Friday, June 27, 2008

Guy Benjamin and David Woodley, Part Three

Stuck backing up two entrenched veterans on two different teams, Guy Benjamin never had an NFL regime committed to developing him as his team’s quarterback of the future. Now, on his third team in four years, Benjamin was finally teamed with a coach who was well aware of his abilities. A coach who knew exactly how to build an offense around the talents of Guy Benjamin. Yes, the 1981 trade reunited Guy Benjamin with his old college coach Bill Walsh. And now Walsh was building an NFL dynasty in San Francisco. But as we all know, Joe Montana would be the man leading the Forty Niners to greatness and four Super Bowl titles. Benjamin couldn’t have been thrust into a worse situation. At least Griese and Manning were aging veterans soon-to-be-gone when Benjamin came aboard. In San Francisco by contrast, Montana was younger than Benjamin and just beginning his legend. Benjamin never had a chance.

Meanwhile, David Woodley couldn’t have been thrust into a better situation. The AFC’s best scoring defense, a sturdy running game, a great home field advantage, and a coach committed to him. If a game did get out of hand Don Shula didn’t hesitate to remove Woodley and insert his experienced backup Don Strock but nobody seemed to mind “Woodstrock” too much. Unfortunately, despite these advantages Woodley’s game didn’t improve in 1981 and 1982. In his three seasons as the team’s primary starter Woodley’s QB rating never topped 69.8 At least the team improved. In 1981 Miami won their division but Woodley got off to such a slow start in the divisional playoff game against San Diego that Shula made the move to Strock and Strock damn near pulled off one of the great comebacks in NFL history.

No need for Strock in the 1982 playoffs. Woodley played about as well as a quarterback can play in the first two playoff rounds. Miami dominated New England and San Diego. The AFC Championship Game was a different story as Woodley tossed three interceptions, but Jets QB Richard Todd topped that with five picks and Woodley couldn’t really be blamed too much given the torrential rain and muddy field conditions. Miami rolled to a 14-0 win. Only 22 years old, Woodley had captained the Dolphins to three straight playoff wins.

Then Super Bowl XVII happened.

Suffice it to say, Woodley played poorly and was probably the single biggest reason Miami lost. He started out strongly with a spectacular 76-yard TD pass to Jimmy Cefalo that gave the Dolphins the early lead. Two more big plays--a kickoff return TD and another big return setting up a field goal--put Miami up at the half. Usually big plays early in a Super Bowl lead to victory but not here. After the big strike to Cefalo, Woodley completed only three more passes for 21 yards in the first half. In the second half Woodley misfired on every single pass he threw. 0 for 8. By the time Shula yanked him for Strock it was too late. The complete absence of an offense doomed Miami as John Riggins and the Redskins wore down the defense in the 4th quarter and a winnable game was lost. And Woodley’s meltdown in the big game along with his inability to develop in three years as a starter forced the Dolphins to find another solution at quarterback. When Dan Marino fell into their laps in the 1983 draft, Woodley’s days as a Dolphin were numbered.

As we found out years later, it was never in the cards for Woodley to succeed as an NFL starting quarterback. He had the physical tools. He may have had the love for the game. But he absolutely hated, and could not thrive under, the pressures and demands of the modern game. According to his former wife, Woodley hated the boos, hated the attention, and actually dreamed of playing in an empty stadium. Clearly, tragically, it just wasn’t in his psychological makeup to be a starting NFL quarterback. It’s painful enough to read about how as a Dolphin Woodley would hole up in his hotel room alone, drinking, chain-smoking, and taking Nyquil to help himself sleep before a game. It’s even worse reading about Woodley’s downward spiral after he left the NFL. And he left the NFL abruptly. Miami traded him to Pittsburgh after the 1983 season and for the next two seasons he split time with Mark Malone as the Steelers searched for the successor to Terry Bradshaw. Pittsburgh wanted Woodley back in 1986, and he would have been the team’s highest paid player, but David Woodley walked away for good. He’d had enough.

