Saturday, May 8, 2010

What If?

Back in the early 1980's the Miami Dolphins suffered a series of incomprehensible tragedies.  Bewildering, staggering tragedies. I'm not talking about the brutal playoff losses, I'm talking about actual tragedy.  Death.  Three deaths in fact.  All to young players in the prime of their lives.   Rusty Chambers.  Larry Gordon.  David Overstreet.  All gone within four years of each other.  All leaving families and teammates behind to ask why.  Past Interference doesn't believe in curses but that is some seriously bad luck.  Think about some more recent deaths of active NFL players: Cory Stringer, Chris Henry, Gaines Adams.  Everyone was kind of shocked right?.  Now imagine all those guys played for the very same team.  You'd have to think a black cloud was hanging over that team wouldn't you?   Well that was the 1981-1984 Miami Dolphins. 
Over a quarter century has now passed since Chambers, Gordon and Overstreet were laid to rest but PI was reminded of their unfortunate fates by loyal reader sptfrn who proposed in a comment that Past Interference begin a series of "What If" posts starting with the question: "What if Rusty Chambers, Larry Gordon, and David Overstreet didn't die?". 

That is one great idea. At the risk of exposing my true nerd self, Past Interference read a ton of comics books as a kid and believe it or not one of the comics we really, really loved was Marvel's "What If?".  Take it away Wikipedia: 
What If stories usually began with Uatu [the Watcher] briefly recapping a notable event in the mainstream Marvel Universe, then indicating a particular point of divergence in that event. He would then demonstrate, by way of looking into a parallel reality, what could have happened if events had taken a different course from that point.

My own personal favorite issue was #3, "What If The Avengers Had Never Been?".  Over 30 years later I still remember the answer to that question.  (Spoiler alert).  The original Avengers fall apart and the Hulk leaves to team up with the Sub-Mariner and fight for evil. So Tony Stark creates some bad-ass Iron Man armor for Giant Man, the Wasp and the Hulk's sidekick Rick Jones and creates a new Avengers. But while this new team is pounding the snot out of the Hulk, Stark's own suit runs out of power and his bad heart kills him.  Good times.  Bonus: fantastic art by the late Gil Kane.
Hold on another minute. I can't let go of this comic book tangent yet. I'm on a roll. Responding to what's essentially reader mail is taking me back to all the old letter columns I read in the back of my old comic books back in the day.  They're passe now thanks to the internet but once upon a time reader letters were the only feedback comic companies ever got and it was the only way for fans to connect with other fans.  Naturally DC Comics had super boring titles for their "lettercols" like "Metropolis Mailbag" and "Letters to the Batcave". Lame. But Stan "The Man" Lee, the original hipster doofus, went all out and pushed the limits with hilariously stupid titles like "Sock It To Shellhead", "Let's Level With Daredevil", and my personal favorite, "Let's Rap With Cap".  And that was well before anybody invented Rap! Word.
Ok, back to today's "What If" topic from reader sprtfn.

On July 1, 1981, Rusty Chambers died in a car accident in Louisiana and the Dolphins lost the man who had started at left inside linebacker for them for the past three seasons. So what would have happened if Chambers survived to continue playing for the Dolphins in 1981? Did his loss hurt the team? Well, you can't tell from the standings or the statistics. The Dolphins improved from 8-8 to 11-4-1 and the defense went from 9th in points allowed to 5th while staying essentially the same in yards allowed. Miami replaced Chambers in 1981 with backup linebacker Ernest Rhone. Now Rhone may have been a dropoff from Chambers, I don't know enough to say, but he was good enough to continue to start for Miami for another three seasons and it must be noted that Chambers never made a Pro Bowl in his three seasons as a starter. But let's assume there was a bit of a dropoff in talent. Would Chambers have made a difference in the Dolphins' ultimate fate?   That ultimate fate proved to be a 41-38 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers in the divisional playoffs. If you're old enough to remember that game you've never forgotten it. Could Chambers have altered the outcome? In a game that close, with so many twists and turns, so many critical plays and mistakes, you could probably point to almost any player and say he did something to make the difference. He could have made the difference but we have no reason to assume he would have made the difference. But let's say he would have made a key play or avoided a mistake made by his replacement, then what? Well, Miami would have advanced to the AFC Championship Game. And then they would have lost. I'm as sure of this as I am of anything. How do I know? Well, winning a road playoff game against a superior team with the better quarterback is tough enough. Now how about doing it minus-9 degree weather with a wind chill of minus-59? Yeah, no team from Miami is winning that game. Especially not one completely wiped out from an overtime game played one week before in the heat and humidity of South Florida. With or without Chambers then, the Miami Dolphins would never have made it to the Super Bowl in '81.

