The game between the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins last Sunday was a landmark event: a showdown between the two of the worst teams in the National Football League this season and, if certain metrics are to be believed, at least one of the worst games in the history of professional football. Long before kickoff, at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, wags had rendered judgment. The meeting of the 0–4 Dolphins and the 0–5 Redskins was the Tank Bowl, the Toilet Bowl, the Loser Bowl, the Winless Bowl, and the O-Fer Bowl. Pundits speculated that the game could be a “nightmare,” “the bleakest”; it might prove to be “the worst game in the history of the world.” The matchup, Sports Illustrated proclaimed, with a Shelleyan shiver, “feels like a game full of sadness.”
An angel or two did weep on Sunday, especially during the game’s deciding play, a bungled two-point conversion attempt by Miami that handed a 17–16 victory to Washington. The lyre’s mournful throb was also heard whenever the Dolphins’ starting quarterback, Josh Rosen, touched the ball. He was sacked five times, four times in the first quarter, which is the kind of thing that happens when you play behind an offensive line that is incapable of executing a basic protection scheme. Rosen didn’t do much better when he was upright, floating the ball around anxiously and showing little inclination or aptitude for advancing it vertically downfield. The Redskins were marginally more competent. The team’s quarterback, the veteran Case Keenum, is inconsistent but solid, and he has one good target, the talented rookie wide-out Terry McLaurin, who burned the Dolphins for a hundred yards on four receptions, including two touchdowns.
But Washington was abysmal in the fourth quarter. It isn’t easy to give up a touchdown to the Dolphins, who reached the end zone just twice in the seaoson’s first four games. On Sunday, though, Miami managed two fourth-quarter touchdowns, led by the journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who replaced the beleaguered Rosen at the start of the final period. Fitzpatrick, who is thirty-six, has earned the nickname Fitzmagic for a shambling style which, on the occasional enchanted Sunday, has produced unlikely positive results. But in this case Fitzpatrick was merely decent—a professional, making routine throws to exploit an absurdly porous defense. To viewers accustomed to the speed and dynamism of N.F.L. action, the game was distinguished by sludginess, the sense that both teams, on both sides of the ball, were moving at half speed, as if fording a muddy river.
Appalling play has its own kind of mesmeric power. Watching a game like the one in Miami on Sunday is a reminder of how difficult sports are, and how great the glories that we accept as mere competence. This may be especially true of N.F.L. football, an intensely cerebral and strategic game that is also terrifyingly fast and violent, in which the most quotidian play—a screen pass on second and nine that gains four yards, say—is a feat of collective choreography dependent on dozens of individual acts of brute strength, balletic grace, split-second decision-making, vision, precision, and timing. To perform even at the dreadful level of the Dolphins and the Redskins is an achievement beyond the reach of all but a few thousand humans.
Yet losing is not what it once was, and many people in Miami are actively rooting for a winless season—including, it is safe to assume, the Dolphins’ brass and coaching staff. In this respect, the Dolphins, though clearly an inferior football team, are less of a mess than the Redskins. Washington seems to have arrived at its awfulness honestly, through extravagant mismanagement traceable to its top executives, team president Bruce Allen and owner Dan Snyder, who is best known for his staunch defense of the team’s racist name and logo. (Six days before the Dolphins game, the Redskins fired the team’s longtime coach Jay Gruden, one of the N.F.L.’s finer offensive tacticians, who did a better job than could reasonably have been expected under Snyder and Allen’s regime.)
Miami, on the other hand, appears to be ghastly by design. They are tanking the season: deliberately sinking to the depths to promote long-term buoyancy. The strategy is to clear “cap space”—shifting salaries off the books to move further under the league’s salary cap, thereby freeing up spending money—while amassing draft picks, including, hopefully, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. The N.F.L. awards the top selection in its annual draft to the team with the worst record in the previous season, and in 2020, a golden prize awaits: Tua Tagovailoa, the gunslinging University of Alabama star, who has the look of a franchise quarterback.