Meanwhile Guy Benjamin could only watch from the sidelines as Joe Montana earned him a Super Bowl ring in 1981. Walsh brought in Benjamin knowing he could be a capable quarterback. But Walsh would only need to call on Benjamin if Joe Montana got hurt. And we don't think of him this way now but in the early part of his career Montana was an iron man who never got hurt. He didn't miss one game in the three years he and Benjamin were teammates. Truly, Guy Benjamin could not catch a break. Think about it. After waiting patiently for two years backing up Bob Griese and Don Strock, Benjamin gets traded away just weeks before Griese suffers a career-ending injury. And Don Shula had already decided Strock wasn’t the man to take over. Had Shula kept Benjamin for just one more year Benjamin would have at least gotten a chance to play, to prove if he could be the guy. Instead, now in New Orleans, he got stuck behind another aging vet, Archie Manning. As the Saints struggle through a lost season the GM orders the new interim coach to play Benjamin but the coach flat-out refuses! The next year, Manning gets hurt and misses a lot of playing time but Benjamin’s no longer there to take over. The GM resigned before the season and Benjamin isn’t a part of the new regime’s plans. Had the interim coach just followed orders or if the GM had stayed on for another year, Benjamin would had to have gotten a shot. Instead he’s dealt away, reunited with his old college coach back on the West Coast, seemingly a great turn of events but in actuality the worst possible place in the world for a young quarterback: backing up Joe Montana in his prime.

Both Guy Benjamin and David Woodley played six seasons in the NFL. In terms of opportunity, Woodley got all the breaks and Benjamin got none. But what if that was reversed? Would the Miami Dolphins have been better off had they kept Benjamin instead of Woodley in 1980?

Guy Benjamin and David Woodley
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Monday, June 23, 2008

Guy Benjamin and David Woodley, Part Two

To everyone’s surprise, Don Shula decided to keep his unheralded eight-round pick David Woodley and, when he did so, Guy Benjamin suddenly became expendable. I wish I knew exactly how Shula came to his decision. Benjamin barely played in his first two seasons and the statistics he did put up are far from grievously inadequate. Benjamin only threw one pick and his other stats aren’t bad. But 12 passes aren’t exactly a useful sample size. What we do know is that Woodley favorably impressed Shula in the 1980 preseason. Woodley was the kind of quarterback we stereotypically refer to as “athletic”, meaning he could run and had a big arm. And apparently Shula really wanted a QB who could run. He was certainly intrigued by the possibilities of Woodley’s skills anyway. At one time Bob Griese possessed some mobility and he was very good at scrambling behind the line to keep a play alive but those days were long gone. And Don Strock, the heir apparent, was about as immobile as any QB ever. But Woodley could run. So Shula kept Woodley and he, Griese, and Strock all took turns starting games early in the 1980 season. With Griese’s game in decline, everybody got a shot at playing but bizarrely nobody played well unless they were coming off the bench. Benjamin almost surely would have gotten a chance to play had he been around but he wasn’t.

Griese suffered a season-ending (career-ending as it turned out) shoulder injury in game five and the time had now come for Don Shula to decide who would be the new starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, maybe the biggest personnel decision of his Dolphins’ coaching career so far. After seven years Don Strock had started a number of games but he never did enough to make Shula confident Strock was starter material. Strock was also 30 now and unlikely to improve. Woodley on the other hand was only 22-years-old. So Shula went with the kid. Woodley didn’t exactly play well but he was just a rookie and showed some flashes here and there while chipping in 214 yards on the ground in 11 starts. And Shula enjoyed installing plays to take advantage of Woodley’s skillz. I recall Miami trying the option a few times as well having Woodley catch some passes a la Kordell Stewart. How much all that actually helped the team is questionable though. Miami declined to 8-8 as the rookie struggled. Meanwhile, what of Guy Benjamin?

