Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Miami Dolphins and Their Quarterbacks, Part Three

From 1966 through 1995, three decades, the Miami Dolphins followed a three-pronged strategy to address their quarterback needs. First, and most important, when need and opportunity met, Miami used a top pick to draft a highly touted potential franchise quarterback (Griese, Marino). Second, they almost always backed up their starter with an experienced QB, usually a former starter elsewhere, who could step in and play should injury strike the starting QB (Morrall, Strock, Jaworski, DeBerg, Kosar). And third, the team would frequently spend a pick in the top half of the draft for a QB with the potential to become a starter (Norton, Theisman, Strock, Benjamin, Woodley, Mitchell). Interestingly, the only one of the latter group to actually become a starter for the Dolphins was Woodley who was the lowest pick of all of them (an 8th-rounder). Theisman and Mitchell did become NFL starting quarterbacks but not with Miami. Strock never became a starter but he did move into the second group as the quintessential backup once he’d been around long enough.

Not to make too much of this three-pronged strategy; the selections of Griese and Marino in the provided virtually all of Miami’s QB success for over 30 years. And neither selection was particularly controversial. Quite the opposite. But we do know that Miami almost certainly would not have achieved perfection in 1972 without the acquisition of Morrall, while Strock was an important security blanket for Miami for a decade. As for the young guns, Theisman, and maybe Mitchell, could well have become longtime starters for the Dolphins had the team needed one at the time those players chose to go elsewhere.

The important thing to note is that the team planned. They addressed their quarterback needs. If they didn’t have a high-quality starter they drafted one. If they didn’t have an experienced backup, they signed one. If the starter was getting old or if there was a young QB prospect they liked, they used a draft pick to get him.

When Jimmy Johnson took over for Don Shula, that calculus changed entirely. When Huizenga forced out Shula and hired Johnson it was understood Johnson was not in it for the long haul. Jimmy previously rebuilt the Cowboys from the ground up after that franchise had hit rock bottom, but he didn’t want to repeat that in his second stint as an NFL head coach. He only wanted to coach a team ready to contend right now, a team only in need of some “tweaking”. Johnson decided the team that best fit the bill was the Miami Dolphins. Miami had reached the playoffs in three of the previous four seasons and, perhaps more importantly for Johnson, they had Dan Marino at quarterback. Johnson simply had to add a few playmakers on offense and defense to help out Marino and then ride off into the sunset with one more championship. In it for the short term and determined to sink or swim with Marino, Johnson had no interest in using an important draft pick on a quarterback. He drafted only one during his four-year reign: 6th rounder John Dutton in 1998, who never played a down in the NFL. When Bernie Kosar retired after 1996, Miami had no experienced backup either.

Johnson quickly beefed up Miami’s defense but he had no luck at upgrading the running back or wide receiver positions. A parade of busts. And due to age, injuries, and the lack of weapons, Dan Marino’s effectiveness declined rapidly. When Dan missed a number of games in 1999, Johnson had to go with his only available quarterback, undrafted free agent Damon Huard. Surprisingly, despite his complete lack of experience, Huard performed well, well enough that Johnson might have preferred to keep playing him when Marino was ready to return. By the end of the 1999 season though it was obvious to everyone including Dan Marino that Marino had reached the end of the line. Marino retired and a burned-out Johnson resigned, leaving Miami’s quarterback cupboard completely bare except for the now slightly-more-experienced Damon Huard. The team had never been so weak at the QB position since their inaugural season.

1 comment:

Hal said...

Often overlooked is that in the 1978 draft the Dolphins drafted TWO QB's, Guy Benjamin in the 2nd and Bill Kenney in the 12th. Cutting Kenney and keeping Benjamin after training camp made sense at the time....but it was Kenney who eventually developed into a starter in Kansas City and even made a Pro Bowl.