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Applying Bill Simmons' 'What-If Game' to Miami Dolphins history

How much do Dolphins fans hate this man? Enough to endure a second year of Cam Cameron?
How much do Dolphins fans hate this man? Enough to endure a second year of Cam Cameron?

(Warning: any Dolphins fans who have suicidal tendencies or are unable to control the need to randomly beat their heads on the sidewalk should avoid the next 2,817 words. Trust me.)

It was while flying to Mexico two weeks ago that I reconnected with Bill Simmons' excellent The Book of Basketball--715 pages of Kareem-despising, Celtics-ass-kissing, Michael Jordan-worshiping, pop-culture-spinning fun contained in a sprawling presentation of lists, categories and analysis. If you have so much as a remote interest in the NBA and its rich history, I highly suggest you give the book a try. And even if you don't enjoy the NBA, read it anyway. You might even find yourself more of a basketball fan afterward.

Anyway, my favorite section in The Book of Basketball is the "What-If Game," in which Simmons plays the role of grand revisionist and identifies several scenarios that were either on the verge of taking place (Lew Alcindor signing with the ABA in 1969; the Orlando Magic hanging on to the first overall draft selection in 1993 and selecting Chris Webber; the Houston Rockets trading Ralph Sampson to the Portland Trail Blazers for Clyde Drexler and the No. 2 pick in the 1984 draft, which Houston would've used to select Michael Jordan; etc.), or shouldn't have ever taken place (Len Bias dying from a cocaine overdose two days after the 1986 NBA Draft). The rules stipulate that injury-related events can't be applied to the What-If Game, though Simmons breaks his own rule and ponders what would've happened if John Havlicek hadn't been injured during the 1973 Finals. Other than injuries, any sports-related scenario is fair game, and the alternative scenarios can be staggering at times.

Since I had plenty (and I mean plenty) of time on my honeymoon to float next to the pool bar and drink myself into a semi-stupor each day, I began applying the what-If game to all things Miami Dolphins--a very dangerous concept, as I soon learned. One particular decision, for me, stands out as the event that changed the course of the Dolphins through the late '80s and much of the '90s (it's No. 1 on the list). Other famous occurrences in team history started to unravel in interesting ways once the alternative scenario was put into effect. Regardless, I found it both fascinating and painful to consider what might have been if the Dolphins had gone a different way a few times throughout their 46 years as a franchise. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I think many of us knew these moves were major boners soon after they took place.

3) What if the Dolphins hadn't traded for Ricky Williams in March 2002?

We'll start this cringe-inducing list with a move that doesn't seem too cringe inducing on the surface: two first-round picks (one originally a conditional third) and a fourth rounder for Ricky Williams--"the next Earl Campbell," and a pit bull of a running back who was entering his athletic peak. Of course, we all knew that trading multiple high picks for a short-term, high-wear position seemed fishy, even for a team that had learned to buy into marginal talents like Bernie Parmalee and Karim Abdul-Jabbar during the twilight years of Dan Marino's career. Then Williams came to town, ran for 1,853 yards in his first season as a Dolphin and won the 2002 rushing title, and everyone forgot about those two 1s given in exchange for Williams (an easy thing to do when you're forgoing a selection in the mediocrity-riddled 2002 draft). Ricky was arguably the best running back to strap on a Dolphins helmet since Morris and Kiick, and his presence brought legitimacy to a Miami offense that really didn't deserve it.

So why are we pondering what could've been without Ricky in Miami? Because he followed up his very noteworthy sophomore campaign in Miami with a positive marijuana test and subsequent retirement, murdering a playoff-contender Dolphins team in the process. Suddenly, a 10-6 Dolphins squad in '03 was reduced to a 4-12 team the next year. I don't believe Ricky's absence was solely the reason for six more losses in 2004, but I do believe his early retirement absolutely shot the morale of the Dolphins that season. Worse yet, the Dolphins qualified for the No. 2 overall pick in 2005 and essentially had no choice but to buy into the Ronnie Brown hype train that spring (let's face facts: it was borderline impossible not to love the idea of Brown in Miami at that point. Miami needed a power back to replace Williams, and Brown's performance at the combine that February was legendary. Dude could run, catch and block with the best of 'em, and it's not like any of us knew his durability and speed would both fall off the table within two years).

Getting back to that 1,853-yard season in 2002, I've always thought one of the biggest travesties in Dolphins history was the team getting that kind of production out of running back in a non-playoff year. Williams' yardage total that year was the trigger that kicked that conditional three to a full-blown one, and while the 2002 NFL Draft was utter garbage (you know it's bad when Patrick Ramsey is going in the first round), the 2003 draft had some real gems (Terrell Suggs, Nnamdi Asomugha, etc.). Worse yet, Ricky's spot in Miami had Dolphins brass thinking they were sitting on a quality product after the 2003 season, when in actuality they had Williams, Chris Chambers and a bunch of "so what?" on offense. Without Williams, maybe the Dolphins don't lose their asses for A.J. Feeley in March 2004. Maybe the Dolphins get the memo and stop rummaging through recycled quarterbacks. Maybe the Dolphins get ballsy and draft Jay Cutler in 2006. Who knows?