During the off-season, the question of whether the Dolphins would go all-in on tanking was the subject of some debate. Today, there is no doubt that the strategy has been implemented. The team’s general manager, Chris Grier, has ruthlessly purged the roster of good players. In August, the Dolphins traded wide receiver Kenny Stills and the excellent left tackle Laremy Tunsil, by far the best hope for keeping the likes of Josh Rosen off the turf. A couple of weeks later, Grier sent the team’s best defender, the safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Miami received a number of high draft picks in these deals, adding to a gaudy stockpile that will give them at least ten picks in 2020, and at least another eight in 2021. Assuming that one of those 2020 picks is the first in the draft, and that the Dolphins get Tagovailoa in the fold, they should be nicely set up for the future—especially since Grier will have plenty of cash to throw at free agents, adding experienced players to a team brimming with young talent.
That’s the theory, at least. Tanking has become fashionable in recent years, as a new generation of general managers, steeped in analytics and other progressive ideas, have arrived in the executive offices of N.F.L. and N.B.A. teams. The Philadelphia 76ers embraced “The Process”—a fancy name for tanking—during its rebuilding phase in the mid-two-thousand-tens. The Cleveland Browns won just one of thirty-two games during the 2016 and 2017 seasons while pursuing a tanking gambit. Today, both franchises are ascendant, with young stars on the roster. But whether championships will come remains an open question.
Tanking presents a novel set of ethical and existential conundrums. A disastrous season, even a deliberately disastrous one, can crush the morale of a fan base and a city, to say nothing of the players whose job it is to get out there and lose. Is all that pain worth it? Certainly, the 2019 season is subjecting Miami fans to a kind of psychic dissonance. Should the rare Dolphins touchdown bring cheers or catcalls? Must fans recalibrate their world views, learning to love the Dolphins’s failures, to savor the hideous beauty of blown coverages and dropped passes?
There are other, more troubling questions. The morality of “traditional” game-fixing would seem to be straightforward: a basketball team shouldn’t shave points, a boxer shouldn’t take a dive. You play the game to win. Of course, reality is sometimes complicated. The players on the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series because they were very badly paid by their owner and needed the money. The issues raised by the Dolphins tank job are thornier still, since management, not labor, is putting in the fix. Sending players out on a gridiron to bash in each other’s heads is a dodgy ethical proposition in the first place. Assembling a team that will almost certainly be defeated—that will face bigger, stronger, more talented competition, week after week—verges on the morally macabre. Commentators expect the Dolphins to liquidate much of the roster again in the off-season. Few of the players who are risking career- and life-altering injury in the doomed 2019 campaign will be around to enjoy any success that results.
The discomfort of all this is not, I suspect, lost on the Dolphins’s first-year coach, Brian Flores. Standing on the sidelines with a desolate, faraway gaze, he has the look of a man attending a junk-ship regatta on the banks of the Styx. Flores has made it clear that he is not trying to lose, and there is no reason to doubt him. The essence of the tank lies not in throwing games, but in fielding a team that makes losing a foregone conclusion.
Yet in the Redskins game, the Dolphins came close to victory. When the receiver DeVante Parker caught Ryan Fitzpatrick’s eleven-yard touchdown pass with six seconds left in the game, to make the score 17–16, Flores decided to attempt a two-point conversion. The choice raised eyebrows, and the Dolphins’ baffling play-call—a screen to running back Kenyan Drake that seemed doomed to failure even if Drake had caught the pass, which he didn’t—sent conspiracy theorists into overdrive. (“Go for Tua,” quipped more than one Twitter user.) But on inspection, the play doesn’t look like a deliberate botch; it looks like a bad team playing badly. Parker came in motion to receive Fitzpatrick’s pass but was distracted by the Redskins linebacker Ryan Anderson, who had skipped past a flailing block and was bearing down fast. Once again, the Dolphins’s offensive line had proven permeable. If Laremy Tunsil hadn’t been shipped out of town, Drake might have followed his bulldozing into the end zone.
By losing to the Redskins, the Dolphins “won”: the tank rolled on. But the competition is stiffer than anticipated. The Cincinnati Bengals began the year looking, as usual, like an also-ran, but the season has taken a grim turn. The Bengals are 0–6. “Tank for Tua” T-shirts in Bengals tiger stripes have popped up in online shops alongside those in the Dolphins’ signature orange and aquamarine. The two teams are scheduled to meet in Miami, on December 22nd, in the second-to-last week of the season. Perhaps the real 2019 Toilet Bowl, the true game full of sadness, has yet to be played.