In terms of opportunity, Benjamin seemingly had moved to a much better situation. Miami was a playoff team looking to get back to the Super Bowl. The 1980 New Orleans Saints were one of the worst teams in National Football League history. And that sort of team is almost always looking to rebuild with young players. The Saints didn’t have a young player at QB though. The venerable Archie Manning had been starting for New Orleans since 1972 and at the age of 31 he was having one his best seasons ever. Unfortunately, his passing didn’t translate into any victories and after an 0-12 start the team fired its head coach Dick Nolan and made Mike Stanfel the interim coach the rest of the way. Saints General Manager Steve Rosenbloom then ordered Stanfel to bench Manning and play Benjamin. At long last, Benjamin’s time had arrived. Or. Had. It? Turns out Stanfel, Nolan’s best friend, didn’t really even want the job and out of continuing loyalty to his friend Nolan (and Manning), Stanfel refused the GM’s direct order and kept playing Manning! Manning did manage to lead New Orleans to a victory before the end of the year to avoid a historic 0-16 mark, but by the start of the 1981 season the Saints said goodbye to both their interim coach and their GM. Former Oilers’ coach Oail Andrew “Bum” Phillips was brought in to revive the franchise and Bum decided that Guy Benjamin was not in his future plans for the team. For the second time in his three-year career, Guy Benjamin was traded away before ever getting a single chance to start for the team that gave up on him. Would the third time be the charm?

Guy Benjamin and David Woodley
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Guy Benjamin and David Woodley, Part One

In 1978, the Miami Dolphins used their second-round pick, the draft’s 51st overall selection, on Stanford quarterback Guy Benjamin. Since drafting Bob Griese over a decade earlier, Miami hadn’t used anything more than a 4th-rounder to grab a QB. In fact, even since taking Benjamin, Miami has only twice used a higher pick on a quarterback, Dan Marino (1st-round/27th overall) in 1983 and John Beck (2nd-round/40th overall) in 2006. Since the Dolphins previously traded away their 1978 first-rounder, that second-rounder was their top pick that year so clearly the team made a heavy investment in Guy Benjamin. Why?

Well, Miami’s near-legendary backup QB Earl Morrall retired after the 1976 season, leaving Miami with only two quarterbacks, Griese and 1975 draftee Don Strock. And Griese, while coming off possibly his best season in 1977, was now 33 years old. Guy Benjamin, an All-American quarterback who led the NCAA in passing in 1977, seemed a logical choice for grooming as Miami’s next star QB.

While at Stanford, Guy Emory Benjamin struggled for playing time in his first two seasons. Benjamin was locked in a quarterback controversy with a guy named Guy Cordova. Head coach Jack Christiansen clearly preferred Cordova but every time Benjamin would get in the game he’d keep proving to be the superior QB. Even after Benjamin led Stanford to a last-second comeback win over their big rival Cal in the 1974 finale, Christiansen again tabbed Cordova to lead the team in 1975. Fan outrage and Benjamin’s superior play while splitting time with Cordova finally forced Christiansen’s hand in 1976 and Benjamin won the starting job and kept it. Thankfully for Benjamin, no controversies existed in his final collegiate season. By 1977 both Christiansen and Cordova were gone and Benjamin’s new coach, Bill Walsh, knew exactly how to use him. The Genius, for the first time as a head coach, installed what we'd later come to know (if not love) as the West Coast Offense and Benjamin ran it beautifully, winning the Sammy Baugh award as the country’s top passer and leading Stanford to its best season in years and a rare bowl game appearance. In the Sun Bowl, his final college game, Benjamin passed for 269 yards and threw three TD passes in leading Stanford to an upset 24-14 win over LSU. Foreshadowing: Watching the game from the LSU sidelines--Tigers backup quarterback David Woodley.

Just months later, Benjamin was headed south to a perennial playoff team looking for their quarterback of the future. I distinctly recall a quote from Don Shula back then saying something to the effect of his team having the perfect quarterback situation. The team had Griese, their All-Pro starter, Don Strock, the experienced backup, and now Benjamin, the promising young gun. Griese began to show some signs of slipping in 1978 and 1979. He played well in 1978 but tore some knee ligaments in the preseason and only started nine games that year. Benjamin pretty much watched that season from the bench as Shula used Strock in place of Griese. The next year, Griese pulled a hamstring, and subsequently played poorly enough that Shula actually benched him for a time in favor of Strock. Ultimately Griese won back the starting job from Strock with Benjamin again but a spectator. However, it was starting to become clear that the now injury-prone and aging Griese couldn’t last much longer and Miami would soon need to decide on its quarterback of the future. Shula saw that Strock played much better coming off of the bench than he did as the team's actual starter. Benjamin had only gotten to throw 13 passes combined in his first two seasons but at least he wasn’t making any disastrous mistakes. Would he get his chance?

