Monday, October 5, 2015

The Miami Dolphins: a model of aggressive mediocrity

The Miami Dolphins fired their head coach Joe Philbin today after another humiliating loss to long time division rival the New York Jets. There were hopes that coming into this season, the team could move past the consistently mediocre results it has achieve for seemingly decades and make it to the playoffs, perhaps even winning the division that the New England Patriots have cheated their way toward winning won most of the past two decades.

But no. Barring an extremely unlikely turnaround under the interim head coach, the Dolphins will miss out on the playoffs yet again. The disappointment this team's fans have felt has become as predictable as the Dolphins throwing the ball less than 5 yards on 3rd and long situations. We can point to numerous causes for such mediocrity.

Certain Philbin and his coaching staff deserve a long of blame. But as bad as they were, it's not like they were coaching a team filled with all-pros at every position. There are problems with starters at both guard positions, the entire defensive line (which is insane given that they signed Suh), the entire linebacking corps, the entire cornerback position outside of Brent Grimes. And there are problems with backups who are now starting because of injuries at left tackle and free safety. Even Bill Belichick would have a hard time cheating coaching his way to victories with this team.

While trying to diagnose the problems with this team, I kept thinking further and further back trying to find some sort of starting point. Maybe it was the previous GM, Jeff Ireland, who is the underlying cause for all of these problems. He's a big part of it since he picked many of the players and hired Joe Philbin as a coach. But Ireland is a holdover from the Bill Parcells era, who was brought on after the Nick Saban era. And of course Saban was brought on after the Jimmy Johnson era, who was brought in after the legend Don Shula retired. So there's been a lot of turnover after the decades long stability that Don Shula provided. But even with all of those guys who were supposed to be some of the best football people in the game, the results haven't changed basically at all.

But the mediocrity stretches even further back than just the Jimmy Johnson days. I would argue that even Don Shula wasn't holding up his end of the bargain, both as coach and GM. I'd go so far as to say that the Dolphins haven't been a well run organization since the end of the 1970s. The only reason we didn't notice that Shula wasn't doing well is that he lucked into getting arguably the greatest QB of all time, Dan Marino. Marino was supposed to go much higher in the draft than where the Dolphins picked him. But he had a down senior year and there were rumors of drug use that caused him to fall to Miami. From then on they rode the coattails of his greatness, only to appear in one super bowl, and never live up to his standards.

Let's take a quick look at how well the Dolphins have drafted since they took Dan Marino in 1983. Here's a link to every draft pick the team has made. I'll go through and point out the good players, which I'll define as having a career AV of 50 or over:

1985: Jeff Dellenbach, center
1988: Harry Galbreath, guard
1988: Jeff Cross, defensive end
1990: Richmond Webb, tackle
1990: Keith Sims, guard
1991: Brian Cox, linebacker
1992: Troy Vincent, defensive back
1992: Marco Coleman, defensive end
1993: Chris Gray, guard
1994: Tim Bowens, defensive tackle
1994: Tim Ruddy, center
1996: Zach Thomas, linebacker
1997: Sam Madison, cornerback
1997: Jason Taylor, defensive end
1998: Patrick Surtain, cornerback
2001: Chris Chambers, wide receiver
2008: Jake Long, tackle

We can split hairs over whether other players should be considered good. But these are the ones I think wouldn't be questioned. And we can talk about free agent acquisitions. But drafting good players is more important because you get them for less money, giving you more flexibility to sign more players. So I think looking at draft success is a good way to determine how good a team is run. And as you can see with that list, with a few exceptions, this hasn't been a well run team.

Looking at the Shula era, I notice that of the 11 good players that were drafted, 6 of those were offensive linemen. I point that out because Dan Marino is, if not the best, one of the two or three best quarterbacks ever at avoiding sacks. You can probably chalk some of that up to having good offensive linemen. But it's probably mostly because he had great pocket awareness, great pocket mobility, and an extremely quick release. Not getting sacked is a skill, and Marino was great at it. So I think he's influencing how well a lot of those linemen are doing in the AV rating system. They did seem to draft a few good defensive players in the Shula era. But as a whole, the defense never amounted to the type of unit that typically wins a super bowl.

The Jimmy Johnson era began in 1996, which coincided with the end of Dan Marino's career. Johnson tried to give a declining Marino help on offense. But as you can see, he completely failed. But Johnson did succeed in building a very good defense. Thomas and Taylor should be hall of famers. And Madison and Surtain were very good cornerbacks. The defense Johnson built was super bowl worthy. But the offense was never close to what it was during Marino's prime. And Johnson wasn't able to replace Marino at QB.

Once Johnson left in 1999 things went really downhill. Johnson's protege and terrible head coach, Dave Wannstedt, coasted off of the defense and trade for Ricky Williams until the defense started to age. Since then, the team has drafted two good players. That's two good players in 15 years. 15 years! Granted, some players haven't played long enough to accumulate enough points for the AV rating system. But tellingly, several players on that path aren't even with the team anymore:

2007: Samson Satele, center, AV = 48
2009: Vontae Davis, cornerback, AV = 31
2009: Sean Smith, cornerback, AV = 29
2009: Brian Hartline, wide receiver, AV = 30

There you have it, a model of aggressive mediocrity spanning three decades. Given the nature of this team, I'm not confident they will find success next season with a new coach. There's a bit of hope that the VP of football operations, Mike Tannenbaum, can turn things around after having failed in NY. He has taken some non-traditional steps toward improving the team. But by the same token, he seems to be the one who signed Suh to a massive contract and placed all his eggs in the Ryan Tannehill basket at QB. So who knows if he will succeed. If he does, he'll have done something that hasn't been done since Dan Marino fell into this team's lap.

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