DB Jerome Henderson). Cowboys players Ron Francis, Robert Williams, and Eugene Lockhart also came over in the trade. Needless to say, landing at the top of the 1991 NFL Draft did not set the Patriots Dynasty in motion.

1993 – Drew Bledsoe (QB) Washington State. Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett had been the Patriots only other quarterback selection at number one, back in 1971. The pick was very successful for the Patriots. In Bledsoe’s fourth season the Patriots became 1996 AFC champions, playing in Super Bowl 31. But as good as Drew Bledsoe was for the New England Patriots, and he was very good, now he’s best remembered for getting injured. This allowed Tom Brady to take the field, and rest is history. New England would go on to win six Super Bowls with Brady. Bledsoe would be traded to Buffalo after serving as Brady’s backup for the homestretch of the 2001 season.

Top Five Picks Don’t Always Work Out

People promoting the idea to tank want a new quarterback. As exciting as some of the other prospects might be, the number one thing that will help turn a franchise around is a franchise quarterback. Many think the New England Patriots don’t have one now in Mac Jones. They believe getting to the top of the 2024 NFL Draft is the easiest way to change that.

Let’s look at quarterbacks taken with a top five pick in the past 25 NFL Drafts (1999-to-2023). There are 36 in total. Some fun facts about these 36 QBs:

  • 0 of 36 have won a Super Bowl for the franchise that drafted them
  • 2 of 36 have won a Super Bowl (Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford)
  • 7 of 36 have played in a Super Bowl (Manning, Stafford, Donovan McNabb, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Jared GoJoe Burrow)

It is important for some to keep in mind that not long ago, there genuine excitement not long ago over the selections of Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, David Carr, Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Mark Sanchez, Blake Bortles, Carson Wentz, Mitchell Trubisky, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance.

Patriots Might be Too Good to Tank

There is no disputing the New England Patriots are off to an awful start to their 2023 season. Unfortunately for their hopes at the top selection in the 2024 NFL Draft, they are far from alone:

  • Carolina Panthers are 0-5 (Chicago Bears own their #1 pick)
  • Arizona are 1-4 (starting QB Kyler Murray has been out all year)
  • Denver Broncos are 1-4 (Sean Payton has enough job security to tank)
  • Chicago Bears are 1-4 (could tank for 1 and 2 in the 2024 NFL Draft)
  • Minnesota Vikings are 1-4 (rumored to be having a yard sale soon)
  • New York Giants are 1-4 (looking eerily like the Patriots at the moment)
  • Washington Redskins are 2-3 (just got destroyed by the Bears)

For a complete rundown of teams, check out PFN’s NFL Power Rankings.

But the bottom line is that there are a lot of bad teams in the NFL. Even a terrible season might not get them high enough for the franchise quarterback people are hoping for. And what if they finish with the fifth pick? Caleb Williams, Marvin Harrison Jr., Drake Maye and Olu Fashanu could all be taken. Who would New England draft? Would tanking have been worth it?

Belichick Would Trade Down

While the idea of getting a top selection in the draft is exiting, the reality of Bill Belichick trading that pick to move down in the draft is even greater. New England would wind up with six future second round picks, a long snapper, and a few reliable veterans. Maybe bring Jimmy Garoppolo and Jakobi Meyers back from Las Vegas in the process? It would certainly be interesting to see what kind of haul they’d get for him (the Bears did nicely for themselves with this strategy at the 2023 NFL Draft). Hopefully they’d pull off something more appealing than New England Patriots GM Sam Jankovich did in 1991.

Or Roger Goodell Would Take it Away

Have NFL teams tanked in the past? Absolutely. Has any NFL team been punished for tanking? Not yet. The Miami Dolphins tried to tank, according to their own former head coach. And investigation led to penalties again the Dolphins owner. Those penalties were for the Dolphins tampering with other players (specifically Tom Brady). The NFL managed to sweep the tanking part of it under the rug. Indianapolis decided to “Suck for Luck” in 2011. The Colts got Andrew Luck and no punishment.

Does anyone who has observed Roger Goodell over the years believe he would not punish the Patriots? Of course he would. If the Patriots can land themselves in the top three of the draft, surely the Commissioner will figure out a way to take it away, and then some.

But Don’t Worry Tank Hopefuls…

But despite all these reasons as to why the New England Patriots should not and will not tank, there is some good news for those still wishing for it. This Patriots team might be bad enough to lose without trying to tank. New England was expected to be about a .500 team before the season began. Since then, Mac Jones has played the worst football of his life, the offensive line is offensive, and special teams have been embarrassingly bad. The defense looks decent, but Christian Gonzalez, Matthew Judon and Marcus Jones are all done for the year.

So if a pick at the top of the 2024 NFL Draft ends up belonging to the New England Patriots, they will get it the old-fashioned way: they’ll earn it.