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Behind the NFL's tanking investigation into the Browns, and what the league should do about it

Photo of Hue Jackson
Erik Drost
/
Wikimedia Commons
Hue Jackson has accused the Cleveland Browns of tanking in 2016 and 2017, when he was the head coach and the team went 1-31.

The Cleveland Browns are under investigation by the NFL for allegations of tanking. The claims stem from when the team won just one game during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

What's tanking?
Commentator Terry Pluto explains the concept:

"Tanking means, 'I'm going to lose a lot now to win more later.' In this case, instead of spending money on good players right now, a team wants to lose because they're going to pile up draft picks. In the NFL, it's called salary cap room so that within a few years, a team can go out and get good players," Pluto said.

Pluto says tanking is a practice that's been done for many decades in different sports.

"But the most extreme was the Browns in those two years. To be fair to Sashi Brown, who was the architect of this, and Paul DePodesta in 2015, the team they inherited was 3-13 with the highest-paid defense in the NFL, and it was an older roster. And Sashi Brown laid all this out to me, he said, 'Now look, this is what we inherited. So we needed to rip it down to start over,'" Pluto said.

So, Pluto said it's obvious the team was indeed tanking.

"You saw recently the Browns just gave a big money to Denzel Ward, making him the highest-paid cornerback in the NFL. That was one of the draft choices that came out of some of the moves during the tanking period. The Browns got the worst record in the NFL in 2016. They got the No. 1 draft pick in 2017. They took Myles Garrett, who is a Pro Bowl defensive end."

"Rather than reward the team with the worst record with the highest draft pick, you take the bottom 10 teams in the NFL and throw them in a hat."
Terry Pluto

Hue Jackson leads the charge
Pluto says all of this started when Brian Flores, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins, alleged racial discrimination regarding his interview processes with Denver and New York and his firing by Miami in January.

He also claimed ownership offered him $100,000 per loss. "That's different than tanking," Pluto said. The Dolphins ownership denies those claims.

"So, Hue Jackson, the Browns coach during that era where they were 1-and-31, claims that he was set up to lose," Pluto said.

Pluto says Jackson originally hinted that he was offered money to lose but has since walked back those allegations. He requested that the NFL open the investigation.

What's wrong with tanking?
Pluto wonders, is tanking illegal?

"In my mind, no," he said.

And Pluto says Jackson doesn't have much of a case.

"His first two years, he's 1-31. In 2018, the Browns began to play to win. That was the year they drafted Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb. Not only that, but when John Dorsey was hired as general manager to take over for Sashi Brown for that year, he had to keep Hue Jackson because ownership felt that [Jackson] needed a shot to win with a better roster. They gave him a better roster. He started that season 2-5-1 and was fired at midyear. But the rough thing for Hue is Gregg Williams, a sort of a nondescript defensive coordinator, took over and they finished 5-3," Pluto said.

A solution to the tanking problem
Pluto says he doesn't think the NFL investigation will amount to anything. The Browns issued a statement welcoming the probe.

But Pluto says the NFL needs to make a change to prevent teams from losing on purpose.

"Rather than reward the team with the worst record with the highest draft pick, you take the bottom 10 teams in the NFL and throw them in a hat. It doesn't matter what your record is and you see who gets the first pick, second pick and so on. That'll stop a lot of this. It's a total lottery," Pluto said.

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.