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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...TANKING FOR TREVOR?

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Every decade or so, it seems as if there is a can’t-miss prospect at the top of the NFL draft board whose mere presence seems to distort the preceding pro season. The last time we at TGS recall such gyrations came in 2011, with Stanford QB Andrew Luck the expected prize at the top of the upcoming draft. Now, much of that same Luck-like hysteria is surrounding Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence.

Before we go much further, it’s worth noting that, for the moment, at least, Lawrence still holds a joker in the card deck in that he would have one more year of eligibility with Dabo Swinney’s Tigers should he decide to return for his senior season in 2021. Lawrence himself fueled that speculation with his recent declaration that he might indeed consider a return to “Death Valley” for one more spin next fall. Perhaps the chance (and a good one) that the woeful New York Jets will have the top pick could influence Lawrence to stay put for another year, as some gridiron observers are advising. And then there is Lawrence’s recent Covid diagnosis, which kept him off the field this past weekend against Boston College, and an unknown impact in upcoming weeks. Lots of moving parts, to be sure.

Still, the vast majority of NFL insiders believe Lawrence will make himself available for the draft, especially if he wins the Heisman Trophy and a second national title with Clemson when the current season completes. A variety of scenarios could also ensue if Lawrence is adamant about entering the draft...but not wanting to play for a certain team at the top of the board, say the Jets (a sentiment at which Lawrence has yet to reveal).

Outwardly, at least, Lawrence seems more interested in simply getting back on the field and playing for the Tigers, which has been his motivation throughout his college career, rather than playing hardball with NFL teams regarding the draft. At least to his point. Remember, even before the coronavirus pandemic, there were some who suggested that Lawrence might be well-advised to simply sit out the 2020 season to prepare for his pro career and not risk injury (though top pro-prospect college players do have insurance policies these days). And that was before Covid, which prompted many players, on both the college and pro levels, to simply skip this season for health-related concerns. Lawrence, however, never wavered about playing this 2020 campaign for his Tigers. And about the only outward hint he has given about his career post-2020 is his recent, aforementioned statement that it’s possible he could play college football again in 2021.

So, thus far, at least, no hint of Lawrence considering pulling a “John Elway” as was the case in the 1983 draft. Though the scenarios are not quite the same. Elway, of course, had just completed his senior year at Stanford (and didn’t have the option of going back to play another year of college football) and was generating the same sort of buzz as Luck would do out of Palo Alto 29 years hence, and Lawrence this fall.

Elway, however, was not interested in enlisting with the Baltimore Colts, owners of the top pick in ‘83 but a mess organizationally, having just completed a winless (0-8-1) run in the strike-shortened ‘82 campaign. Elway said he preferred to play for a team in the West, but had another ace up his sleeve, a pro baseball contract in the Yankees organization, threatening that he would rather wear the New York pinstripes for George Steinbrenner than suit up for Bob Irsay’s Colts. Perhaps not a realistic threat, as Elway was not considered a can’t-miss baseball prospect. But not an idle threat, either, as Elway had already played a season of minor league ball in the Yankee organization.

Nonetheless, the Colts took a risk and went ahead to draft Elway, but after being convinced that the Stanford gunslinger was serious about not playing in Baltimore, traded his rights to Denver in a blockbuster deal that May. Had the Colts not made the trade, they risked Elway following through on his baseball threat and then re-entering the NFL draft the following 1984. Faced with the chance of losing Elway completely and getting nothing in return, Baltimore GM Ernie Accorsi ended up making a deal so the Colts were at least not empty-handed. (Though Northwestern OT Chris Hinton turned into a nice addition from the Elway deal, and the Colts also got QB Mark Herrmann and a No. 1 pick from Denver in 1984, who turned out to be multi-year startign G Ron Solt. the Broncos rather conclusively “won” that trade.)

Of more concern on the handicapping side, however, is how far the current NFL teams might go in order to help their chances of getting Lawrence in the draft. “Tanking,” if you will. But pro football history is replete with examples of teams who didn’t help their future draft positions and a chance to take generational players by winning games late in preceding campaign. How might certain teams in the running for the top pick in the draft, and a chance to take a franchise QB talent like Lawrence, be willing to risk that opportunity by winning games in the later stages of this 2020 season?

