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Cardinals, Raiders Still Playing To Win The Game

Draft pick repercussions far from minds of players, coaches

DT Corey Peters, shown pressuring Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes on Sunday, doesn't think tanking will become a trend in the NFL
DT Corey Peters, shown pressuring Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes on Sunday, doesn't think tanking will become a trend in the NFL

Nearly 200 years ago, New York Senator William L. Marcy coined the phrase "to the victor belongs the spoils" in reference to the presidential election of Andrew Jackson.

The idiom still fits in politics, and it similarly transfers to sports – for the most part.

There are myriad perks to winning a championship, and every team opens the season gunning for it, but the reality is, some are eliminated from contention early on. At that point, talk focuses on the future, and the uncomfortable reality bubbles up: to the loser goes the spoils, as the more a team falls, the better draft pick it gets.

It's a discussion locally this week because the Cardinals (2-7) are facing the Raiders (1-8) on Sunday, with the loser increasing its chances at getting the No. 1 pick in April. While some fans may choose the unusual position of rooting against their own team, the indignation on Steve Wilks' face Monday made it clear accepting defeat is not in his DNA.

"My mind is not really on draft picks right now," the Cardinals' coach said. "I am trying to do everything I can to win football games. I'm not looking to say, 'OK, we're going to be in the top five.' That, to me, is a loser's mentality. We are going to continue to work hard, and at the end of the season, whatever happens, we'll take that order."

In the NBA and Major League Baseball, tanking has become a recent phenomenon. The Philadelphia 76ers intentionally stayed bad for years to get high draft picks, while the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros took a similarly long-term approach.

The process is no more overt than late in NBA seasons when lottery teams bench veterans to improve their draft odds. The philosophy has not seeped into the NFL, and Cardinals defensive tackle Corey Peters does not think it will, because the drafts are different beasts.

Peters believes the evaluation of football prospects is tougher, and the high injury rate in the sport can derail even the most promising player. Most notably, football is more of a team sport than basketball, meaning precious few players outside of an Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady – neither of whom was the No. 1 overall pick – can totally alter a franchise.

"I don't see a point in tanking with the assumption that the second pick is going to be that much better than the seventh pick," Peters said. "In the NBA, there's probably one transformative player in the draft. In the NFL, who is LeBron?"

The Suns are a cautionary tanking tale. They shut down point guard Eric Bledsoe for the final 15 games of the 2016-17 season to improve their draft slot. Phoenix ended up with the No. 4 selection, but so far, forward Josh Jackson has not proven worthy of the machinations it took to get him.

An unintended consequence was how it affected Bledsoe, who became unhappy and was subsequently dealt to the Bucks for a lesser return. Cardinals safety Antoine Bethea was asked what would happen if an NFL team wanted to bench established starters down the stretch.

"There would be some things to sit down and talk about," Bethea said. "As a veteran, what is that saying about my future (with the team)?"

The Raiders have been labeled tankers this season because they traded elite pass-rusher Khalil Mack before the season and wide receiver Amari Cooper a couple weeks ago. The moves were obviously made with the future in mind -- the team added three first-round picks in the deals -- but it still doesn't stoop to NBA levels.

Coach Jon Gruden continues to wake up at 4 a.m. to devise game plans, and the team's most valuable player, Derek Carr, has started every game at quarterback. Gruden was asked this week how he felt about the insinuation that he is fine with losing to set up a brighter future.

"How would you feel?" he said. "If you pay attention to that stuff, anybody that says that, I don't agree with, but I can't control what's out there. We've had to make some tough decisions, and everybody's going to have their own opinion, but I know what the reality is. I know what the truth is, and we're doing everything that we feel like is in the best interest of the Raiders, not only for this year, but for the future."

The Cardinals are the perfect example of the anti-tank. In 2003, they scored a last-second touchdown in their season finale to beat the Vikings and drop from the No. 1 overall pick to No. 3. They missed the chance to draft quarterback Eli Manning, and instead selected a receiver out of Pittsburgh named Larry Fitzgerald.

Tanking was not chic back then, and even though it has since become popular in other sports, NFL teams are still avoiding the trend.

"The idea of purposefully reducing your chances of winning?" Peters said. "I can't see that as an idea that players are going to get behind. And not to mention, coach Wilks is going to be judged off his final record. Regardless of anything, at the end of the day, you're judged by it. Even if the organization sees itself in a rebuilding phase, nobody wants to be 0-16. Nobody wants to be 1-15. I don't think you're going to see that. I think that would be bad for the game."

Images of past matchups between the Cardinals and this week's opponent, the Oakland Raiders

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