In 1982, without Chambers, the team did make it to the Super Bowl where they blew a halftime lead, collapsed in the second half and lost to the Washington Redskins. Would Chambers have made a difference? I don't think so. Miami fielded one of their best defenses ever that year. Second in scoring; first in yards allowed. They gave up 276 yards rushing in Super Bowl XVII and let Riggins pound them in the second half, but you can't put that on the defense. I don't want to rehash the whole David Woodley thing again (like I did here). Suffice it to say Woodley couldn't complete any passes, the offense couldn't move the ball or stay on the field, and Miami's tiring defense plumb wore out in the second half (I always wanted to say that). Rusty Chambers couldn't have done anything about that. Dolphins still lose.

Just five months later, on June 25, 1983, Dolphins Linebacker Larry Gordon went out for a jog in the Arizona desert and never came back. He collapsed and died from heart disease. Something called idiopathic hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (though some later spoke of cocaine use by Gordon). How would the loss of two linebackers in two years affect the defending conference champions? Seemingly not at all. Miami finished first in scoring defense, added somebody named Marino to the offense, and won 12 games and a division title. The reconsituted linebacking corps was a mixed bag. A.J. Duhe and Bob Brudzinski constitued a really good left side but Rhone and Charles Bowser left a little to be desired on the right. Still, the Dolphins were heavy favorites to beat Seattle in a home divisional playoff game. But they lost 27-20. A huge upset. Would Gordon and Chambers have made a difference?

That's a tough one. If you look at the stats you'd have to say it was an evenly played football game. Only one number really jumps out at you: five. That's the number of Miami turnovers. Seattle had one. If Miami could have just held onto the ball they probably would have won. Again, the problem was on offense (and special teams), not the defense. Of course, as in the San Diego OT game, any play can be the difference in a close game. Maybe Gordon or Chambers could have made that one sack or forced that one fumble the Dolphins needed to turn the game. It's just too hypothetical to speculate on and PI needs to note here that, like Chambers, Gordon never made an All-Pro team and never made a Pro Bowl. However, I'd say that Gordon, a 100 tackle a year guy and a very good player, would no doubt have been a linebacking upgrade from Rhone or Bowser. So let's be generous and assume Gordon's presence lifts the defense enough for Miami to eke out a win and avoid the upset. What happens then? Nothing good I'm afraid. Miami would have advanced to the AFC title game and travelled to L.A. to face the hated Raiders. The Raiders owned the Dolphins back then and beat them like a drum 27-14 in week 3 of the '83 season (it was 27-0 in the 4th quarter). Of course Marino didn't start that game. He was still a rookie though and the Raiders just blew everybody away in the postseason that year including the defending champion Skins in the Super Bowl. Miami never would have got past them that year even with Gordon and Chambers.

Six months later, June 24, 1984, David Oversteet fell asleep behind the wheel of his car and died when he crashed into some gas tanks that exploded on impact just 15 miles from his home. Yet despite this unbelievable third death in four years, the team's run of success continued on. Dan Marino broke every meaningful single-season passing record and the 14-2 Miami Dolphins steamrolled the AFC on the way to Super Bowl XIX and their much-anticipated matchup with Joe Montana's 15-1 49ers. I wrote about that much-anticipated, hugely disappointing game at length here. Short version: With no running game or pass rush Miami had no chance against a more talented better-coached team, Marino or no Marino! But "What If" the Dolphins had entered the game with Chambers, Gordon, and Overstreet? Well, we move into some very interesting speculative territory here. If you ask me, and why shouldn't you, the absolute number one reason for Miami's failure in Super Bowl XIX was horrible play at the linebacker and running back positions. And Chambers, Gordon, and Overstreet played what positions? Linebacker, linebacker and running back. Would those guys have made a difference?

