Was the decision to draft Jake Long over Matt Ryan the divergence between the Dolphins' struggles and the Falcons' success?
Jake Long or Matt Ryan? Matt Ryan or Jake Long? That was the decision with which the Miami Dolphins were faced leading in to the 2008 NFL Draft. The Dolphins were coming off a 1-15 season, and were looking to completely rebuild a dysfunctional franchise.
But, where would the team start? Left tackle or Quarterback? Long or Ryan?
The Dolphins had hired former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells as their Vice President of Football Operations in December 2007. Charged with making all football operations decisions, Parcells had handpicked the General Manager and Head Coach of the team, bringing both Jeff Ireland (GM) and Tony Sparano (Coach) with him from Dallas.
The "Trifecta," as they became known, studied their options, slowly ruling out every eligible draft pick until it was down to Ryan and Long. Or Long and Ryan.
In the end, the team went with the Parcells-like pick, taking the strength. Left tackle Jake Long was selected, and has become an anchor of the Dolphins offense. The All-Pro tackle has established himself as one of the best tackles in the game, and, just three years into his career, has already had whispers of Hall of Fame mentioned with his name.
The man they didn't take was selected two picks later by the 4-12 Atlanta Falcons. Ryan was named Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2008, and was a 2010 Pro Bowl selection.
The two franchises, so similar in 2007, have become so different in the three years since.
The Dolphins have stayed true to the Parcells formula, focusing on strength, defense, and a power running game. The Falcons have built explosive weapons at the receiver and tight end positions, looking to play to Ryan's strengths.
Last year, the Dolphins had the sixth overall defense, compared to the Falcons' 16th ranked defense. The Falcons matched that ranking with their offense, while the Dolphins only had the 21st best offense in the league.
Over the three years, the Falcons have continued to build, finding the right pieces, including the signing of running back Michael Turner in 2008 and trading for tight end Tony Gonzalez in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins have continued to bounce between quarterbacks, finding one year of success with the signing of former New York Jets rival Chad Pennington. This year, Miami looks to continue the development of third year quarterback Chad Henne.
Ironically, the only weakness on the Falcons roster may be their left tackle position. While Long continually ranks among the best tackles in the league, Sam Baker has been a serviceable, but not great, tackle for them.
But, the teams differ in more ways than just the left tackle position.
In the 2008 season, the Dolphins found life and finished the year as the AFC East Champions with an 11-5 record. Over in the NFC South, the Falcons likewise finished 11-5, claiming one of the conference's wild card slots.
The 2009 Falcons team struggled to find the same success as 2008, finishing second in their division behind the soon to be Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. However, the Falcons finished 9-7, compared to the Dolphins 7-9 record, and third place AFC East finish.
2010 was no better for the Dolphins, as they completed the year with an identical AFC East position and overall record. The Falcons claimed the NFC's best record at 13-3, and advance to the Playoffs, losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers in the Divisional round.
This year, the Falcons are looking toward the NFC Championship game, expecting to once again be challenging for the best record in the league.
The Dolphins are simply looking to break their consecutive losing records streak.
With the play, and future, of Jake Long at the Dolphins' left tackle position, I will never complain about the draft choice. However, as the Dolphins play Atlanta tonight in their first preseason game, one can't help but wonder where this team would be if the 2008 draft had gone differently.
Long or Ryan? Ryan or Long?