Although quarterback Joe Montana and WR Jerry Rice rightly receive most of the attention, and credit, for the Forty Niners’ 80’s and 90’s dynasty, the stellar defense San Francisco was able to put on the field year after year often gets lost in the conversation. It all started in 1981, when head coach and de facto GM Bill Walsh, despite his having been known as an offensive guru, selected defensive backs in the first, second and third rounds. With the eighth overall pick in round one, the Niners took USC cornerback/safety Ronnie Lott. They came right back in round two with Missouri corner Eric Wright, then chose safety Carlton Williamson, from the University of Pittsburgh, in the third. Those three players would solidify San Francisco’s secondary for most of the next decade, and go to a whopping fourteen Pro Bowls between them. Lott, of course, is a Hall of Famer.
The importance of having quality defensive backs on a football team is hard to overstate, and the Miami Dolphins have skimped on that unit, or failed to draft and develop the right players, far too often since their glory years of the early 1970’s. Despite legendary head coach Don Shula having been a defensive back himself, with the Browns, Colts and Redskins, in the 1950’s, his playing experience didn’t always carry over to coaching the defensive backs. In the ‘Sea of Hands’ game, which ended the Dolphins’ Super Bowl reign at Oakland’s Alameda County Stadium, in December 1974, Shula benched starting cornerback Lloyd Mumphord, in favor of the relatively unknown Henry Stuckey. Stuckey wasn’t up to the assignment, and fell down on Kenny Stabler’s long touchdown bomb to Cliff Branch. In January 1991, at Buffalo, the Dolphins were caught without answers to Buffalo’s potent ‘K-Gun’ offensive attack. Bills receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton hauled in seven and four receptions for 149 and 122 yards, respectively, and scored three touchdowns between them. Quarterback Jim Kelly averaged a ridiculous 11.69 yards per attempt. The game wasn’t anywhere near as close as the 44-34 final score would seem to indicate.
Just a year and a half ago, Miami’s secondary was riddled like a block of Swiss cheese by Ben Roethlisberger and company in the Dolphins’ playoff loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field. All of the optimism and good will that had been built up over the course of the season was washed away by the midpoint of the third quarter. The Dolphins, though, appear to have learned some hard lessons over the past few years, and have made some outstanding additions to their defensive backfield. In 2018, their likely starters will be 2016 second round pick Xavien Howard at right corner, with last year’s third rounder Cordrea Tankersley manning the left side. Perennial stalwart Reshad Jones will return at strong safety, with prize rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick patrolling the all-important deep middle. When 2015 fifth rounder Bobby McCain was recently signed to a contract extension, Some fans grumbled that the Dolphins overpaid for his services. To that, I say baloney. For my money, there aren’t twenty five corners in the league who are better than Bobby McCain. We can probably come up with ten or fifteen, but not twenty five, boundary or nickel. We, as fans, need to stop obsessing over what players are being paid and instead focus on their on field performance. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and when you add McCain to the rest of the group Miami has put together, it’s not a stretch to believe that the Dolphins may very well have the league’s top secondary in a year or two, if they can stay healthy. If either of the starting corners can’t go, fourth year man Tony Lippett should be recovered from last season’s torn Achilles. They still have to prove it on the field, but based on what we saw down the stretch last season, there is every reason to believe they will.
As long as there is organized football, and the majority of the yards gained on offense are generated via the pass, it will always be more important to acquire and develop the players who have to cover the other team’s receivers than it is for a team to have all-world players at receiver itself. Since the receiver knows ahead of time where he’s going, the guy covering him has to be an even better athlete than he is. With the officials calling a tighter game nowadays against corners and safeties, it becomes more important than ever to have stud athletes on defense. That’s the biggest difference, in my opinion, between the Miami Dolphins today, versus four years ago, when I was calling their corners a dumpster fire. In addition to the ten wins I’m calling for this season, I’m going to go ahead and predict three or four total Pro Bowls for the Dolphins’ secondary over the 2018 and ‘19 seasons. It’s an exciting time to be a Dolphin fan.