In the case of Gordon and Chambers we've got a problem. Had they lived, each man would have turned 31 prior to Super Bowl XIX. Again, neither man was ever selected for the Pro Bowl and it's usually the great ones who play well into their 30's. Even A.J. Duhe, a better linebacker than either, was done by 31. Of course even at an advanced football age Gordon might have still been better than what Miami had. I mean Jay Brophy actually started for them in Super Bowl XIX! That's trouble. Perhaps Gordon was a Pro Bowl quality linebacker (he made Miami's 25th anniversary team) overlooked by the selectors. So let's say he plays and and gives Miami a bit of a boost at linebacker. I don't see how it would have made much of a difference. Outside of Lawrence Taylor or Dick Butkus in their prime I don't see how any one linebacker makes the kind of difference the Dolphins would have needed. Joe Montana and the San Francisco offense were simply unstoppable that night. As for Overstreet, I wish we had more to go on. A first round pick he bolted for Canadian dollars in '81. Returned to the NFL in '83. Averaged 4.6 yards on 85 attempts. And died. How good would he have been with a full workload? We saw tantalizing glimpses but who really knows? We can say he almost certainly would have been better, probably much better than Woody Bennett, who was a fullback after all. With Overstreet in the backfield Shula might have been more likely to use the ground game once the Niners countered with 6 defensive backs to stop Marino and the Marks Brothers. But would Overstreet have equalled victory? That's too much of a stretch. Nobody ever seems to put the 1984 49ers in the greatest team of all time discussions but they have to be there. They just have to. Maybe the greatest QB and coach of the modern era. Strength at every single offensive and defensive unit. Great O-line and secondary. That team was loaded. They lost only one game all year, and that by a late field goal. Adding Overstreet and a past-their-prime Chambers and Gordon couldn't have altered what happened. Miami would still get their butts kicked.

1985? Maybe, just maybe, history would have turned in the Dolphins' favor. We can dispense with speculating about Chambers and Gordon at this point and concentrate on David Overstreet. Without him Miami won another division title and hosted their second straight AFC Championship Game. Their opponent? The New England Patriots. A team Miami had beaten 18 straight times in the Orange Bowl. 18. Straight. Times. I repeat each word to emphasize the devastation of this loss. 18 games means 18 years. And this was the Dolphins' 19th season. That means the Pats had beaten Miami in the Orange Bowl exactly once: 1966, the Phins first year. And it never happened again. Until this game. A 31-14 loss to a team that had no business winning the game. A team that just two weeks later suffered a Super Bowl humiliation the likes of which nobody had ever before seen. To the same team Miami famously defeated quite handily. How did it happen? How did the Dolphins lose to the Patriots? To Tony Eason? Turnovers my friends. Turnovers. Six to be exact including four fumbles.

We can say without hesitation that the most critical turnover of the game would not have happened with David Overstreet on the team. How do we know this? Because with Overstreet on the team Miami would never have drafted Lorenzo Hampton. And Hampton coughed it up on the team's first play of the second half. They trailed 17-7. New England took advantage of the turnover to go up 24-7. Tony Nathan had earlier set the tone for the game by fumbling on the team's very first play from scrimmage, leading to an early New Engand field goal. If Overstreet starts then Nathan never fumbles either. So let's say Overstreet starts, gets most of the carries, plays well, and holds onto the ball. It's then not a stretch to say Miami pulls out the game. It's at least a lot closer. Of course it could be a stretch to say Overstreet would have avoided the fumbles that plagued the Dolphins in that game; he had his own fumbling problem in the CFL and his fumble in the '83 playoff game with the Seahawks was costly. But if Miami wins they of course move on to Super Bowl XX and a rematch with the Shufflin' Crew. I don't know if they win but we know they were certainly capable of it. Only one offense ever embarrassed Chicago's 46-defense, Dan Marino's. The Dolphins were the one team constructed perfectly on offense to beat the Bears and the speed of Overstreet in the backfield could only have helped.