Having said that, we have never believed ANY pro player would purposely not perform to his best whenever on the field. It’s only their future employment that is at risk. Management, however, can tilt the scales by deliberately not fielding the best teams. A new era of pro sports “tanking” has evolved in the last decade in the NBA, when some teams, most notably the Philadelphia 76ers under GM Sam Hinkie, deliberately weakened themselves in order to position themselves better in upcoming drafts, and to shed salary to create future cap space. Almost every move the Sixers made over a span of a couple of seasons seemed designed to make them worse, sometimes unimaginably so, in the short-run, but give them a chance to select top-tier talent in upcoming drafts. Other NBA teams followed suit, all trying to lose, either to enhance draft prospects or create salary space to sign future free agents in what we have long thought one of the most-regrettable developments in pro sports.

To their credit, NFL teams have never quite followed that Sam Hinkie/76ers blueprint. In fact, there are examples in the past of the spirit of competition overcoming any desire to tank in order to secure a higher draft pick.



Rewind
to 1968.
As the third year of the combined AFL/NFL “common” draft was looming, there was a generational college talent on the horizon. Indeed, USC’s O.J. Simpson, en route to a runaway Heisman Trophy win, was considered maybe the top RB prospect in pro history, even more so than Jim Brown when he came out of Syracuse 12 years earlier. Speculation began to ramp up during the second half of that pro season (two years before the NFL-AFL merger) at just which team would end up with the top pick and a shot at Simpson. At the halfway mark of the ‘68 season, an “O.J. Bowl” loomed between the 0-6 Steelers and 0-6 Eagles.

This matchup, alternately dubbed “Futility Bowl,” “O.J. Bowl,” and “Simpson Showdown” was even worse than advertised at old Pitt Stadium. Perhaps it was Gordon Forbes from the Philadelphia Inquirer who best summed up the dreary afternoon.

“(Eagle coach) Joe Kuharich’s career as a pro football coach and maker of wrong decisions sank to its lowest depth Sunday and the Eagles were forced to crawl into the same dungeon. It also insured Kuharich, probably the most unpopular coach in National Football League history, of his ninth non-winning season in 11 years in the pro ranks.

“...Seldom has any NFL team arrived at the midpoint in its schedule in such sad shape as the Eagles. Not only have they dropped seven in a row–and have an excellent chance at matching the 1940 record of nine straight–but they are haunted by owner Jerry Wolman’s financial mess and discontent that is spreading through its 40-man squad.

“...The Eagles couldn’t defeat a team that lacked a quarterback, a place-kicker, and a receiver who could catch the ball with any consistency. Actually, the Steelers were forced to accept the victory after bungling an earlier touchdown drive that had reached the Eagle 2-yard line.”

Not to be outdone, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Editor Al Abrams had his own take on the proceedings.

“I was there. I saw it. I don’t believe it. That’s the way the Steelers-Eagles game yesterday afternoon affected me. I am sure the 26,908 masochists who came out to Pitt Stadium to see pro football’s “Odd Couple” must have felt the same way.

“Some called it bizarre. Some labeled it strange. Others said it was unbelievable. The majority agreed it was atrocious, far from good football. Those who kiddingly predicted this “futility Bowl” game would wind up in a scoreless tie were close. Three field goals separated them from hitting it on the button.

“It wasn’t the score or the Steelers’ win that stood out. The unbelievable things we saw–-mysterious coaching strategy, stone-fingered pass receivers on both sides, penalty calls by officials at crucial moments, five missed field goals. TDs that missed by inches–all went into the makeup of this battle of winless teams.

“Come to think of it, what else could one expect?”

As the low-speed collision reached the final minutes looking as if it might end knotted at 3-3, Steelers QB Kent Nix uncorked a 61-yard bomb to Roy Jefferson to put Pittsburgh at the Birds 11-yard line. Two running plays moved the ball down to the 3-yard line at the two-minute warning, setting up a 3rd-and-2 call. Then things began to get crazy.