When Griese suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the fifth game of the 1980 season, Shula and the Dolphins finally had to make a decision on who would succeed Griese. The only thing everybody knew was this: it wouldn’t be Benjamin. You see, in the 1980 draft Miami took a flyer on that former LSU quarterback David Woodley, an eighth-round draft pick. And Miami stunned everyone when they decided to keep the unheralded rookie and just before the season traded away former All-American Guy Benjamin to the New Orleans Saints for a fourth-round pick! How would that work out?

Guy Benjamin and David Woodley
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Friday, June 13, 2008

Are We Are Saying Is Give Culpepper A Chance

In retrospect, Dave Wannstedt’s decision to make Jay Fiedler, rather than Damon Huard, the Miami Dolphins’ starting quarterback in 2000 may have been a disaster. Personally, I’ll always believe it was but we’ll never really know. Huard never earned an NFL start during Fiedler’s “reign” so we can’t know for sure Huard would have outplayed Fiedler from 2000-2004. But there’s another more recent personnel decision we can all agree was a gigantic mistake with disastrous consequences. And surprise! Wannstedt didn’t make it. No, this was Nick Saban’s crowning botch job. In 2006 Saban had his choice of signing Drew Brees or trading for Daunte Culpepper to be the Dolphins’s new QB. Both quarterbacks were recovering from injuries—Bress a torn meniscus in his shoulder, Culpepper a completely-blown out knee. Saban passed on the guy with the busted wing and went with the guy with the busted leg and the rest is history. Brees received MVP-consideration and the everlasting thanks of a grateful city following a brilliant season resuscitating the New Orleans Saints in 2006, while Culpepper received nothing but paychecks “earned” while sitting his ass on the bench after putting up a few disastrous starts. Turns out he was nowhere near ready to return to action despite all his assurances to the contrary. Wannstedt passed on Brees in the 2001 draft and Saban compounded the error by making sure bad history repeated itself. Realizing his blunder set the team back for years and not willing to put the work in to atone, Saban classlessly quit after the season while making sure to blame everyone but himself for the giant eff-up.

Alright, why did I just rehash all that? Damn you Saban! The worst QB move in team history. But we knew that. What made me relive those painful memories was this June 13th, 2008 article.’s Bucky Brooks wonders why a big-name QB like Daunte Culpepper is “on the sideline with training camp only a month away?” After all, Culpepper “had one of the most productive years in NFL history with the Vikings in 2004” and though Daunte “has failed to reach that level of play in subsequent years, his career completion percentage (63.8) and passer rating (89.9) rivals those of perennial Pro Bowlers Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer.” Uh, ok. McNabb? Palmer? Right. Now I’m sure Brooks isn’t being willfully clueless here. He surely knows like everyone else with eyes that Culpepper’s played like crap for years now even if Brooks prefers to deploy massive understatement to sugarcoat that truth (“failed to reach that level of play in subsequent years”?!?! No shit Sherlock). And I suppose it might a little unusual for a one-time star like Culpepper (or Byron Leftwich) to draw no interest whatsoever still being relatively young.

No the real insanity in that article is this:

“[Culpepper] was one of the best quarterbacks in the league at one point, but he can't get a job in this league?" said an AFC scout. "Sure, he's been injured, but his arm strength and ability to play the game hasn't changed."

Scan those words again Dolphin fans. Someone please tell that AFC scout isn’t working for the Miami Dolphins. ‘Cause if he is, and if the rest of our scouting department is that stupid, the future doesn’t look good for this team. Arm strength? Ability to play the game? At his peak, Culpepper’s game revolved around two things: Mobility and Moss. The knee injury robbed Culpepper of the first and the trade to Miami robbed him of the second. Culpepper proved not much of a traditional pocket passer when he could no longer avoid a rush nor could he longer just throw it up there knowing Randy Moss would come down with it. Experts and fans once debated who was the key player in the Culpepper to Moss connection but Culpepper’s poor play since 2004 combined with Moss producing his greatest season ever when paired with an even better QB emphatically ends that debate. So what exactly is that scout smoking? Hey, maybe I should take that back. You know what I’m really hoping? That the scout does work for Miami and that this is just one of Bill Parcells’ classic psy-ops strategies. Culpepper really helped screw up our team. What better way to get both revenge and a competitive advantage than by talking him up to everyone and letting some other sucker of a GM waste precious time and resources on the guy. Why not? At least he won’t be wearing aqua and orange again. So just repeat after me fans of the NFL’s other 31 teams, Culpepper “had one of the most productive years in NFL history with the Vikings in 2004” and though Daunte “has failed to reach that level of play in subsequent years, his career completion percentage (63.8) and passer rating (89.9) rivals those of perennial Pro Bowlers Donovan McNabb and Carson Palmer.” Pass up this opportunity at your peril. You have found him, now go and get him!!!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sneeze Achiu

