The Miami Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but they have not advanced to the league’s title game since 1984. That does not mean, when the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons hit the field tonight for Super Bowl LI, there are not former Dolphins players in the game. Since the infamous picture, in which former Dolphins quarterback Damon Huard, linebacker Larry Izzo, cornerback Terrell Bucklye, and guard Gary Ruegamer sent a picture of them wearing their Patriots Super Bowl XXXVI championship rings on their middle fingers back to the South Florida franchise, there have always seemed to be ties back to the Dolphins with whichever club is in the Super Bowl.
This year is obviously no different, with several players fitting the category.
For the New England Patriots, wide receiver Chris Hogan and linebacker Rob Ninkovich are the top two “players who got away,” but there is also linebacker Jonathan Freeny, who is on injured reserve, as well as offensive linemen Chris Barker and Jamil Douglas, who are both currently on the team’s practice squad. Hogan spent the end of the 2011 season with the Dolphins on the practice squad after stints with the San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants. He returned for the 2012 training camp with Miami - starring on Hard Knocks including picking up the 7-Eleven nickname - but was cut and placed on the practice squad before being released during the season from there as well. He then joined the Buffalo Bills from 2012 to 2015 before moving on to the New England Patriots this year, tallying 38 receptions for 680 yards with four touchdowns. He added four receptions for 95 yards in the Divisional round of the playoffs and nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the AFC Championship game.
Ninkovich played for the Dolphins in 2007 and 2008, after being a fifth-round selection of the New Orleans Saints in 2006 and before returning to the Saints after Miami placed him on the practice squad during the 2008 season. He worked primarily as a long snapper for the Saints and as a defensive end for the Dolphins, appearing in five games with two tackles recorded for Miami. Joining the Patriots in 2009, Ninkovich has worked as both a defensive end and a linebacker, playing in 123 games with 101 starts, recording 469 tackles, 46 sacks, five interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, and 14 fumble recoveries, with one touchdown each from interceptions and fumble recoveries. This year, Ninkovich played in 12 games, with 11 starts, picking up 32 tackles and four sacks. He started both playoff games for the Patriots, adding four tackles, a sack, and a fumble recovery.
Freeny was originally signed into the league as an undrafted free agent by the Dolphins in 2011, being released at the end of the preseason and spending a brief time with the Chicago Rush before returning to Miami as a practice squad member at the end of the 2011 season. He played for the Dolphins through 2014 before signing as a free agent with the Patriots in 2015, landing on injured reserve in October with a shoulder issue. With Miami, Freeny appeared in 44 games, recording 35 tackles and a sack on defense. Since joining New England, he appeared in 18 games, with 11 starts, including 5 games with 4 starts this year, and tallying 60 total tackles with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and a sack.
Barker was also a undrafted free agent signing with the Dolphins, joining the team in 2013, but being released at the end of the preseason. He then joined the Patriots, where he has bounced between the practice squad and the active roster, with six game appearances during the 2013 to 2015 seasons. He spent all of 2016 on the practice squad for New England.
Douglas was a 2015 fourth-round draft choice by the Dolphins, playing for the team from 2015 until October of the 2016 season. He played in all 16 games in 2015 for Miami, with six starts, playing both center and right guard. In 2016, he made one appearance before being released by the Dolphins and being added to the Patriots practice squad, where he spent the remainder of the season.
Over on the Falcons side of the field, former Dolphins players include kicker Matt Bryant, linebacker Philip Wheeler, and defensive end Derrick Shelby, who is on injured reserve. The Falcons also have former Dolphins linbebacker Bryan Cox working as their defensive ends coach and former Dolphins special teams coach Keith Armstrong, who holds the same position with Atlanta, along with Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn, who was previously a defensive line coach with Miami.
Bryant spent a brief period during the 2004 season in Miami, a season that also saw him spend time with the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts before joining the Dolphins for three weeks. During that time, he was three-for-three on field goals and seven-for-seven on extra points, filling in for an injured Olindo Mare. Bryant is in his eighth year in Atlanta, with a 334-for-390 field goal conversion (85.6 percent) over that time alons with being 485-for-490 on extra points (99 percent). In 2016, he was 34-for-37 on field goals and 56-for-57 on extra points, earning his first Pro Bowl berth.
Wheeler spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons with Miami, playing in 31 games with 20 stats. He recorded 163 tackles, seven passes defensed, one fumble recovery, and half a sack over those two years. After being released by the Dolphins, he signed with the Falcons, where he has played in 25 games over the last two years, with six starts, and recorded 56 tackles, one forced fumble, and one sack.
Shelby signed with the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in 2012, staying with the team through the 2015 season. He played in 63 games with nine starts over that span, recording 105 tackles, nine sacks, two interceptions with a touchdown, five passes defensed, four forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. With the Falcons this season, Shelby appeared in six games with four starts, recording eight tackles and a pass defensed before tearing his Achilles tendon and being placed on injured reserve.
Cox was a fifth-round draft choice by the Dolphins in 1991, playing outside linebacker for three years before moving to middle linebacker for two seasons. He was selected to three Pro Bowls for the Dolphins, and was a 1992 First-Team All-Pro selection, along with 1994 and a 1995 Second-Team selections, as he amassed 529 tackles, 31.5 sacks, three interceptions, 14 forced fumbles, and six fumble recoveries in 77 games, all of them as a starter. After the Dolphins, Cox played for the Chicago Bears, New York Jets, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints. He began his coaching career as an assistant defensive line coach for the Jets from 2006 to 2008, then became the defensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns in 2009 through 2010. In 2011, her returned to the Dolphins for one season as the team’s pass rush coach before taking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line coach position from 2012 through 2013, finally moving to the Falcons in 2014 as their defensive line coach.
Armstrong worked from 2001 to 2007 as the Dolphins’ special teams coach, working under Dave Wannstedt, Nick Saban, and Cam Cameron. He moved to the Falcons in 2008 to take the same position. He has also worked for the Falcons from 1994 to 1995 as the team’s safeties coach and in 1996 as the secondary coach.
Quinn has worked his way up to being a Super Bowl head coach in just his second season in the job, starting back in 1994 as a defensive line coach at William & Mary. He moved to the NFL level as a defensive quality control coach with the San Francisco 49ers in 2001 and 2002, then as a defensive line coach in 2003 and 2004. He then joined the Dolphins as the team’s defensive line coach as a part of Nick Saban’s coaching staff. He has held jobs with the Seattle Seahawks and University of Florida, including being the defensive coordinator at both locations, before being hired as the Falcons’ head coach in 2015.