Nix, who had split snaps with Dick Shiner that afternoon, would pass on third down and was picked off by Philly LB and ex-Washington Husky Ron Medved at the 1. After gaining possession, the Eagles moved nine yards in three plays, setting up a 4th and 1 from their own 10 as the clock ticked down to under a minute to play.

Kuharich, however, disdained the punt and a likely 3-3 tie and went for the first down instead. But a “Syracuse scissors” misdirection handoff to FB Tom Woodeshick was halted in its tracks by Steelers DE Lloyd Voss, and remarkably, Pittsburgh had another chance! After a run by Dick Hoak moved the ball to the Philly 8 and in the center of the field, Pittsburgh PK (and ex-Buffalo Bill) Booth Lusteg, who had earlier missed from 40 and 22 yards, booted a game-winning 15-yard FG with just 17 seconds to play. Pittsburgh 6, Philadelphia 3. The Eagles were now in the lead in the race for O.J.

By the time the regular season reached Thanksgiving, the Eagles were still winless at 0-11 and a heavy favorite to “win” the first pick and a chance to draft Simpson. Over in the AFL, the struggling Bills, on the strength of an earlier upset win over the Jets and tie with the Dolphins, were running a length-and-a-half behind the Eagles in the race for the top pick. Philly would have to win twice in its last three games, and Buffalo would have to lose out, for the Bills to nudge the Birds for the top pick.

But tanking? Not this bunch of Eagles!

In one of the most-desultory Thanksgiving games in NFL history, Philly showed up at old Tiger Stadium in Detroit, looking the football equivalent of Oscar Bonavena’s face after the 15 rounds he would go against Joe Frazier a couple of weeks hence for the heavyweight title at the Philadelphia Spectrum, to face the Lions on a muddy field that more resembled a cow pasture. But the Eagles players, and HC Kuharich, who was likely not going to be around in 1969 anyway, cared less about a chance to draft O.J. Simpson, and were not about to surrender on an epically gloomy afternoon in Detroit.

The game was trench warfare, perhaps even more unsightly than the Steelers-Eagles game the month earlier. (Pittsburgh, by the way, had subsequently routed the Falcons and tied the Cardinals, pulling well out of contention for the top pick.) No artistic masterpiece on Thanksgiving, with the only drama provided by legendary of CBS play-by-play man Ray Scott, who could make a trip to the refrigerator for a soft drink sound as important as describing the D-Day invasion.

But the Eagles seemed to relish the infighting this unspeakably dank day. Neither team gained more than 168 yards, with Philly content to hammer away with FB Woodeshick, who banged out 79 yards on 27 carries, less than 3 per carry. But four Lions giveaways gave Philly several chances to set up field goal tries by vet PK Sam Baker, who before the afternoon concluded had hit four of them, one in each quarter, from 36, 18, 32, and 35 yards. Which was all Philly needed to claim a satisfying 12-0 win.

The race for O.J. was on again!

Meanwhile, on the AFL side, Buffalo hardly seemed to be playing to lose, either, in fact pushing the 26-point favorite Raiders to the limit in Oakland that same Thanksgiving afternoon. But a late fumble at the Raider goal-line by backup QB Ed Rutkowski, and subsequent 42-yard FG miss by PK Bruce Alford in the final seconds, preserved a 13-10 Raiders win, narrowly missing what would have been the greatest pro football upset of the TGS era (since 1957).

Human spirit was the winner that Thanksgiving day, 1968; two teams outwardly appearing to have no motivation to win would instead summon tremendous efforts. Neither side could have cared less about drafting O.J. Simpson for the following season; the players were more worried about their future employment which depended upon top performance.

Fast-forward to the following week, and the Eagles were still in pole position to draft Simpson, but had a winnable game on deck at Franklin Field against the Saints. Locals were hardly enthused about any of it; a scheduled boycott by a group of fans labeled as “The Committee to Rejuvenate the Philadelphia Eagles” held down the actual attendance to far less than announced 57,128 paid customers (estimates were that no more than 45,000 attended). But in near-freezing conditions, the Birds battled the second-year Saints, finally gaining their first lead of the game in the 4th Q on a Norm Snead-to-Ben Hawkins TD pass. With 27 seconds to play, FB Woodeshick sealed the deal with a 30-yard TD run.