As an obsessive NFL fan, I often find myself idly leafing through my pro football encyclopedia looking for something interesting. Well, one day I came across the entry of this player: Sneeze Achiu. Obviously no detective work is needed to determine how Mr. Achiu came to be known as “Sneeze”. His full given name was Walter Tin Kit Achiu and he briefly played for the NFL’s now-defunct Dayton Triangles in 1927 and 1928. Intrigued by this heretofore unknown-to-me player, subsequent research on him revealed two things: (1) Everything I’ve written here so far has been completely lacking in originality; and (2) Sneeze Achiu holds a unique place in NFL history. His on-field contributions weren’t much--in 11 games he rushed for 27 yards on 27 carries, caught two balls for 17 yards, missed a field goal and threw an incomplete pass—but he made history just by stepping onto the field. It turns out that Walter Tin Kit Achiu was the first player of Chinese descent to play in the National Football League. Unfortunately it’s not quite the inspirational story we might like it to be. Not only was Sneeze not much of a player, to this day he remains the NFL’s only player of Chinese descent. Yes, almost eight decades have passed since the heyday of Sneeze Achiu and the world’s most populous nation has yet to produce another professional football player. And while all of the above facts were easy enough to find on the internet, all of the web pages I found discussing Walter Achiu (perhaps understandably) failed to mention one other fact about him—Sneeze wasn’t his only nickname. Total Football II lists his other nickname as “Chink”. I’m going to go out on a limb and say if we do ever see another Chinese player, nobody’s gonna be calling him “Chink”. Progress.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Seven Super Catches of Lynn Swann

Lynn Swann. Uninformative sideline reporter. Failed politician. And controversial Hall of Fame selection. Now when I was a kid, if you called Swann the best receiver in the game you were not making a particularly controversial statement. He almost certainly was the best receiver of his time. So why wouldn’t he be worthy of Hall of Fame induction? Simply put, the numbers. Or in his case, the lack thereof.

As of 2008, Lynn Swann currently ranks 177th all-time in career receiving yards, 83rd all-time in career receiving touchdowns, and he’s not even in the top 250 in all-time career receptions. And yes, the passing game of Swann’s era was a far cry from what we see today, but even if you only compare Swann’s numbers to the best of his contemporaries--Paul Warfield, Fred Biletnikoff, Charlie Joiner, Harold Carmichael, Harold Jackson, Cliff Branch, and Swann’s Hall-of-Fame teammate John Stallworth—his numbers are nothing special. In his nine-year career, he only had three excellent seasons (generously adjusting for his era). The best you could say is that Swann’s total numbers from 1975-1979 show him to have been the best receiver in football for that five-year time period. But you can’t say he dominated that time period. He never once led the league in receiving yards or receptions.

So how’d he make the Hall of Fame? Well, as you may have heard, Swann played for four Super Bowl champions. And, as you may have seen (at least in highlight form), Swann made a number of spectacular catches in those games. Swann was deservedly named MVP of Super Bowl X; I doubt Pittsburgh wins that game without him. Swann also played critical roles in his team's wins in Super Bowls XIII and XIV. (He barely played in the 1974 game, his rookie season; his team didn’t pass much that day anyway). Swann caught a total of 16 passes in three Super Bowls. By my count seven of those were big catches, that is, they played a huge role in those Steeler victories and, not incidentally, many of those seven were of the spectacular variety as well. Here’s the list of Swann's seven most important Super Bowl receptions:

Super Bowl X

1) First Quarter, from the Dallas 48, second-and-five. Swann makes an amazing 32-yard catch along the right side line. Swann made the grab while twisting his body in order to land in bounds. Pittsburgh scored a TD on the drive to tie the game at 7 apiece.

