Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part Six: The Johnson Years (1996-1999)

The 1995 season ended with Miami’s third embarrassing playoff loss in six years to the hated Buffalo Bills. Despite Dan Marino’s brilliance it was obvious to everyone that the Dolphins were a good team, but nowhere near championship caliber. And Marino wasn’t getting any younger either. It had now been over a decade since the Dolphins' last Super Bowl appearance and close to a quarter-century since their last Super Bowl victory. Impatience with the long wait and with the sainted Don Shula himself bubbled over and Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga was listening. Now if you’re going to replace the winningest coach of all-time you’d better have a big name to replace him with. And Huizenga did. Jimmy Johnson let it be known he was very interested in Shula’s job and Johnson had not only won two recent Super Bowls with the Cowboys, he built a team so good they were capable of winning another Super Bowl even with an idiot of a head coach (Barry Switzer). The drumbeat for JJ from fans starved for a championship proved too much for H. Wayne to resist and he essentially forced Shula to resign by demanding actions he knew Shula wouldn’t take (firing certain assistants). Johnson was in and Shula was out.

Huizenga gave Jimmy complete control of the team and expected a repeat of what Johnson's Dallas days. Johnson inherited a Top 10 offense but a below-average defense so, acting quite logically, he concentrated on improving the defense at first. And he did a hell of a job! In his first two drafts Johnson acquired three of greatest defensive players the Dolphins have ever had: Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, and Sam Madison! Three superstars in two years, plus a very good defensive tackle in Daryl Gardner. The result? By the end of 1998 Miami had the number one scoring defense in the league.

On the flip side, Johnson’s attempts to provide Marino with some weapons flopped bigtime. Karim Abdul-Jabbar rushed for almost 3000 yards in three seasons with Miami but he averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and was out of football by age 26. He was no better than the Mark Higgses and Bernie Parmalees that Shula had been running out there. At least Abdul-Jabbar contributed though. You can’t say that about the number one bust of 1997: Yatil Green.

The Marks Brothers were long gone. Irving Fryar left as a free agent. O.J. McDuffie was a good possession receiver but no Playmaker. Looking for another Michael Irvin, Johnson gambled a number one pick on Yatil Green. Like Irvin, Green possessed the size, speed, and athletic ability Johnson was looking for. Unlike Irvin however, Green was injury-prone in college. In fact, he’d never played a full season at UM without being injured. But Johnson gambled on him. And Johnson lost. Yatil averaged 1.25 surgeries per games played (10 surgeries, 8 games. Do the math).

If Johnson was intent on recreating his Cowboys teams, then if he wanted another Michael Irvin he should have tried to find him in 1996, not 1997. The 2007 Pro Football Prospectus called the wide receiver class of 1996 the “greatest draft class in NFL history at a single position”. Here’s the list: Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Joe Horn, Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn, Eric Moulds, Amani Toomer, Muhsin Muhammed, and Bobby Engram. Even Eddie Kennison and Jermaine Lewis had their moments. And Johnson and the Dolphins missed out on all those guys. And Miami wasted several more seasons after that hoping Green could come back and play when they should have drafted another receiver.

Still, overall Johnson’s first two drafts must be considered successes given the superstars he picked that made the defense one of the NFL’s best. Unfortunately, after the great start Johnson’s final two drafts were disasters. Only one really good player: Patrick Surtain. And Johnson’s frantic search for another Emmitt Smith, or just a decent running back really, turned into a parade of busts. Abdul-Jabbar actually seemed like Emmit Smith compared to the likes of his successors: John Avery, J.J. Johnson, Rob Konrad, and the ultimate loser Cecil Collins. Johnson didn’t have any better luck than Shula did in the run game. And unlike Shula who never lost his will, Johnson’s heart wasn’t really in the game anymore. Johnson rebuilt the defense but he had no luck creating a running game or finding a deep threat. Just like with Shula, Marino had to carry the offense but now he was an older QB who could no longer do that on a regular basis. He needed help. Johnson didn’t get him that help and, no longer what he once was, Marino started making more mistakes trying to win games by himself. That in turn frustrated Johnson who blamed it all on Marino when he should have looked in the mirror. Once Johnson realized it would take some more work to get Miami to championship level, he called it a day. Actually Johnson wanted to quit after his third season but that time Huizenga (and Marino, thinking of the team first) persuaded Jimmy to return for another year though his heart clearly wasn’t in it. He and Marino both retired after the 1999 season. So Miami gave up on Don Shula for the promise of Jimmy Johnson and now just four years later they didn’t have either Super Bowl-winning coach. Saddest of all, they also didn’t have Dan Marino anymore. So what did they have?

Dave Wannstadt.

I don’t like the sound of that!!!


1996

1 20 Daryl Gardener DT
3 79 Dorian Brew DB
3 80 Karim Abdul-Jabbar RB
4 113 Kirk Pointer DB
4 118 Stanley Pritchett FB
5 134 Jerris McPhail RB
5 150 Shane Burton DE
5 154 Zach Thomas LB
6 189 Shawn Wooden DB
7 230 Jeff Buckey G
7 251 Brice Hunter WR

A good pick in Gardner and about as great a 5th round bargain as you will ever find with Zach Thomas, maybe the best linebacker in Dolphin history. Stanley Pritchett had a decent career but he was mainly a blocking back. Since Abdul-Jabbar had a 1000-yard season I guess you have to consider him a quality player but his YPC average was always pedestrian. Shane Burton and Shawn Wooden lasted surprisingly long in the NFL though neither were ever consistent starting material. Jerris McPhail failed. As I talked about above, despite the number of quality players here the one real shame of this draft was that Johnson missed out on the greatest WR class in NFL history. I mean, Miami could have used one of those third round picks on TO! (or Teddy Bruschi or Jonathan Runyon or Stephen Davis or Donnie Edwards, etc). Heck, they could have had Joe Horn in the 4th.