The 29-17 Philly win moved the Birds to 2-11 and guaranteed first pick to the AFL Bills, whose season had completed the day before with a loss in Houston. Sports section headlines (Safety Helps Birds “Lose” Simpson to Bills; Woody’s Happy Over Loss of O.J.) the next day in the Philadelphia Inquirer made note of the lost opportunity to draft O.J. On the CBS NFL preview show the following week, host Frank Gifford even made note when reviewing Eagles-Saints highlights. “The Eagles have their own O.J., O.J. (Tom) Woodeshick,” said Gifford, “who sealed the deal against the Saints with this late TD run.”

Buffalo would go on to draft Simpson. The Eagles, the pressure "off" in the O.J. sweepstakes, would give another good account of themselves in the regular-season finale vs. the Vikings, who needed the W to claim the Central Division crown. Minnesota worked hard for the 24-17 win, putting the Eagles at 2-12.

Atlanta was also closing ground by losing down the stretch, and at 2-12 would actually nudge Philly for the second pick, which it would use to take Notre Dame OT George Kunz. As for the Birds? The Simpson “consolation” prize, Purdue HB Leroy Keyes, was Philly’s choice with the third pick. Keyes, however, proved no O.J. (for good or bad), carrying the ball just a handful of times as a pro before being moved to the defensive backfield. Simpson would become a record-breaker and Hall of Famer. (By the way, might O.J.’s life have changed had he been drafted by the Eagles instead of the Bills? We’ll never know.)

Twenty years later, we saw another example on the final day of the 1988 season. With UCLA QB Troy Aikman considered another generational talent atop the upcoming draft board, the Green Bay Packers were in pole position for the top pick as they trekked to Tempe to face the Phoenix (as they were then known) Cardinals in the regular-season finale. Someone, however, forget to remind the 3-12 Packers that they were supposed to lose. Instead, Green Bay cruised to a 26-17 win behind a pair of Don Majkowski TD passes. Meanwhile, a 23-7 loss by Dallas against the Eagles earlier in the day gave the Cowboys the top pick in the ‘89 draft...and Aikman.

Does the past provide a message? Be careful assuming that players are ever trying to lose games in order to gain a better draft pick for their teams the next season. Be on the lookout, however, for situations where team management might be less than motivated to put the best team on the field, or “unintentional intentional tanking,” as we like to call it.

As we enter the second half of the NFL season, there will be inevitable chatter about teams positioning themselves to have a shot to draft Lawrence. Of course, we would expect any team in the top spot, whether it be the Jets or whomever, to be approached with trade offers by any number of teams looking to move up and grab Lawrence. (Ohio State’s Justin Fields, at the moment the projected second-rated QB in the upcoming draft, looms as a nice consolation prize, though doesn’t figure to generate the sort of “tank” talk that is already surrounding the chance to draft Lawrence). The race for the top spot in the draft across the next eight weeks figures to involve the teams listed below.

New York Jets... Evoking memories of Rich Kotite’s 1-15 side from 1996 that preceded the Bill Parcells era, the Jets hit midseason winless and as clear favorites to land the top pick. The fact that HC Adam Gase has lasted this long in 2020 has some insiders suggesting that the J-Men will keep Gase for as long as they can to effectively ensure the team continues to lose rather than make a coaching change and risk an interim hire creating a spark. (Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has done the interim thing twice before with some success, though observers do not believe COO Chris Johnson wants to hire the polarizing Williams, reportedly less popular than Gase in the clubhouse.) Already the team has cut ties with high-priced RB Le’Veon Bell. Lost in the shuffle could be 3rd-year QB Sam Darnold, likely the odd man out in any Lawrence scenario. Some sources have floated a notion that Darnold (who was drafted before current GM Joe Douglas was on the job) might even be moved by Tuesday’s trade deadline, and by promoting backup Joe Flacco to the starting role for the rest of the season and keeping Gase, the J-Men would become near-overwhelming favorites for the top pick. Sounds crazy?  Remember, crazy is the rule in 2020. Stay tuned.

