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.

1 comment:

JB said...

Good post. I don't know what Wannstedt saw in Fiedler. But, they should have drafted Brees in 01.