Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cards-Dolphins: The Old Souls

Okay, so here’s one of the things with these all-time-team matchups: the team with the better record doesn’t always win.

But shouldn’t it? Shouldn’t 90 years of NFL history pound randomness into something that looks like the North Dakota of distribution curves? After a team has spent that many years proving it’s better (or worse) than a given team, when you add everything up and pit x + 2x + 3x … + 90x versus y + 2y + 3y … + 90y, shouldn’t the largest sum automatically win?

Let me see if I can put this into layman’s terms: no.

Let me see if I can put this further into layman’s terms: Randomness always exists, even if you have 1,500 pieces of data as opposed to one. The 1,500 pieces of data draw a tighter circle around the randomness than the one piece of data, but randomness hasn’t gone away. It’s just spent a month at Outward Bound.

Besides, you have to remember that these matchups are being played in the friendly confines of my head, and few places are more random. Just ask my wife.

This is important as we consider today’s matchup: ChiStlAz at Miami.

Lord knows I am no fan of the ChiStlAzers. They have been managed more poorly than Lindsay Lohan by a family that if it were not ruining professional football in three cities would be running for office for the sole purpose of texting lewd pictures of themselves to constituents. They have a defensive line comprised of Cheez Doodles, indifferent linebackers, and a star running back whose best years occurred in Duluth. They have had more losing seasons than Vince Wilfork has had hot meals – and they’re playing a legitimate dynasty, or two.

The Dolphins have had two distinct periods when they were very, very good, almost exactly coinciding with the times they were led by Hall of Fame coaches. There was the Bob Griese Era of game management, a multifaceted running game, and power line, and a nondescript defense. Then there was the Dan Marino Era of South Beach tossaround, a power line, and a nondescript defense.

Are you honing in on the Dolphins’ problems? The two times in their 50-year history when the Dolphins were good they were essentially the same team. This is great for long-term success, since it shows constancy. In that regard, a successful team is a bit like the Foreign Service. The Ambassador to England gets all the press when he arrives and departs every four years, but what matters is that the chargé d'affaires sticks around for 20 and keeps the port glasses washed and the secrets swept under the rug and the receptionist puts in 30 and doesn’t goober on the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

However, when a successful team’s traits run toward defensive anonymity, this advantage becomes a problem. It’s like palming off the Queen on the lavatory attaché because he’s been at the embassy the longest.

For a football team to have a solid body of work it needs balance over time. A team can be great offensively for a long stretch, but eventually they need to swing around to defense. And vice versa.

Consider the Rams. They offer up a smashing smorgasbord of all-time talent despite a middling record, because they alternated periods of stellar defense with decades of powerhouse offense. The Rams ping-ponged from the Flying Dutchman to the Fearsome Foursome to Ground Chuck to the Greatest Show On Turf. Over time, that’s going to play like D-Wade.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, offer Dan Marino backed up by Bob Griese on one side of the ball and Bill Stanfill backed up by Bob Matheson on the other. It’s like sitting on a teeter-totter with a blue whale. There’s no balance point nohow, no way.

Not that the Cardinals are immune from imbalance. They flip from Jim Hart backing up Kurt Warner to Tom Wham backing Leo Sugar. But the remaining supporting casts are stronger for the Cardinals. There’s more balance in more places. It’s one of the positive byproducts of hanging around for 50 more years than the Dolphins. No matter how bad your team is, there’s almost always someone good collecting a paycheck.

On to the game. There is no QB better at picking apart a secondary than Dan Marino. Unfortunately, there is only one other all-time secondary better than the Cardinals. They roll with three HOFers, including the prototypical modern cornerback and the inventor of the safety blitz, plus three high-quality backups in Pat Fischer, Adrian Wilson, and Jim Hill. They also turn up the heat with two of the better situational pass rushers in Jamir Miller and Simeon Rice (who suffered from being essentially the same player on the same team).

The Cardinals counter with a pretty good QB and some very good wideouts pitted against a defense that is challenged to pressure the passer and defend the pass. The result is several long, sustained, pass-heavy drives culminating in TDs.

The Dolphins counter—the Dolphins always counter – with some vintage Miami ball-control offense, but they simply have no answer for the Cardinals’ – wait for it – running game. The fact that the Cards can trot out five HOF runners, including three that double as passers, overheats the ‘Fins D like a Hupmobile in Death Valley, and Ronnie Brown’s wildcat is as potent as an MGD 64 on the rocks compared to a straight-T featuring Ernie Nevers, Paddy Driscoll, and Charlie Trippi operating behind a surprisingly strong line.

The Cards get the nod in special teams, too, especially when it comes to kick returns. Fulton Walker is a piece of lint compared to Terry Metcalf, Ollie Matson, Vai Sikahema, and Stump Mitchell. Meanwhile, Paddy Driscoll is the best drop-kicker ever.

One of the more tantalizing what-ifs in pro-football history is this: What if the Cardinals had ever had a good D-line – especially in the Air Coryell days of the ‘70s? They would have been seriously tough. As it stands, they were more than tough enough for this game. Warner goes 26-for-37 for 366 and two scores, Nevers scores two TDs from in close, and the Cards win 31-16. For the Dolphins, Marino goes 24-for-41 for 321, two TDs and two picks, but the running game generates only 117 total yards.

It’s hard for the tykes to grasp, but sometimes being old is sufficient. The Cards are old, and for this one game, that’s enough.

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