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How NFL players on a tanking team can still make the most out of their season

Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz has played for a team that was tanking. Here’s his advice for the Dolphins, or any other players, on how to win when you know you’re going to lose.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Dolphins lost to the Steelers on Monday Night Football, dropping to 0-7 after Week 8. And that went just according to plan. They are currently tanking this season for future success. While I’m certain other NFL teams have tanked before, none have done it with as much openness as the Dolphins.

They are following the path of eventual MLB champions like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, who hope to win a championship soon. The Dolphins traded away their best players while they stockpiled draft picks. They have a poor quarterback situation and almost no talent on the field. Those are the hallmarks of a tanking team.

Remember, folks, tanking happens from March-August and then Monday-Saturday. It happens on Sunday by the team not being any good, not because the players and coaches don’t try their hardest. How do I know this?

Well, I’ve played on a tanking team before.

The season was 2010 and Carolina was coming off an 8-8 campaign. It was an uncapped year, the season before the eventual lockout. Teams were trimming their salaries so they could store some extra cash for the lockout. The Panthers might have been the poster child for this. We cut almost everyone over 30, outside of left tackle Jordan Gross, wide receiver Steve Smith, and kicker John Kasay. Our coaching staff had no contracts for the following season.

And, the easiest way to tell an NFL team is tanking: we were awful at quarterback. At the start of the season, we had Matt Moorewho can be serviceable, as we’ve seen recently — but he was benched for Jimmy Clausen, who wasn’t good. To be fair, Clausen never had much of a shot with our dysfunction that season. We started 0-5, went into a bye week, and won a game against a mediocre 49ers team, then didn’t win again until Week 15.

We lost most games by double digits, had a weekend when we started a quarterback who showed up on Tuesday, and averaged only 12 points a game on offense. It was utterly putrid and yet, we enjoyed coming to work every day.

How do you make the most of playing on a team you know is supposed to lose?

It’s tough to put into words just how you’re able to keep good spirits during a brutal losing season. The feeling of winning is why you play the game. It’s what I miss the most about football. Walking up that tunnel after a win, high-fiving everyone in the locker room, and knowing all the work you put into that game paid off. It’s such a high and you’re craving it every game.

When you’re losing, you NEVER feel this way. Preparing all week to win and then getting your ass kicked is demoralizing, especially when there’s no end in sight.

Act like you’re going to win

A key is keeping things loose throughout the week, while also approaching each week like you’re a winning team. It takes an effort from the coaches to acknowledge the situation you’re in and understand everyone in the building is still working to win.

Early in the season, Coach John Fox told us what the deal was and that we should make sure to continue to play hard even in the face of this adversity. We saw the coaches continue to gameplan the same way each week, and even though we didn’t realistically have a shot to win often, we always felt like we did.

We trick ourselves, just like I think fans do, that if we hit a play, force a few turnovers, and get some luck, then we have a chance to win.

Set a goal you and your teammates can achieve, no matter how small

The idea of winning keeps us hungry heading into each game, but it’s not always easy. Setting goals each week, whether as a team or position group, is the best way to carry the motivation week to week.

One mission we had came in a Thursday Night Football game in Week 16 that 2010 season. We were at playing at Pittsburgh and the Steelers’ defense was super-duper legit. As an offensive line, with help from our coach, we set a goal of rushing for more yards than the Steelers were allowing. We just needed over 66 yards a game.

When you set a goal early in the week like that, as little it is, it can lift you all week. And it carried us into the game. We got our blown out 27-3, but we gained over 66 yards on the ground! That was a win for us. A tiny baby win, but a win nonetheless. It’s important to always chase that feeling of winning.

Play like you’re on a winning team

That’s an example of a team/unit goal that can be achieved together, but we all know players must continue to play well even as the losses pile up.

An individual goal for each player must be effort on the field. When scouts are watching the film, they aren’t saying, “Well, Geoff Schwartz didn’t play that hard on this snap because whatever, his team sucked.” Heck no. So when you’re down 37-10, you must continue to bust your butt. Make the extra plays like you’d do on a team that’s winning 37-10.

All of these things sound simple on paper, but in reality, it’s tough sledding with all that losing. Still, setting goals, understanding the situation you’re in, and continuing to prepare like usual are the best ways to get through it.

Good luck to all the Dolphins players who are dealing with it now.