This what-if scenario raises the question of whether it was better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Without Williams in town during 2002 and 2003, the Dolphins would've still been a non-playoff qualifier, albeit a far less remarkable one on the ground. With Williams in town in 2004, the Dolphins are probably a 9-7 team, and instead of drafting Brown second overall, maybe they draft Demarcus Ware or Aaron Rodgers, no?

(Oh, who are we kidding. Randy Mueller's so drafting Mike Williams or Matt Jones that spring.)

2) What if Bill Parcells had taken the Falcons job in December 2007?

The concept of going back in time and wiping out Bill Parcells' stay in Miami from January 2008 to spring 2011 is undoubtedly an enticing one for most fans here, but it might be somewhat less enticing if you consider what would've happened if Parcells accepted an offer in late 2007 to become VP of football operations for the Atlanta Falcons.

Here's what we know: Miami's 2008 season likely would've marked year two for the defective Mueller/Cameron connection and their almost perverted commitment to John Beck as the Dolphins' long-term starter (there's no way those two egomaniacs would've backed off the Beck movement after just half a season). With Beck in place, the Cam-Muel steamship probably passes over Matt Ryan and Jake Long in the 2008 draft, instead opting for a "splash" player like Chris Long, Glenn Dorsey or (gulp) Vernon Gholston. You can also forget about Davone Bess as a Dolphin, because neither Mueller nor Cameron would've bothered with an undersized receiver who runs a 4.6. For those of you playing at home, Cam-Muel just flushed two your best players in 2012 down the toilet in one fell swoop. And given that these two clowns stunk up the 2007 draft in a manner that would've made even Al Davis uncomfortable, it's reasonable to assume they would've followed suit with an equally horrid 2008 pre-draft process. Say what you want about Jeff Ireland, but not even he's capable of the havoc Cam-Muel wreaked on the Dolphins during their brief stay. Godzilla thinks they were too messy.

Now contrast the above performance record with Parcells, whose approach turned the Dolphins' offense into a prehistoric forest. Add to that a defense full of oversized hogs better suited to attack a Denny's lunch buffet than an opposing backfield, and you're starting to understand why Parcells and Nick Saban remain such popular guys in South Florida.

The main what-if with Parcells, however, is whether he would've impeded the Falcons' rebuild the way he c***blocked the Dolphins'. I say no, and here's why: Atlanta was a quarterback away from go time in late 2007/early 2008, and not even Bobby Petrino's extremely uncomfortable exit from Atlanta that winter (and by uncomfortable, I am talking about awkwardness on the level of what Fleetwood Mac bassist John McVie probably felt when he was asked to play on a song about his ex-wife Christine banging the band's lighting director) could've change the fact that the Falcons had killer talent at receiver (Roddy White), guard (Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl) and right tackle (Tyson Clabo). Honestly, that's a tough core to eff up, regardless of how stubborn your VP of football operations is. And while it's unclear whether Parcells would've signed former Charger running back Michael Turner that spring, we'll go ahead and spot him that move since Turner is absolutely a Parcells-type bell cow back.

So it's the 2008 NFL Draft, and the Dolphins just selected Virginia defensive end Chris Long with the first overall selection (I had to insert a scenario that didn't make me want repeatedly lick a nine volt). The Falcons are sitting there at No. 3, and while hindsight/logic suggests that Parcells will go with Jake Long at that spot (remember, left tackle wasn't one of the Falcons' strengths listed above), what if the Rams do the unthinkable and snare Long with that second overall pick? Maybe Tuna still falls in love with Chad Henne and passes on Ryan for Dorsey. Or maybe he goes bizarro and begins the 3-4 transformation by selecting Gholston (doubtful, but not out of the question).

Smart money says Parcells probably would've derailed the Falcons at the quarterback position as he instead opted to build up Atlanta's ground game and defensive front seven. Maybe this gets the Falcons a division crown; maybe it makes them the doormat in the always-changing NFC South. Regardless, his approach in Atlanta would've held the Falcons' offense back considerably, but his approach in Miami outright damaged the Dolphins following their quick-fix 2008 season (remember this theorem: no quarterback + outdated offense = screwed). Was it more damage than what Mueller and Cameron inflicted on the franchise the previous season? Maybe. But at least we have Long, Bess, Mike Pouncey, Cameron Wake and Karlos Dansby as either a direct or indirect result of Parcells' tenure in Miami. I still loathe the man, but I can live with the result.

(Well, that and the 2008 "Wildcat Game" in Foxborough. That was pretty amazing.)

1) What if the Dolphins hadn't passed on Thurman Thomas in the 1988 NFL Draft?

