Since Dan Marino retired the Miami Dolphins have had an identity crisis. A brief walk through the team history shows how the team lost its way, but also highlights why it is important for Joe Philbin to establish an identity.
Jimmy Johnson tried to create a defensive team with a power running game that controlled the clock, but with Marino still at the helm, the team never really took to the power game. When Wannstedt forced Marino to retire and took over Johnson’s team, he also tried to develop the power philosophy, but a team led by Jay Fiedler without a dominate running back would never make it over the top.
Wannstedt then sold his soul to the devil in the name of Errick Lynne "Ricky" Williams, Jr. in exchange for a 2002 first-round draft choice and a conditional third-round pick in 2003. The conditional pick became a 1st round pick, when Williams led the NFL in rushing with 1,853 yards. Wannstedt tried to make Ricky the center piece and face of the franchise, but with 383 carries in 2002 and 392 carries in 2003, Williams had amassed an astonishing 775 carries in two years and it took a toll on his body. Williams may have liked his weed, but he was health freak who did not take pain medication because he believed masking the pain led to more injuries.
Leadership was not a role the enigmatic Williams was cut out for and he knew another 375 carry season was going to end with him in a hospital bed. Shortly before training camp in July 2004, Williams publicly disclosed his intent to retire from professional football. Rumored to have failed a third drug test, Williams made his retirement official on August 2, 2004. Without Ricky or a QB to rudder the ship, the Dolphins floundered to a 4-12 record and Wannstedt was run out of town by an angry mob carrying pitch forks and shouting obscenities that would make Dennis Rodman blush.
In 2005, Nick Saban arrived to resurrect the Dolphins from the mess Wannstedt had made, and had the 2nd pick in the draft to begin his legacy. There were 3 QBs taken in that draft, Alex Smith to San Francisco with the number one pick, Aaron Rodgers to Green Bay at 24 and Jason Campbell to the Redskins at 25. In hindsight, perhaps the Dolphins should have drafted Rodgers, who has since become one of the best QBs in the game, but at the time Rodgers was not considered worthy of the 2nd pick.
With Ricky gone (although he did return) Saban , decided to go the free agency route for a QB and draft a running back to replace Ricky. As fate would have it, Saban chose Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees and Miami fans are well aware of how that decision worked out. The Dolphins selected Ronnie Brown, who was a good player but never a great player, Williams returned but never found the same magic sharing time with Brown. Culpepper never returned to the form he showed in Minnesota prior to injuring his knee and again the Dolphins were left without an identity.
The personality of the Dolphins took a turn for worst (if that was even possible) with the words, “fail forward fast…” The fear of failure leads to a state of inaction, or at least an inability to take risks. Since the best results always come from shrewd risk taking, one cannot be afraid to fail if one wishes to be successful. So then the lessons learned, feedback, mistakes, etc., all propel people forward. The faster one learns from failure, the more quickly they will become successful. Sounds simple, but take a punk like Joey Porter and try to teach him philosophy and what happens is the disaster that was Malcolm “Cam” Cameron.
This was the lowest point in Dolphin history, about to become the only team to ever go undefeated and also winless. Charting the Dolphins on a graph would look like spiral down the drain from the day Shula left the building to this lowest of low. Then in walks the Czar, Bill Parcells, fresh off winning the Super Bowl in 1990, not that 28 years of elapsed time should diminish the accomplishment, and his handpicked coach, Tony Sparano and handpicked GM Jeff Ireland. Gifted from the catastrophe Cam Cameron left behind, Parcells and company had the very 1st pick in the draft.
Finally, with the chance to build around a QB who was a can’t miss prospect, Matt Ryan, the Dolphins chose left tackle Jake Long. Long was safest pick in the draft, there would be no “fail forward fast” risk taking with this group. Instead Sparano placed his future in the hands of 2nd round pick Chad Henne. The fickle finger of fate intervened again when the Jets let go oft-injured Chad Pennington and the Dolphins had a QB. The season started rocky with two consecutive losses, but on the plane flight back from a loss to the Cardinals, Tony Sparano and QB coach David Lee Came up with a plan to run a high school formation known as the Wildcat…
The following week the Dolphins routed the hated New England Patriots 38-13 and the legend of the wildcat was born. Finally the Dolphins had an identity, maximizing the strength of the team, Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Patrick Cobbs running and Chad Pennington’s short pinpoint passing, the Dolphins completed the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history going from a 1–15 regular season record in 2007 to an 11–5 record. Despite having only 16 turnovers throughout the entire regular season, the Dolphins committed 5 turnovers (4 interceptions and a lost fumble) in a 27-9 playoff loss against Baltimore culminating with Ed Reed returning a Chad Pennington interception 64 yards for a touchdown.
The Season was over, and the Ravens had exposed the Wildcat... It was the beginning of the end. It became known as the wildcat illusion; it led to drafting Pat White, an unmitigated 2nd round failure. In week 3 of the 2009 season Chad Pennington went down with a shoulder injury and he would essentially never return. Then Ronnie Brown, the triggerman for the Wildcat went down and he would never be the same player again… The Wildcat was over, the Dolphins were back in identity crisis mode which Sparano could never overcome and consequently, he was fired in 2011.
That leads all the way to Joe Philbin, but does not alleviate the problem… Who are the Miami Dolphins? After 29 years a QB was selected in the 1st round, after 16 years the offense will no longer favor a power running game and the defense will return to a 4-3. One would think Joe Philbin has taken a page from Cam Cameron’s book but with a few exceptions. Philbin does not pontificate that he is not afraid of failure, Philbin actually takes the risks necessary for change instead of talking about them.
This is what can be expected out the Dolphins, a team that will take chances, perhaps like starting a rookie QB or trading away an accomplished receiver because he does not fit the personality of the team. This is key, because it is difficult to know a player does not fit the team’s personality when the team does not have one. Clearly Philbin has a plan and that plan will be to go wide open, completely changing the formula Dolphin fans have come to know since Marino retired. If Ryan Tannehill is a bust, Philbin will be undeterred; he knows the value of the QB and will continue drafting one until he gets it right.
The Miami Dolphins will no longer sit on a lead or try to run the clock, the Dolphins will be full throttle all the time. The OTAs have been fast and furious, the pace is lightning quick and the Dolphins will play a game of reckless abandon. For Dolphin fans it will be a pure delight to see the team playing like each play is the last. So buckle up Dolphin fans, if the glimpses seen so far continue, excitement will be the name of the game in Miami.