After 1985 the Miami Dolphins tumbled into the bowl of mediocrity. None of the deceased players could have helped at that point. A series of bad drafts crippled the team's talent level and a turnaround wouldn't come until 1990. In more bitter irony the untimely passing of Chambers, Gordon and Overstreet from this vale of tears set in motion a vicious cycle. Not only did the team lose the talents of those three men, the attempts to replace them in the draft led to an even further decline in talent. If Gordon hadn't died in '83, the team probably doesn't draft two busts, Jackie Shipp and Jay Brophy, at linebacker in the 1984 draft, and if Overstreet had lived, Miami doesn't blow its top pick on Lorenzo Hampton in the '85 draft, a draft with maybe the weakest running back class ever. However, who Miami would have drafted in our alternate universe is a mystery to me.

So "What If" Rusty Chambers, Larry Gordon, and David Overstreet didn't die? Would the fortunes of the Miami Dolphins organization have changed? After careful thought Pass Interference says no, at least not from 1981 through 1984. But let's linger over the 1985 season for a moment longer. PI thinks there was at least a chance that the death of David Overstreet cost Miami a Super Bowl trip and perhaps the ring that forever eluded Dan Marino.


sptrfn said...

I think that Overstreet, if he was what Miami thought he was when they took him, could have given Miami a decent chance against SF in SB XIX. I don't think that the 84 Niners were invincible. If David would have had success running it, the Niners wouldn't have been able to tee off on Marino like they did.

Thanks for using my suggestion, though. I look forward to more in this series.

Hal said...

Even though Miami fielded the # 1 defense in the league overall in 1982, I think the strike-shortened season helped hide the deficiencies against the run that were always there: they were 24th against the rush in 1982 in total yards and dead -last-, 28th, in yards per rushing attempt, allowing 4.4 YPC.

Truthfully, it was an achievement for that team just to get there. The Jets ranked in the NFL's top 10 in yards per play, rushing and passing, on both sides of the ball but the 'Fins just matched up well against them.

I agree that Shues should have pulled Woodley after the Redskins took the 20-17 lead, but overall 1982 was one of his very best coaching jobs. And, if Bokamper manages to come up with that INT in the end zone that Theismann knocked away at the last second, Miami likely would have won in spite of all the struggles; they'd have gone up 24-13 in the third quarter.

The 1985 team was actually the weakest of the 5 overall and considering that Duper missed 7 games with a broken leg, Marino missed training camp, and Duhe and Baumhower essentially had career-ending injuries (Baumhower played one more season, with a drastic dropoff in effectiveness; Duhe never played again) it was a miracle that they even won 12 games. The inability to stop the Pats from running the ball meant Marino and Co. had no margin for error. A shame because as you said, they matched up really well with the Bears.

Franklin's career ending injury early in 1984 was another factor in the dropoff in the rushing game. And even though Overstreet was missed, Nathan still averaged 4.7 yards per carry in both 1984 and 1985. It could be argued that Franklin's injury was more costly than the loss of Overstreet on the field (Davenport did fill in well at FB for one year in '85).

On the other side of the ball, in addition to the aging of the best Killer B's, and injuries, the other huge factor in the decline of the defense after 1983 was Shula's inability to ever adequately replace Arnsparger.

sptrfn said...

In the 82 playoffs, the Fins were lucky that they didn't have to play Pittsburgh in the second round. If they wouldn't have given that game away to San Diego, I think that they would have beaten the Dolphins, Jets, and then the Skins in SB 17.

As for 1984, I wondered what would have happened if Denver didn't get upset by Pittsburgh. That would have been a much better game than the Dolphin-Steeler game was. I think that Denver could have won, but we'll never know.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I am from the same small town (tiny really) as Rusty Chambers. The football field is named in his honor, as he is the only football player from Loranger to ever make it to the NFL.

Anonymous said...

David Woodley was given a bad rap for the Dolphins loss in Super Bowl XVII. However, the blame is left to Don Shula. Shula called the offensive plays and what horrible plays he called in that second half. No screen passes, slants or sweeps, every pass was long and every run was up the middle. Shula's one dimensional offense went nowhere, allowing the Redskins to sneak away with the victory.