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

1 comment:

sptrfn said...

That is ironic that you are talking about Guy Benjamin. I collect old NFL broadcasts, and I have this one game from 1977 between the Cards and the Skins with NFL Today pre-game, and they were talking about the top QB's in the 78 draft and Guy Benjamin. I was wondering the same thing about him as to why he didn't pan out.
As for Woodley, I always thought that he was a bum because he couldn't beat out turkey Malone in Pittsburgh, but now I realize why he had the problems that he did. They talked about that on What a sad story. Woodley was like Tony Horton, a baseball player for the Indians who was talented but had to retire in 1970 at the age of 25 because of psychological problems and not being able to handle the pressure. I feel bad for guys like that.