2) Second Quarter, from the Pittsburgh 10, third-and-six. Swann’s most famous catch, a 53-yard juggling catch down the middle of the field made while falling down with Mark Washington holding on to him. The drive ended with a missed FG try but if Swann doesn’t make that catch his team has to punt from its own goal line with two minutes still left in half and trailing 10-7.

3) Fourth Quarter, from the Pittsburgh 36, third-and-four. A 64-yard TD pass with 3:02 remaining. Ballgame. Steelers up 21-10. They hold on to win 21-17.

Super Bowl XIII

4) Second Quarter, from the Pittsburgh 34, first-and-twenty. A 29-yard pass following a ten-yard penalty.

5) The next play, a 21-yard catch. The 56-yard drive ends with a TD that gives Pittsburgh a 21-14 lead. Swann’s back-to-back grabs account for most of the yards on the go-ahead drive.

6) Fourth Quarter, from the Dallas 18, first-and-ten. An over the shoulder TD pass ending in cinematic fashion with Swann sliding into the end zone on his knees. Ballgame. Steelers up 35-17. They hold on to win 35-31.

Super Bowl XIV

7) Third Quarter, from the LA 47, second-and-six. A 47-yard TD catch to give Pittsburgh a 17-13 lead.

Seven catches. Three critical touchdowns. Three catches setting up touchdowns. The seven catches totaled 264 yards, almost 38 yards per reception. Swann’s career numbers were pedestrian. His career lasted only nine years. He had only three really good statistical seasons. On the other hand his teams won a ton of games and, with a lot of help from Swann when it counted, four championships. Can seven catches really justify induction into the Hall of Fame? The Hall of Fame voters thought so.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

NFL Fun Facts 4: Coaching Legends of the Sixties

According to no less an authority than John Lennon, “the Sixties saw a revolution among youth—not just concentrating in small pockets or classes, but a revolution in a whole way of thinking. The youth got it first and the next generation second”. However, the 1960’s NFL had no place for the type of revolution Lennon was talking about. Instead, the NFL featured old school football, old school football as perfected, taught, and delivered by the greatest coaching legends of all-time: George Halas, Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, and Don Shula. Now these men certainly brought their share of innovations to the game don’t get me wrong, but as a group we’re talking we’re talking about a bunch of no-nonsense straight-arrow, my-way-or-the-highway men. I doubt any “revolution in thinking” ever reached them. They were too busy winning games. Shula, Halas, Landry, and Brown constitute four fifths of the winningest coaches of all-time while Lombardi coached more teams to NFL championships than anybody who ever lived. If asked to name the NFL’s five greatest coaches, you could a lot worse than list those five men. The careers of those five span almost all of NFL history--Halas first coached in the 1920’s and Shula coached well into the 1990’s. But the Sixties was the one decade in which all five coaching legends strode the NFL sidelines.

Strangely, that decade somehow never saw a single season where all five men were head coaches simultaneously. As the decade began, Halas, Brown, Lombardi, and Landry led NFL teams. Not until 1963 did Don Shula become an NFL head coach but shockingly the Cleveland Browns fired Paul Brown before that season began. Six years later, Paul Brown triumphantly returned to coaching with the Cincinnati Bengals, but at the same time Papa Bear George Halas retired from coaching for good. Between them, Halas, Brown, Lombardi, Landry, and Shula coached a total of 39 NFL seasons in the 1960’s. Yet not once did all five coach in the same NFL year.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Damon Huard: The Road Not Taken

This is what Dolphin fans could have been seeing for the past 8 years.

The Miami Dolphins never had an offseason like 1999; their head coach/GM Jimmy Johnson called it quits and their star quarterback Dan Marino retired. On Johnson’s unfortunate recommendation, Wayne Huizenga tapped Dave Wannstedt to replace Johnson as the team’s head man, and Wannstedt’s number one priority was then finding the man to replace Dan Marino. As we’ve seen, for the next five years Wannstedt eschewed the draft as a means of finding a QB, preferring to acquire one through free agency. But Wannstedt had another option available. Rather than draft a QB or sign a free agent, Wannstedt could simply have stood pat and handed the job to a QB already on the Dolphins’ roster. In this case, that would have been one Damon Huard.

