Dan Le Batard: Talent, math and a lot of luck separate Patriots and Dolphins

The Dolphins and Patriots find themselves in vastly different positions Sunday, as usual, and here is but one snapshot that helps explain why:

In the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the Dolphins picked two spots ahead of the Patriots. They selected Koa Lisiate Foti Analeseanoa Misi, who joined the Morlon-Greenwood-Channing-Crowder assembly line of Dolphins linebackers who collect millions of dollars over many years without ever making a play anyone in Miami remembers. Two picks later, of course, the Patriots selected tight end Rob Gronkowski, who only has more touchdown receptions (37) than anybody in the entire sport since that draft — ahead of even record-breaking Calvin Johnson, who is second with a mere 33, and ahead of Johnson even though Gronkowski hasn’t even played in the past five games.

In other words, Gronkowski has as many touchdown receptions in the past three years as Wes Welker does in his entire career, at least in part because Welker wasted some of that career here, with only one touchdown catch as a Dolphin to show for it. Welker’s funniest Miami memory was moving in next to an old-man neighbor who asked him what he did for a living. Welker told him he played professional football for the Dolphins. The old man looked him up and down and spit, “No wonder we were 1-15 last year.” Anyway, point is that Welker has been really great for the Patriots in a way he never was here, averaging an absurd 111 catches a season over six seasons, but Gronkowski has somehow produced just as many touchdowns as Welker in half the time there.

So what happened in that 2010 draft? It is a question worth asking today as the rebuilding Dolphins prepare to enter the offseason with more and better picks than the Patriots. If the gap between these two teams is ever going to close, the draft is where it’ll have to happen, and next to nobody in the contaminated South Florida fan base trusts Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland to use those picks correctly. Was a Dolphins team desperately in need of playmakers dumb or unlucky in that second round of 2010? Or are the Patriots just that much smarter than everyone else?

How they compare

Human beings crave control and understanding, even when those things are often just soothing illusions. In sports, this leads us to assign magical powers to the leaders who happen to win, as if they have some secret the rest of us losers don’t. Oracle Bill Belichick allegedly sees things. The idea is that if Belichick and Ireland were putting the very same prospect through the very same workout, Belichick would be able to identify fortune-telling clues that would escape the attention of Ireland.

This is nonsense, of course, and we’ll look back at these mysticisms one day the way we do at Greek gods, but Belichick has something that feels like proof in his past whereas Ireland has little more than a distrust that the Dolphins have spent a decade earning. Here’s an amazing stat: Tim Tebow has won more playoff games in the past calendar year than the Dolphins have in the past 12. In terms of fortune-telling, that has a way of making Ireland look like the guy in gypsy-wear charging five dollars for fortunes at the flea market, Belichick versus Ireland feeling like Nostradamus versus Nostradumbass.

But this probably is worth noting, too: The one time since 2004 that the Patriots didn’t make the playoffs was when quarterback Tom Brady was injured and out for the year. Not coincidentally, that is also the one time since 2004 that the Dolphins did. And by the admission of everyone in the Patriots front office, they simply got lucky on Brady. Scott Pioli, formerly Pats player personnel man, used to keep a photo on his desk to remind himself that he isn’t actually any smarter than guys such as Ireland. The photo was of offensive lineman Dave Stachelski, whom the Patriots selected a round before Brady in that draft. He never played a down in the NFL.

In Common

It is an oversimplification to give Brady all the credit for this decade-long run of the Patriots, especially since Belichick discovered and groomed him, albeit in the sixth round (and even though Belichick didn’t actually play Brady until Drew Bledsoe’s lungs filled with blood). But it is also impossible to overlook that so many of those who have been near this alleged Belichick magic dust, and have been hired as empire-builders because of their proximity to the magic dust, seem to misplace it with every step they take away from Brady.

The flameouts of Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel and Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini and Pioli suggest that whatever you learn from the master oracle is not repeatable elsewhere, in places that don’t have Brady. If Gronkowski had been drafted by Miami, does he somehow look more like Anthony Fasano? That seems ridiculous on the surface until you consider this: Davone Bess has had not one, not two, but three seasons in Miami better than any Welker ever had here. But Welker went to New England and, very suddenly, became the first receiver ever to produce five 100-catch seasons.

Brady has this way of making personnel errors on offense not look like errors. Peyton Manning has that same ability. It is why the Colts always would hit on their offensive draft picks.

Tony Dungy guessed that, in a Peyton Manning offense, a tight end that was a shopping cart with an attached mannequin arm would gain 500 yards and have five touchdowns. (The offensive tackle, of course, would have to push the cart into its routes, and it might have a fumbling problem.)

But, as Ireland is dismissed as a bum not to be entrusted with Miami’s bountiful future, it seems clear that this “ability” to find good players in the draft might not be much an ability at all. The perception is that Belichick is combing the beach with a metal detector and a map while Ireland is armed with only a spork, but there is an amazing randomness to finding these buried treasures.

The third round of 2009 brought football LeSean McCoy and Mike Wallace while the Dolphins were selecting Pat White a round earlier. Ignoring that also ignores this: Before getting Gronkowski, Belichick tried to get that kind of tight end weapon for Brady for a decade, and in the first round no less, missing on Daniel Graham and Ben Watson (though Watson was merely average instead of a bust).

Heck, in the first three rounds of Belichick drafts, you’ll find a lot more failed Terrence Wheatleys and Shawn Crables and Marquise Hills and Chad Jacksons and Adrian Klemms than you will Gronkowskis. The perception is that Belichick stockpiles draft picks so he can use his super-secret powers to find value late where others can’t see it, but the truth is that Belichick knows there is very little science to picking Lotto numbers, so he is just tilting the math in his favor by buying more tickets, giving himself more chances to get lucky. Helps, too, that he already won the lottery once, and at the game’s most important position.

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