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Turning Point of the Miami Dolphins Franchise - What Started the Spiral into Mediocrity?

Was the sudden retirement of Ricky Williams before the 2004 season the turning point that sent Miami spiraling into the quagmire we now find out beloved franchise?
Was the sudden retirement of Ricky Williams before the 2004 season the turning point that sent Miami spiraling into the quagmire we now find out beloved franchise?

The Jorge Sedano Show on  790 The Ticket today discussed the turning point of the Miami Dolphins franchise.  From 1966 into the 2000s, the Dolphins had the best winning percentage of any franchise in the NFL.  The Dolphins are still the only team to win the Super Bowl to complete an undefeated season (still want to thank the Giants for that one!).  But something has changed and brought it all crashing down.  What was it?  What changed the course of this once proud franchise,  bringing the team, and us as fans, to suffer through a 1-15 season, mediocrity at best, and a revolving door at the Head Coach and Quarterback positions?

What may be the worst part of all of this is, there's not one thing that really stands out above the rest.  Below are my top three factors in sending the franchise into a tailspin:

1.  The Retirement of Dan Marino.  The Dolphins "allowed" Dan Marino to retire following the 1999 season.  The Dolphins had just lost to the Jaguars 62-7, in what is still absolutely the funniest game I have ever watched.  Everything that could go wrong in that game, did.  To the point that the punter flat out missed the ball - not blocked, missed.  But, that's not the point.  Then head coach Jimmy Johnson, and his soon to be heir Dave Wannstedt were ready to move on at the quarterback position.  He escorted Marino out of the position, and ushered in the Jay Fiedler era. 

Outstanding move there.  First, Marino wasn't ready to retire (remember, he nearly pulled a reverse Chris Carter, and went from Miami to Minnesota to play with the Vikings).  He wanted to play.  His arm still worked.  Sure, he wasn't the most mobile quarterback, and his knees and ankles were failing, but Marino using a walker was better than anything we had on the roster at that time.  Plus this same franchise had Bernie Kosar as a backup quarterback just a few years before - so mobility was the least of the Dolphins' concerns.

Second, Jay Fiedler was destined to fail.  Damon Huard or Scott Mitchell would have had a better chance of success than Fiedler.  Huard and Mitchell were known to Dolphins fans.  They had spent their time under Marino.  They knew the system.  Fiedler was an unknown.  He had played just 13 games in the NFL, starting one, before the Dolphins named him their starter.  By the end of his 5 years with the team, Fiedler had a 36-23 record as a starting quarterback, throwing for 11,040 yards on 936-for-1603 passing (58.4% completions).  He also had 66 touchdowns and 63 interceptions.  But, no matter what he did, Fiedler would never be good enough - he wasn't Dan Marino.

Since Dan Marino's retirement, the Dolphins are 86-92, with 3 playoff appearances - and have had 15 starting quarterbacks.

2. The Retirement of Ricky Williams.

Ricky Williams was the definition of workhorse for the Miami Dolphins.  Following his trade from New Orleans (for four draft picks, including two first rounders), Williams carried the ball 383 times for 1,853 yards, averaging 115.8 yards per game in 2002 - all of which led the league.  He also had 16 touchdowns that season, by far the most of his career.

The next season, Wannstedt continued to rely on Williams as the main offensive weapon, again having him led the NFL in carries.  He finished the year with 392 carries, for 1,372 yards and 9 touchdowns.  

Then, it all came crashing down.  Williams tested positive for marijuana in May 2004, and was facing a 4-game suspension for his second positive drug test.  Just two days before the start of training camp, Williams declared his intention to retire, and left the team.  It was rumored he was facing a third positive test, that would have suspended him for a year, but his sudden departure from the team decimated the fan base and the offense.

The Dolphins had finished 2003 with a 10-6 record, following Williams' retirement, the Dolphins finished 2004 with a 4-12 record. 

In 2005, Williams returned to the Dolphins, but the team would never be able to find the magic it had in 2002 and 2003.  After serving his four game suspension, Williams appeared in the other 12 games that year, starting 4, and finishing with 168 carries for 1,372 yards.  Miami did respond with a winning record (9-7), but missed the playoffs in head coach Nick Saban's first season with the team.

Then, 2006 saw Williams gone again.  With his third violation of the league's substance abuse policy, Williams was suspended for the entire season - which he spent in Toronto playing for the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.

Williams was reinstated in October 2007.  During his season debut, Williams carried the ball 6 times, before he tore his pectoral muscle and was lost for the rest of the season.

He played all 16 games in 2008, gaining 659 yards on 160 carries.  In 2009, Williams set a new league record, eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark (1,121) for the first time in 6 years, the longest such span between 1,000 yard rushing seasons.    Last year, Williams ran for 673 yards, and two touchdowns, for the Dolphins, before being allowed to leave via free agency this past offseason.

Since his sudden retirement in 2004, the Dolphins have had a 45-69 record.

3. The Trade for Daunte Culpepper.

Before the 2006 season, the Dolphins were once again shopping for a quarterback.  The 2005 season had seen Miami use Gus Frerotte for 15 games, with Sage Rosenfels starting the other.  The Dolphins were in a rare position - two franchise caliber quarterbacks were available, and desired to come to Miami.

The Dolphins weighed free agent quarterback Drew Brees, who had injured his shoulder the previous year and  was coming out of a San Diego franchise who wanted to move on to Phillip Rivers , against the Minnesota Vikings' Daunte Culpepper.  In the end, the Dolphins decided that Brees' should injury would not allow him to be a franchise quarterback any more, while Culpepper, who had injure his knee the previous year, would heal and provide value to Miami.  They sent a second round pick to the Vikings in exchange for the three time Pro-Bowl quarterback.

Culpepper started the first four games of the 2006 season for Miami, struggling in the first two games, before showing a glimpse of his old self in the third game.  The fourth game saw the Dolphins again struggle, and, along with some bad practices, led to Culpepper being benched in favor of Joey Harrington.

Culpepper would undergo surgery for a second time on his knee, be placed on injured reserve, and, with head coach Nick Saban bolting the franchise for the head coach position at the University of Alabama, was released the next summer.

Since the Dolphins made the trade for Culpepper, they are 32-50.  Meanwhile, with Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints have gone 50-32, with three playoff appearances, including the 2009 Super Bowl Championship.  Miami made it to the playoffs in 2008, with Chad Pennington at the helm.

I know there are probably a million others.  Just off the top of my head, I could see the hiring of Nick Saban, the hiring of Cam Cameron, the trade for Ricky Williams, the trade for A.J. Feely, the trade for Cleo Lemon, etc., etc., all having impacts on this franchise.  All of them are viable candidates for this list.  But, I personally will stick with my top three.  What about you?  What other candidates can you remember?  Which one of my top three do you disagree with?