Huard spent his first two years as a Dolphin on the bench watching Dan Marino but when Marino went down with an injury the 26-year-old Huard got his chance. He played in six games and his team’s 5-1 mark in those six games shows quite clearly that he played very effectively. Despite his complete lack of experience, he threw twice as many TD’s (8) as interceptions (4), completed 58% of his passes, and finished with a QB rating of 79.8, a good mark for a first-time starter. Huard also finished with 124 rushing yards on 28 carries, a 4.4 yards per carry average. That projects out to almost 400 yards rushing over a 16-game schedule. The only quibble would be Huard’s low 6.0 yards per attempts number but with a great defense and an inexperienced QB Johnson smartly scaled things back, not allowing Huard to go deep too often. Huard played well enough that one got the impression (to put it mildly) that Johnson would have preferred sticking with him rather than hand the offense back to Marino, especially after Dan’s disastrous return on Thanksgiving Day against the Cowboys. And the numbers speak for themselves; Huard played better then Marino did in Dan’s injury-plagued final season. An ugly feud developed between Johnson and Marino but it must not have affected the relationship between Marino and Huard because when Dan retired, he openly advocated that Huard be named his successor. Had Johnson remained as head coach, Huard almost certainly would have become Miami’s starting QB for the post-Marino era. But Dave Wannstedt had other ideas.

Rather than promote Huard to the top job, Wannstedt proceeded to sign Jay Fiedler to lead Miami into the 21st Century. Now there were certainly reasons not to go with Huard. Wannstedt inherited a playoff team and could have wanted a QB with more experience than Huard so that the team’s window of opportunity would not be lost. But then why Fiedler? He had even less experience than Huard!

Despite being two years older than Huard, Fiedler had started only a single NFL game and thrown a total of 101 NFL passes. With Jacksonville in 1999, Fiedler played impressively in his one start, but that was for a 14-2 team in a meaningless final regular season game against a hapless Bengals squad. And I doubt Wannstedt was watching that game anyway. No, Wannstedt doubtless fell in love with Fiedler after seeing him light up the Dolphins in the first-round of the 1999 postseason. Fiedler was great: 7 of 11 for 172 yards and 2 TD’s. That’s a fantastic stat line. Just one problem-- Fiedler came into the game when it was 38-0! It was over. Fiedler just helped run up the score against a whipped team in the process of losing the third-biggest rout in NFL history. You cannot put too much stock in any performance in a game like that, yet Wannstedt apparently did.

So Wannstedt sent Huard back to the bench and installed Fiedler as Miami’s new signal-caller. No need to rehash the Fiedler era here. We know he played too inconsistently to succeed. One of the risks of making an inexperienced older player your starting quarterback is that the QB could be past his physical prime by the time he masters the position. And Fiedler’s career would certainly fit that pattern. Fiedler posted a 74.5 QB rating in his first season as a Dolphin. He incrementally raised that to 80.3 and 85.2 over the next few seasons before the trend reversed and he posted ratings of 72.4 and 67.1 in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Fiedler turned 33 in 2004. He also suffered a series of nagging injuries in his final three years as a Dolphin, something else common to older QB’s.

Fiedler couldn’t get the job done as Miami’s quarterback. Would Huard have done any better had Wannstedt stuck with him? Obviously any answer is pure speculation but allow me to speculate. Until 2006, we had nothing but a “gut feeling” on which to base a guess. The 2006 season provided us with some real evidence. Thanks to Trent Green’s horrific concussion (Horrific Concussion I, the one he suffered with the Chiefs, not Horrific Concussion II, the one he later suffered with the Dolphins), Huard, who had not gotten to play at all for years, got a shot to start 8 games in 2006 and he was brilliant, ranking behind only Peyton Manning in QB rating. When he did get to play in 2007, Huard didn’t play as well but KC lost Larry Johnson, Will Shields, and were in full rebuilding mode, plus Huard was now 34 years old.

Still, given his knowledge of Miami’s offensive system, his tutelage under Dan Marino, his promising play in 1999, and his brilliant play in 2006 despite his age and six solid years of benchwarming, (and figuring in Wannstedt’s unparalleled track record of screwing up all personnel decisions), I feel quite sure that Huard would have done at least as well as Fiedler, and probably better, had he, and not Fiedler, succeeded Dan Marino as Miami’s starting quarterback in 2000. Ah, what might have been.