Game #13: Counting It Down

Jim Mandich catches a pass against Washington in the 1972 Super Bowl. During that perfect season the Dolphins threw for only 144 receptions, barely more than 10 per game. By comparison, this year’s squad has 235 receptions after 11 games (21.3 per game)

The last chance for relevance has slipped quietly by the stern. This version of the Burgundy and Gold is in a familiar situation; playing out the string. As hard as it has been to watch at least the ending of any hope was mercifully short. Two losses in five days, both to Division foes did the job. The Thanksgiving Day game to Dallas was predictable. Dallas feasts on lesser teams at home. That’s especially true on Thanksgiving when the audience is huge. Some 40.1 million viewers watched as Dak Prescott and his posse jumped into the Salvation Army bucket and ate turkey legs. It was all such fun…unless you were a Washington fan. Now where is this going?

Ron Rivera said he arrived home at midnight after the game. He then watched the tape. Imagine living that nightmare only to have to study it in detail. After a sleepless night he called the new Owner Josh Harris. He was jettisoning his first hire, Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio and Defensive Backs Coach Brent Vieselmeyer. That put the play calling for the Defense in his lap for the final five games. Given the lay of the land it’s a safe bet Rivera is out the door on Black Monday or soon thereafter. What this turns into is a chance to display his Defensive Coordinator acumen to the rest of the League.

There’s no good reason to dip the Ron Rivera experience in sugar. He is an outstanding man. There were successes including a Division Championship albeit with a losing record. But, there many more failures. Ron, the Defensive Coordinator, turned over the Defense entirely to DelRio. It worked beautifully at times, including last year. This year’s Defense more closely resembled the faithful lawnmower that simply refused to start and run longer than a few minutes. Eventually the troubleshooting leads to a worn spark plug. That’s why we’re here.

Ron the General Manager was not a good fit. He was not without some successes, notably Sam Howell. He saw something most did not. Ron’s problem was that he carried that mindset through all of his drafting and free agent acquistions. Always digging for the obscured gem yields occasional riches. But, mostly it produces shovel after shovel of dirt.

Being a Head Coach requires nearly a completely different skills set than being a Coordinator. There is a leadership element that can’t be taught. Dishing out X’s and O’s is one thing. Motivating a sullen Locker Room is another. Dealing with a hostile media after a string of losses is a survival skill not taught in Coordinator development. The success rate for those coming new from Coordinator ranks is not pretty. Most never get more than one crack at the top job. Some will get two. There may be a small handful over the years that get three. But, for all intents and purposes after two attempts the die is cast. Ron’s longevity at 13 years indicates he was not without success. There simply wasn’t enough of it. Rivera needs one more win this year to leave the Head Coaching ranks with a lifetime winning record.

The League is populated with fired Head Coaches who returned as successful Coordinators. Jim Schwartz is in Cleveland leading the League’s best defense, for example. Look for Ron to join their ranks. Hopefully he goes to the AFC. It would be typical WFT luck for him to stay in the Division to be a constant source of torment.

The original logo for the Miami Dolphins

The upstart American Football League was making serious inroads into the NFL’s market share in the mid-1960s. By 1965 the new league was poaching top talent. Alabama Quarterback Joe Namath signed a then-record $475,000 contract with the New York Jets. It was a pivot point signing. The NFL countered by expanding into the south. Atlanta received their franchise in 1965. The AFL response was to expand also to South Florida with the Dolphins. Within the year the merger of the two leagues was announced. This raised the specter of monopoly claims. Congress could provide protection. Reading the none-too-subtle tea leaves the NFL awarded New Orleans a franchise to appease key Congress members. In just six years the south had four new football teams; Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, and New Orleans.

Miami’s cornerstone was Head Coach Don Shula. He took his Baltimore Colts juggernaut to Super Bowl III only to lose to Broadway Joe and the Jets. This was the last Super Bowl before the merger. The AFL needed to win to give the League more credibility. The Colts had been favored in that game by 18-points. Shula started backup QB Earl Morrall who had, charitably a bad day. He passed for 71 yards and 3 picks. He also missed Jimmy Orr standing very much alone in the back of the End Zone with both arms waving. After one more season in Baltimore Shula departed for Miami with Morrall in tow. The Don’s contract was for a contract of $70,000 which was large at the time. He also received 10% of team ownership. That would be worth something in the neighborhood of $600 Million today. Commissioner Pete Rozelle docked Miami a first-round Draft Pick for meddling. Was he providing cover? Who knows? Make of it what you will.

Shula took Miami to the Championship in two years with his Perfect Season. That team played almost exclusively in “21 Personnel.” Two Running Backs, one Tight End, and two Wide Receivers. QBs Bob Griese and Earl Morrall would throw about 18.5 times a game. For the rest of it they basically ran Power straight ahead. Larry Csonka, Mercury Morris, and Jim Kiick shredded defensive fronts. They averaged 209 yards rushing on 36 attempts per game throughout their 17 game run. The steady diet of 30 and 40 Gut plays is as far removed from today’s game as one can imagine.

This year’s version of the Dolphins passes the ball an average of 34.5 times a game. Their QB1 is lefty Tua Tagovailova. After his concussion scares of last year many wondered if he would be upright this long into the season. He has answered those questions decisively. This is an offense that produces in quantity. Wide Receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle have nearly 200 targets already. Running Back De’Von Achane will return this week. He is the fastest Back in memory averaging over 11-yards per attempt. Washington’s Linebackers won’t stand a chance if he gets through the Line or gets outside of contain on a Jet Sweep.

The basic formula to beat this year’s Dolphins is to sack Tua, often. If he’s sacked three times he’s only won once in his career. If sacked four times he has never won. Washington’s very slim thread of hope to upset this team will rest on successful Blitzes and Dogs. WFT’s new Defensive play caller should be trying to summon his inner Wink Martindale. Sitting in zones would be a short-circuit to a bloodletting. We will have to see how Ron’s first resume builder turns out.

Editor’s Note: Next week is the Bye Week for the WFT, hence no game. Talkcommanders will run a piece discussing the new wave of NFL Owners. Josh Harris is not a complete unknown. However, he has joined a group with some less-than-stellar distinction.

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