Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Miami Dolphins and Their Quarterbacks, Part Two

From the team’s very beginning the Dolphins’ original brain trust showed the importance the team placed on the quarterback position. In their first two drafts Miami spent its top pick on a QB: Rick Norton in 1966 and Bob Griese in 1967. For some inexplicable reason, Coach George Wilson decided to make George Wilson, Jr. his quarterback in the Dolphins’ inaugural season (a real mystery). But upon drafting Griese, the time for comedy was over and Miami immediately installed the talented Griese as their starter. He had the usual growing pains you expect of a rookie QB starting for an atrocious expansion team. Norton was beyond ineffective as Griese’s backup for three years (7 career TD’s and 30 career INT’s says it all), so Miami acquired two failed starters still in their twenties, John Stofa and George Mira, to back up not-always-so-durable Griese in 1970 and 1971. As long as Miami was terrible it never mattered who backed up Griese, but when the team turned the coaching reigns over to Don Shula in 1970 and became a contender, the lack of a quality backup suddenly looked like a real weakness. Seeing the clear need for an upgrade at the position, in 1971 the Dolphins drafted Joe Theisman in the 4th round and in 1972 Shula acquired his former QB Earl Morrall off of waivers. The latter move turned out to be maybe the single most brilliant personnel decision of Shula’s entire career. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. A leg injury knocked Griese out of action in the Dolphins’ fifth game of the 1972 season but Miami never missed a beat as Morrall led Miami to 10 straight regular season wins en route to a perfect season. Miami now had tremendous experience at the backup quarterback position for the next five years but, 38-years-old in 1972, Morrall obviously was no quarterback of the future. Neither was Theisman unfortunately. Joey T decided he didn’t want to wait around playing second fiddle to Griese so he tried his luck in Canada. A few year later Miami traded away his rights to the Washington Redskins.

In 1973, Miami selected another possible heir to Griese in the 5th round, a tall, big-armed QB out of Virginia Tech named Don Strock. After Morrall’s retirement Strock moved into the backup role where he would remain comfortably ensconced until 1987. At some point Shula must have decided Strock wasn’t starting quarterback material and in truth Strock usually did play better coming into a game in relief. Shula’s doubts about Strock and Griese’s age-related decline led to Miami drafting Guy Benjamin in the 2nd round in 1978 and David Woodley in the 8th round in 1980. Woodley wound up winning the battle to succeed Griese and became the team’s starter following Griese’s career-ending injury in 1980.

The Woodley experiment lasted three seasons but the debacle of Super Bowl XVII established once and for all that the Woodley era had to come to a close. With Strock now on the wrong side of 30 (and having already failed his audition to become the team’s starter anyway) and with Benjamin traded away years earlier, Miami once again turned to the draft to find its new starter. And that turned out to be child’s play when Dan Marino dropped into their laps in 1983, leaving the team set at quarterback for the next 17 years! Marino was a true phenomenon. Not just arguably the greatest pure passer of all-time, but somebody capable of playing like an established veteran while still a rookie. Marino also was incredibly durable, not missing a single start in his first decade as a player. Strock remained as the experienced backup and unofficial assistant offensive coordinator and, with Marino in his prime, the team had no need to groom a QB of the future any time soon.

When Strock and the Dolphins finally parted ways after 1987, Miami grabbed another old veteran, Ron Jaworski, to backup Marino. For the next few years Miami really tempted fate by backing up Marino with nothing but Scott Secules. Luckily Miami never needed him to save the day but something clearly would have to be done. What Shula did was draft a young gun in 1990: Scott Mitchell. Mitchell, a 4th-rounder, finally got his chance to shine when Marino suffered a torn Achilles in 1993. And Mitchell played great (hard to believe but it's true). At any other time he would have been installed as Miami’s backup and designated the team’s QB of the future. However, in the new free agency era that was no longer possible. Based on Mitchell’s short but impressive run of games somebody desperate for a starting QB was bound to throw a pile of money in front of him and the Dolphins couldn’t possibly afford to pay a backup that kind of cash. Nobody was unseating Marino. So Mitchell left for the Detroit Lions who were soon to be disappointed by their would-be savior. Meanwhile, Miami continued with their habit of bringing in experienced backups who were starters elsewhere, first Steve Deberg, then Bernie Kosar, but the team now had no quarterback of the future as Marino entered the final years of his career.

No doubt Shula would soon look to draft another young QB with potential, but he never got the chance. At the end of the 1995 season, Shula resigned as head coach. And when it came to quarterbacks, his replacement had other ideas.

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