Miami Dolphins

A deep dive on how only one ill-timed win truly can set an NFL franchise back a decade

Western Pennsylvania folk lore insists that the Steelers dynasty began with a flip of the coin.

Truth is, that’s only half right.

Yes, a won coin toss before the 1970 draft awarded Pittsburgh the No. 1 pick — and the right to take quarterback Terry Bradshaw — over the Chicago Bears after both teams finished with identical records (1-13) the previous fall.

But the only reason that long-since phased-out tiebreaker was needed? Because the Bears beat the Steelers 38-7 during the regular season.

The Bears, had they lost that game, would have by all accounts taken Bradshaw, who went on to win four Super Bowls in a Hall of Fame career. Instead, they still haven’t found a comparable quarterback all these years later.

So it’s fair to say the history of the NFL changed on that November afternoon five decades ago in Pittsburgh — although no one knew it at the time.

A half century later, another superstar college quarterback is expected to go No. 1, with teams (at times literally) tripping all over themselves for the opportunity to draft him.

That’s why Tua Bowl I, as future generations of Dolphins fans might know it, is as important as you think.

The loser of Sunday’s Dolphins-Redskins Battle of the Beatens will have the inside track on that top pick, and the right to draft Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.

Obligatory disclaimer: There’s no guarantee Tagovailoa will be star, but the odds are good. The Senior Bowl’s Jim Nagy believes he’s a taller Russell Wilson with better field vision and anticipation.

Hall of Famer Steve Young said on Adam Schefter’s podcast that he sees a lot of himself in the fellow lefty.

“One hundred percent,” Young said. “Size-wise. Mobility-wise. How he throws the football. Honestly, it really feels familiar when I see him play.”

The Dolphins would take either. Each would be a huge upgrade over anyone they have had since Dan Marino.

But as Ed McCaskey — the late Bears executive who fatefully called heads when he should have called tails all those years ago — can attest, it might take a winless season to get the job done.

The Dolphins (0-4) currently have a 72.7 percent chance to earn the No. 1 pick, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Redskins, who are 0-5 and just fired their coach, have the next-best chance at 10.3 percent.

Yet those odds would change dramatically if the Dolphins, who are 3 1/2-point home underdogs, pull off the upset.

And the nerves of thousands of fans — and maybe even a few key people within the organization — will start jangling.

For good reason. There are plenty of examples in the modern era where a single game — and to put a better point on it, a bad win — has changed a franchise’s fortunes in dramatic ways.

It happened twice in the ‘90s:

First in 1992, when a 10-6 Seahawks road victory over the Patriots was ultimately the difference between picks 1 and 2 for both teams.

The Patriots took Drew Bledsoe, a four-time Pro Bowler and the league’s leading passer in 1994, with the first overall selection. He went on to be New England’s most accomplished quarterback until a guy named Tom Brady came along.

As for the Seahawks, they were left with Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer. He lasted just four seasons in Seattle and threw 50 touchdowns to 76 interceptions in a forgettable pro career.

History repeated itself again five years later.

The Chargers’ 16-point victory over the Colts helped Indianapolis secure the top pick and Peyton Manning, who might be the best regular-season quarterback in NFL history. He retired a two-time Super Bowl champion and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible in 2021.

As for the second quarterback off the board? Another bust — and this one even bigger than Mirer.

Ryan Leaf was San Diego’s pick at 2, and he was a disaster. He would play just three NFL seasons — including two with the Chargers — before crashing out of the league. He threw a grand total of 14 touchdown passes in his career — or as Patrick Mahomes would call it, a pretty good month.

So with a similar fate possibly awaiting the Dolphins, it’s fair to examine just how far back those picks set back the Seahawks and Chargers.

Seattle went six seasons without a winning season and 12 without a playoff victory after taking Mirer. The pick probably got Tom Flores fired, and maybe Dennis Erickson after him.

But that’s a success story compared to what happened to the Chargers, who lost an average of 11 games in the six seasons after taking Leaf.

Now if you’re tempted to argue these are the exceptions, and not the rule, a couple more examples to keep in mind:

What if the Raiders never had the chance to take JaMarcus Russell, who along with Leaf is on the list of greatest draft busts?

Oakland picked first in 2007 only because the Browns beat the Raiders the previous fall. If not, the Lions, who took Calvin Johnson at 2, would have picked first, and the Browns, who selected Joe Thomas at 3, would have picked second. Would Cleveland or Detroit, who each landed stars and avoided a disaster in Russell, have taken the troubled LSU quarterback if given the chance?

What if Bortling never became a verb?

Blake Bortles is the bumbling quarterback the Jaguars reached for at 3 in 2013. But would Jacksonville have passed on Jadeveon Clowney and taken Bortles first overall, if the Jags had not swept the Texans, but instead been swept by Houston?

What if the Browns lost to the Titans in 2015?

Would they have wanted to do business with the Rams, which gave up a haul for the right to draft Jared Goff? And the same goes for the Titans at 2. Would they have been satisfied with the package offered by the Titans for Marcus Mariota?

And what if the Cardinals didn’t have the No. 1 pick back in April? Would Kliff Kingsbury even be Arizona’s coach? (He and Kyler Murray seemed to have been a package deal.) So it’s not crazy to imagine that, had the Raiders not beaten the Cardinals 23-21 last fall (giving Oakland, not Arizona, the first selection), Josh Rosen would still be with the Cardinals and not in Miami.

In the height of irony, no player will have a bigger say in the Dolphins’ success (or failure) over the season’s last 12 weeks than Rosen. He wants to be the Dolphins’ starter long-term.

And with enough wins, he might give Miami little other choice.

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