Each week between now and the Super Bowl, Marc Sessler will scan the NFL landscape for people, places and things -- events both evil and just, noble and impure, delightful and inglorious filled with wise men and anti-heroes -- that burn bright on his radar.
Here's this week's briefing:
You know the one: that inglorious rundown of starting passers pushed onto the field to fill the shoes of some long-ago-vanished city legend who tugged the franchise into the playoffs when George Bush 1.0 roamed the White House.
Cleveland's shadow was cast by Bernie Kosar, a gangly, hyper-accurate and brainy signal-caller who guided the Browns to three AFC title games -- but a player the average 20-something has no concept of. Baker Mayfield has put that narrative to bed, but the weight in Miami is something else entirely, with the memory of Dan Marino hanging over a team that hasn't won a playoff game since Y2K, the season following Marino's retirement.
That postseason victory came with Jay Fiedler under center, a mostly forgettable 23-17 wild-card win over Indy that saw the Miami quarterback chalk up 185 yards with a touchdown and three picks. The Dolphins showed their trust in Fiedler by handing the ball to Lamar Smith 40 times. One week later, the 'Fins were incinerated by Jon Gruden's Raiders, 27-0.
Ever since: Total darkness of the mind.
For two decades, Dolphins fans have toiled in a nightmare-scape doubling as the black mirror to Tom Brady's unprecedented glory run in New England. While Patriots fans bask in a never-setting sun, Miami faithful have been asked to fork over non-counterfeit American greenbacks to watch a post-Marino list of flingers that began with Fiedler before giving way to Damon Huard, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, Gus Frerotte, Joey Harrington, Daunte Culpepper, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck, Jango Fett, Chad Pennington, Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Moore, Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler and Brock Osweiler.
Today, 31 other teams have a veteran or rookie they view as the answer under center. Every franchise in the league believes it has checked the most important box in professional sports, save for a Miami-based cadre that -- from what I can see -- is already peering beyond Josh Rosen.
This is the organization that snubbed Drew Brees twice, bypassing the future Hall of Famer in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft in favor of cover man Jamar Fletcher, who started six games for Miami, because the club felt comfortable with Fiedler. The 'Fins then infamously opted for a post-prime Culpepper over Brees in 2006, severely limiting their trajectory while helping to change the fate of the New Orleans Saints forever.
This is why general manager Chris Grier matters as much as any Dolphins executive this century. You don't have to like Miami's process -- plenty don't -- but you cannot dismiss the welcomed presence of a long-absent master plan. Yes, it's costly/risky to give away your promising young left tackle, but Laremy Tunsil netted Grier two first-round picks (in 2020 and 2021) and a second-rounder (2021). The deal included wideout Kenny Stills and a dabble of later-round selections heading back to the Texans, but -- bird's-eye view -- this is not unlike the haul Oakland received from the Bears for Khalil Mack.
Dolphins fans should look approvingly upon this brand of business. In the Age of Belichick, well-run organizations stockpile picks and increasingly lean on trade activity while tapping free agency to fill gaps with cap-friendly veterans.
* * * **
CUT TO: Houston, where coach Bill O'Brien spent Saturday absorbing 10,000 slings and arrows from Twitter-based wit-crackers for mortgaging Houston's future for a left tackle after handing away Jadeveon Clowney for a wet bag of rice.
Both moves are killable. Clowney, a ferocious backfield exploder with juicy pass-rushing talents was moved to Seattle for a third-round pick plus so-so quarterback chaser Barkevious Mingo and linebacker Jacob Martin. This move weakened the Texans and magnified an elongated and flubbed negotiation process with Clowney that ended in screaming failure.
Tunsil and Stills immediately make the Texans better on offense. Quarterback Deshaun Watson finally has a reliable blind-side protector, but the move doesn't wholly repair a line still dotted with issues. I'd love to hear the conversation between O'Brien and fill-in general manager Chris Olsen as they happily agreed to give away their next two drafts for an offensive lineman. Would Houston sit in this position if O'Brien, in place since 2014, had unearthed a starting left tackle in one of the past six drafts?
Forced to scramble, O'Brien -- in mere hours and with amazing precision -- turned himself into the NFL's most polarizing figure. I can appreciate his majestic weekend as a case study in power gone awry; a less-harmful Caligula hellbent on tossing checks and balances into the sea. O'Brien is operating almost exclusively from Coach-Brain: Maximize for Week 1 -- the nearing battle -- and let the future health of the team take care of itself. Good luck selling prospective front-office candidates on the rubble left behind. Houston's dealings can be spun positively or negatively depending on the desired perspective, but I like how Robert Mays put it:
Running through the halls of a GM-free complex, O'Brien has thrown technique out the window. When he picks up the phone, years of team-building how-to manuals perish in a book burning of the mind. All the decades seem lit up.
From another angle, though, I vastly enjoy the narrative. O'Brien's determination to unleash a total eclipse on pundits is enjoyable. Twitter unspooled into wordy lakes of disdain for O'Brien, but he pressed on -- trading for RB Carlos Hyde.
There is a mad free-thinker among us. O'Brien has become one of football's more compelling characters, accomplishing his newfound status with the flair of a king desperate to leave his mark. He is the edgemaster we asked for.
Hot-and-bothered analytics types want him scattered to the wind, but O'Brien will not play along. He has become the story, and if football loses its narrative quality -- replaced by numbers and figures and grades -- it dies.
* * * **
Back to Miami.
No two teams are alike, but Grier's in-play paradigm is a nod to what Sashi Brown pulled off in Cleveland. Like the Browns before them, the Dolphins are now set to embark on a torturous, grisly ride through the regular season -- likely multiple regular seasons -- that will sit in stark, lightless contrast to the annual (and somewhat ponderous) rite of Mercury Morris and friends popping champagne bottles to rah-rahs over the '72 Dolphins remaining the only undefeated team in league lore.
With four first-rounders, four seconds and potentially three third-round picks over the next two drafts, there will be no settling for the second coming of Jay Fiedler. Miami is the clubhouse favorite to finish with the worst record in football this season (and maybe next), but if they wish to climb the draft board, they've stuffed the cupboard with the requisite firepower to land the quarterback -- and replacement left tackle -- of their dreams.
The caveat is clear: Grier and friends must prove they can gather players as quickly as they collect draft picks. In Cleveland, lingering perception that Sashi's scouting acumen was lacking cost him the job. Brown also lost the power struggle with a toxic coaching staff led by Hue Jackson, something Grier and his front-office group must monitor in Miami.
New coach Brian Flores will absorb weekly fire as the frontman for a bare-bones roster set up for failure. Grier is asking for extreme patience from a staff left wondering if they'll survive the growing pains -- and from a flock of veteran players who didn't sign up for a lengthy rebuild, no matter how intellectually stimulating the process might be to basement-dwelling bloggers and football heads.
The concerning preamble to Saturday's Tunsil swap came in the form of a report from the Miami Herald, in which a source told Adam Beasley "the backlash would be amazing" if the star tackle were shipped away, adding: "Guys would legit revolt."
This is one of the more spellbinding rebuilds in sports, but it won't come without its share of frustration and critique from within. If the Dolphins can mimic Cleveland and, two years from now, roll into the season with a franchise quarterback, the next Myles Garrett, a 12-pack of promising first-contract players and their version of the Odell Beckham Jr. pickup -- then all of this will be worth it.
Either way, Grier's vision won't be sleep-inducing, which is more than we can say for the past 20 years of Dolphins football.