Jacksonville Jaguars...As is the case with Gase and the Jets, there is thought that mustachioed owner Shad Khan might be willing to bite the bullet with HC Doug Marrone the rest of the season as the Jags continue to lose altitude after their opening win against the Colts. All losses since, and now QB Gardner Minshew is dealing with a thumb injury. Some were speculating that Marrone (and under-fire GM Dave Caldwell) might get the boot during this past week’s bye, with o.c. Jay Gruden promoted to see out the rest of the season in Marrone’s place as an audition of sorts for 2021. But, as of yet, no move by Khan. Like the Jets, there doesn’t appear to be a game left this season when J’ville will be favored, and in four of their last five losses, the Jags have succumbed by double-digit margins. It is not trending the right way in Jacksonville...unless the aim is to catch the Jets for the top pick.

New York Giants...Though the G-Men have only won once, they have been competitive in many of their losses, and most don’t believe they are a serious contender for the top pick. Even if New York somehow ended up in the number one slot, it would figure to be reluctant to go for Lawrence with Daniel Jones showing signs of progress in his second year (though there isn’t a GM in the league who would tab Jones ahead of Lawrence). The Giants have plenty of roster needs, however, and en route to a high choice might be an attractive trade partner for a team looking to move up. 

Cincinnati Bengals...Like the Giants, Cincy’s competitive efforts don’t suggest it will hang around much longer in the race for the top pick, certainly not after Sunday's inspired win voer the Titans. Remember, the Bengals got their franchise QB at the top of the last draft, LSU Heisman winner Joe Burrow, who has been progressing ahead of the NFL learning curve. This is one team in the potential top-draft tier that would not have interest in Lawrence, Fields, or any other high-rated rookie QB next April.

Dallas Cowboys...Though Jerry Jones might still have designs on his troops making the playoffs, this also looks like perhaps the worst Dallas team since the Cowboys went 1-15 in Troy Aikman’s rookie year of 1989, also the first year for HC Jimmy Johnson. The latter set up the franchise’s recovery with a steal of a trade with the Vikings involving Herschel Walker, but Jones has not been able to pull anything close to that move in the 30+ years since. There is a possible scenario for Dallas to get involved with Lawrence perhaps in a trade, in which the Cowboys’ appeal would be enhanced by a high pick of their own to be dealt the other way. There is also the matter of current (but injured) QB Dak Prescott, recovering from a serious ankle injury. Jones has yet to pull the trigger on a long-term extension for Dak, and again, there are few GMs in the league who would rate Prescott on a par with Lawrence. There could be plenty of moves forthcoming in Arlington, which also might include HC Mike McCarthy. Jones could also be active before trhe trade deadline early this week.

Houston Texans...While the Texans remain in the race for the top pick, no one is seriously thinking Houston could sink below the Jets, not with QB Deshaun Watson in the mix. But we did see what happened to the Texans a few years ago when Watson got hurt and the season disintegrated, and Bill O’Brien replacement Romeo Crennel is only on the job as an interim. The Texans could be sellers at this week’s trade deadline, too, but with Watson in the fold, there would seem no urgency to get in position to draft Lawrence, Fields, or any other QB in the upcoming draft. A major housecleaning, with a new coach, and Watson remaining as the centerpiece, looks the likely scenario at NRG Stadium.

Minnesota Vikings...After Sunday's win over the Packers, the Vikes really don't belong in this discussion, if they ever did.  In fact, a forgiving upcoming slate and an extra wild card berth in each conference gives Minnesota hope it can still make a playoff move. But anything short of a big push in the next couple of week could suggest changes are coming at US Bank Stadium, with HC Mike Zimmer’s future status possibly in question, ditto for QB Kirk Cousins, big contract and all.   Into last week, the Vikings looked like potential sellers at the trade deadline, too, but the win at Lambeau likely changes that line of thinking. If Minnesota reverts back to its early-season form, however, and ends up with a top ten pick, they might be a serious candidate to trade-up, with the sort of draft capital that could potentially improve the chance for a shot at one of the top QBs. Obviously, lots of "ifs" at US Bank Stadium.

At the moment, we see it as a race the Jets probably “win” for the top pick, but with half of the season to go in an already wild 2020, there could still be a few surprises to come.

Just remember the 1968 Eagles!


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