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How Bettors Conquer the NFL Tankathon

Last Updated: October 30, 2021
How real is tanking for the No. 1 pick? Across the NFL betting markets, let’s talk about the difference between strategic losing and simply being a poor team.

On April 28, 2022, the next NFL draft will be held in Las Vegas. In the home of the Raiders, the Allegiant Stadium, to be precise. The annual draft has turned into a big event over the past five years. Fans await it with excitement to see which young, rising college stars get picked by their favorite teams.

In recent years, we also witnessed the establishment of a true draft community where dozens of analysts study hours of tape of prospects and share the results with the public. There is a market for paid premium draft content nowadays year-round.

But over the next few weeks, one glaring question will always come up in every flavor NFL coverage: which team wins the Tankathon?

Here’s the current top-five draft order for 2022 the season ended today:

  1. Detroit Lions
  2. Philadelphia Eagles (via Miami)
  3. Houston Texans
  4. New York Jets
  5. Jacksonville Jaguars

Every NFL season, there are squads whose try-hard performances still place them at the bottom of the barrel. Others are in straight rebuild mode. And right on cue, fans will be quick to conclude, “This team is tanking!” Famous examples include the “Tank for Tua” campaign for the 2019 Miami Dolphins, and the New York Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars battling it out for Trevor Lawrence the following year.

In that regard, let’s talk about what’s real and what’s not.

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How Dare You, Doug Pederson?

At least, those were the media and fan narratives. We don’t know precisely whether teams intend to tank at all. I don’t believe that NFL players care about their team’s draft pick. So many guys are playing for their next contract. It would be hard to think that players care more about the future of their franchise than their performances, their pride, and their upcoming contracts. 

In Week 17 of the 2020 season, the Washington Football Team hosted the Philadelphia Eagles in primetime. Washington needed a win to secure a playoff spot. The Eagles had nothing to play for other than spoiling Washington’s playoff hopes in front of national television. But if the Eagles won, their draft spot would have been ninth instead of fifth — a significant difference in terms of draft capital. According to some pick value calculators on the Internet, the difference is equivalent in worth to a second-round pick across all selections. 

When the score was 17-14 in favor of Washington early in the fourth quarter, ex-Eagles head coach Doug Pederson pulled starting signal-caller Jalen Hurts in favor of backup Nate Sudfeld.

No one on earth understood what was going on; Nate Sudfeld had an interception and a fumble, and Washington went on to win 20-14. The loss netted the Eagles the No. 5 overall pick, which they turned into an extra first-round pick in next year’s draft by trading down with Miami. As a net result, Philadelphia got an additional first-round selection (and the equivalent of a second-round choice).

We won’t ever know for sure, but it’s hard to believe that the Eagles didn’t pull Hurts on purpose. But that was only one game where they had barely anything to lose.

Dealing with Terrible Teams

At what point does the tanking phenomenon collide with sports betting? If you were hypothetically able to diagnose the exact point at which a team started tanking, you’d be rich — but aside from the fact that I don’t believe that NFL teams actively tank throughout the season, figuring it out objectively is a misadventure.

But how would you go about deciphering whether a team is “tanking” or whether it’s just awful? First of all, the latter is usually the case.

When a team is terrible, it helps to over-adjust on their ratings until they prove you otherwise. Let’s take the 2020 Jets as an example. Going into the season, we knew that they could potentially be bad. But it turned out that they were horrible. They lost each of their first eight games by eight or more points. Adam Gase looked lost on the sidelines. It was extremely tough to come up with a good rating on that team. 

But here’s a problem: Bettors who relied on power ratings or statistical models would always find value on Gang Green. Most models couldn’t capture how bad the Jets were over the first half of the season. The market came up with some high spreads, and bettors were tasked with figuring out when the Jets were getting too many points. With a team like that, you have a lot of compounding effects that are hard to quantify correctly: bad coaching, quarterback mistakes, players not giving 100% effort. Everything comes together.

In that case, it helps to either over-adjust the rating or just stay away altogether.

Big Spreads: They Might Not Matter

The 2021 Houston Texans are a poor team with quarterback Davis Mills starting. They lost 24-9 against the Panthers, 40-0 against the Bills, 25-22 against the Patriots, 31-3 against the Colts, and 31-5 against the Cardinals.

With all this in mind, it’s hard to price that team accurately. Against Arizona, the Texans opened as 17-point underdogs, but the market had no love for Houston. At kickoff, the Cardinals were 20- and 20.5-point favorites at the books. That’s an utterly vast spread and could have invited bettors to take the big underdog blindly. But in the end, it didn’t matter.

The Cardinals didn’t play their best game, but still covered the spread by six points.

It is intriguing to search for the golden spot to take one of these awful teams as underdogs, but it’s ultimately hard to price them accurately. Sometimes, it’s wiser to stay away, collect more data, and let the market figure it out.

But of course, to each their own. There’s no recipe for winning at sports betting. Sometimes, you might find a great spot to fade such teams. Sometimes, you might pick them in a great spot.