1997

1 15 Yatil Green WR
2 44 Sam Madison DB
3 73 Jason Taylor DE
3 92 Derrick Rodgers LB
3 93 Ronnie Ward LB
3 96 Brent Smith G
4 121 Jerome Daniels G
5 149 Barron Tanner DT
5 157 Nicholas Lopez DE
6 166 John Fiala LB
6 170 Brian Manning WR
6 173 Mike Crawford LB
6 177 Ed Perry TE
7 203 Hudhaifa Ismaeli DB

No point in further beating the Yatil Green horse to death. As classic a bust as any of Shula’s 1984-1989 first-rounders. 1997 was not the year to go for a wideout. I believe 4th-rounder Derrick Mason was the only good NFL receiver from this draft. Certainly getting Madison and Taylor lessened the sting of the Green pick immeasurably. Derrick Rodgers and Ed Perry turned out to be good players as well.

1998

1 29 John Avery RB
2 44 Patrick Surtain DB
2 49 Kenny Mixon DE
3 79 Brad Jackson LB
3 82 Larry Shannon WR
4 102 Lorenzo Bromell DE
5 143 Scott Shaw G
6 171 Nathan Strikwerda C
6 172 John Dutton QB
7 210 Jim Bundren G

Here’s where Jimmy Johnson lost his magic touch. This draft was almost a total botch job. Johnson traded down with Green Bay to get Green Bay’s first and second-round picks and took John Avery with Green Bay’s first-rounder. Avery of course was Miami’s second first-round bust in a row. Green Bay used Miami’s pick to take Vonnie Holliday, a DE who’s had a pretty good career. Worse though, the trade cost Miami a shot at Randy Moss! Johnson later claimed he wouldn’t have taken Moss anyway even if he kept Miami’s original draft slot. Of course he could be lying to salvage his reputation or he might have thought Yatil Green would come back strong from the first of his many surgeries. Still, even without Moss the trade could have worked if Johnson hadn’t blown that pick on Avery and instead taken someone decent like Corey Chavous, Flozell Adams, Brian Kelly, or Samari Rolle. Johnson at least salvaged something by grabbing Patrick Surtain in the second but that came at a high cost; Johnson traded away Miami’s number one pick in 2000 to get that second-rounder for Surtain. Jimmy should have just kept that 2000 first-round pick, grabbed Surtain (or Kelly or Rolle) instead of Avery, and forgotten about running back until later. As it turns out, the two good backs still left were 79th pick Ahman Green and 95th pick Michael Pittman.

Oh, Johnson wound up trading the second-rounder (60th pick) from Green Bay to Detroit for the Lions’ 3rd, 5th, and 7th rounders, and every one of those picks (Jackson, Shaw, and Dutton) flopped. Johnson also missed on another WR, grabbing Larry Shannon in the third (he played in two NFL games) while just ten picks later Pittsburgh took Hines Ward. And Johnson missed out on a late-round QB find when he went with John Dutton, who failed to make the team, instead of Matt Hasselbeck (pick 187). Salt, meet wound.

1999

2 39 J.J. Johnson RB
2 43 Rob Konrad FB
3 72 Grey Ruegamer C
5 134 Cecil Collins RB
5 142 Bryan Jones LB
6 192 Brent Bartholomew P
7 232 Jermaine Haley DT
7 244 Joe Wong G

Johnson botched this draft even worse than 1998. The only quality player here is Grey Ruegamer, current starting center for the World Champion New York Giants. Johnson was smart enough to pick him but not smart enough to keep him; he never played a down for the Dolphins. As for the top pick, Jimmy traded down twice to obtain extra picks and used the second-rounder he ended up with on his namesake, J.J. Johnson. Of course Johnson became Miami's third consecutive top-pick bust. Rob Konrad wasn’t much better. But hopefully he and Johnson are enjoying their post-NFL careers and counting the money they made. Certainly Cecil “the Diesel” Collins, currently serving a 15-year sentence for burglary, is not. If you have fond memories of the 8 games he started before his arrest please write to him at Moore Haven Correctional Facility in Florida. He’s probably lonely.

If Miami had held onto their top pick, they could have drafted Fernando Bryant, Patrick Kerney, Al Wilson, John Jansen, or several other quality players still in the league. Even with the second-round picks they wound up with, Miami could have grabbed Dre Bly, Reggie Kelly, Jim Kleinsasser, or Peerless Price. Once again we see drafting for need ain’t gonna work if there aren’t any good players available to meet that need. And 1999 was not a good year for running backs once Edgerrin James and Ricky Williams (let’s not talk about him here Dolphin fans) were off the board. The best of the rest was Kevin Faulk and he was not the every-down back Miami needed.

In his final draft, Jimmy Johnson made four separate draft day trades to move up and down at various times. Nothing worked. This total washout of a draft no doubt contributed to Johnson’s realization that he wasn’t going to win a title with this team any time soon. And with Marino at the end of the line, Johnson didn’t want to try. Enter the man with the moustache.



A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part One (1966-1970)
A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part Two (1971-1975)
A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part Three (1976-1983)
A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part Four (1984-1989)
A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part Five (1990-1995)
A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part Six (1996-1999)
A History of the Miami Dolphins Drafts, Part Seven (2000-2004)

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