I remember staying up late one night in college and watching The Top Five Reasons You Can't Blame Dan Marino for Not Winning A Super Bowl on ESPN2. Not by any means the kind of stuff a Dolphins fan wants to watch before bedtime, but the show did present some strong cases that had me nodding along furiously in agreement. Long story short, the show's the No. 1 reason was that the Miami Dolphins simply let Dan down by not continuing to build upon the talent that was in place when he took over the starting quarterback for good on Oct. 9, 1983. And that's absolutely true--Miami's front offices during Marino's tenure did let him down time and time again. However, of all the Dolphins' draft misses and wtf-worthy trades between 1984 and 1999, I can pinpoint the exact moment that ultimately murdered Marino's peak years and embodied Miami's inability to complement their balls-out passing game with an elite rushing attack: the 1988 NFL Draft, in which the Dolphins passed on stud Oklahoma State running back Thurman Thomas. To call this move a franchise killer would be too nice. Too call it a move that undermined Marino's legacy would be too conservative.

To call it the biggest fortune swing in Dolphins history would be dead-on accurate.

First, to be fair, Thomas did supposedly have knee issues leading up to the 1988 draft. That fact excuses the teams who were already set at running back and didn't need to take an unnecessary risk in the name of best player available (BPA). But if you're the Dolphins, and you're coming off of an '87 season in which you ranked 23rd in rushing, you have no business passing on Thurman Thomas. I don't care if Dolphins running back Troy Stradford was named Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1987. We're talking about Thurman Thomas, the running back who completely outshone OSU teammate and star sophomore Barry Sanders in the 1987 Sun Bowl, lighting up West Virginia to the tune of 157 yards and four touchdowns.

And if the stats aren't enough to convince you that Thomas should've been the guy in Miami, feel free to visit YouTube and check out the tape he put together while at Oklahoma State. Speed, cuts, an advanced understanding of pass pro, great receiving ability out of the backfield--Thomas had it all. That wasn't enough to sell Miami on him, however, and the team opted for Ohio State outside linebacker Eric Kumerow with the 16th pick that spring. Thomas went 40th overall to Buffalo, and that should've been it. Hey, Miami whiffed on an ultra-promising college running back. Not the end of the world, right?

Except it was the end of the world as far as Dolphins fans were concerned. For Miami, Thomas was like the slasher movie villain who showed up at the most inopportune times and refused to be killed. And the way he relentlessly hacked up the Dolphins in the '90 AFC Divisional Round and the '92 AFC Championship Game would've certainly earned a thumbs up from Wes Craven himself. Imagine the Dolphins as a scantily-clad sorority girl attempting to frantically start a car while said movie villain--Thurman Thomas--looms over them with a sharpened tire iron, and you get an idea of what life was like for the Dolphins between 1988 and 1995. The Bills owned the Dolphins, and Thomas' multi-dimensional ability as a running back was a big reason for that (okay, screw the nine volt; someone please get me a car battery).

Thomas fit Buffalo's fast-paced K-Gun offense to a T, but you can't tell me he wouldn't have done similar damage in Marino's backfield, anchoring a Dolphins offense that was admittedly far more interested in gunning teams off the field as opposed to gashing them. Maybe Thomas doesn't have the Hall of Fame-caliber numbers and impact in Miami that he achieved in Buffalo (though I actually think Miami and its relentless commitment to the pass would've been easier on his body over the long haul), but it's hard to fathom Thomas not picking up chunks upon chunks of yards on teams preoccupied with stopping Marino. It's almost too easy to picture Dan smiling like the Cheshire Cat as Thomas gets the ball off of a wheel route on one play and stretches it for a 45-yard score, and then takes a handoff on Miami's next possession, cuts back against the grain and scampers for 30 yards and a first down. None of Miami's running backs from 1988 through 1996 had even a fraction of Thomas' game, and every Dolphins opponent knew it. Not good.

Without a franchise-caliber running game for much of his career Marino remained stuck in "I have no choice but to zap you with my one-dimensional offense" mode through most of the early '90s, and the results weren't always favorable. The Dolphins were notorious for not being able to control the clock on offense (I learned this as a 10-year-old who watched helplessly as the '94 Dolphins crapped away a 15-point lead to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Divisional Round), opting instead to challenge their opponents to the football version of the O.K. Corral. To add insult to injury, Jim Kelly stated in the Five Reasons Why ... episode that the Bills used to laugh at Miami's supposed commitment to running the football. And the thought of the Bills coolly walking into Joe Robbie Stadium for the AFC Championship Game in January 1993, confident in their game plan, upending a white-hot Dolphins team while unleashing Thomas on Miami's defense like a rabid doberman, is a thought that still sickens me to this day.

Not as sickening as the thought of Kumerow over Thurman Thomas, though. That's rare stupidity regarding a rare talent, and I'd give anything to go back and make it right.

In part two of this series, I'll examine two non-Dolphins what-if scenarios, including one that completely changed the fortune of three separate teams.