The Miami Dolphins' slide to the bottom of the NFL began on March 8, 2002.
That's when they gave up two first-round draft picks for Ricky Williams. They got 3,225 yards rushing from him in two seasons before he ``retired,'' then got himself suspended for marijuana use.
Now the Dolphins are 0-6, a floundering team without the solid starters those picks might have brought, and without much hope anytime soon to become the annual playoff contender they used to be, even in a league where up-and-down is the norm.
``If you look at our roster, you've got a lot of disparity,'' coach Cam Cameron said this week.
``There's not a lot in between. You've got a lot of young guys, and then there's a core of veteran, older guys. ... We know we've got some holes to fill. Philosophically, the philosophy of building through the draft, the only way you can do that is with draft picks.''
The Dolphins are one of two winless teams.
The other is St. Louis, which won a Super Bowl after the 1999 season; went back to the title game two years later; and has been at least a playoff contender until this season, when the bottom fell out.
Their awful state is due in great part to injuries. Orlando Pace, Marc Bulger and Steven Jackson, three of their best players, have been out. But they've been fading gradually for the past few years, partly because of front-office squabbling and (see Miami) bad drafting in an eternal quest for defensive players that has turned up few of them.
Up-and-down has been a fact of life in the NFL for the 15 seasons since the advent of the salary cap.
``There are a couple of teams who seem to stay at the top and a couple of teams that seem to stay at the bottom,'' says Mickey Loomis, the New Orleans general manager. ``Then there are the rest of us. Up one year and down the next. That's the NFL.''
Loomis runs a team exemplifying that. It was 3-13 in 2005, went to the NFC title game last season, and started 0-4 this year before winning in Seattle last Sunday night.
Right now, the couple at the top are New England and Indianapolis, able to stay there because they have the game's two top quarterbacks and because they draft and sign players who fit their schemes so well. Credit the Colts' Bill Polian, and Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli of the Patriots for that.
Detroit and Arizona have been at the other end, but look this season like they're coming out of it. Miami and St. Louis have taken their place - the Rams, perhaps, for the time being and the Dolphins for a while.
Here's a look at how the two winless teams got here:
One problem has been a lack of clear direction in the front office.
The Dolphins have had several superstar coaches, from Don Shula through Jimmy Johnson and then two years of Nick Saban. All had total control, a concept that rarely works, except in New England, where Belichick has Pioli to handle the scouting chores.
So Miami has had relatively weak drafts. DB Jason Allen, the top draft pick in 2006, has just made it to dime back, not the progress you want out of a first-rounder in his second year. This year's first-rounder was speedster Ted Ginn Jr., who is not a polished route runner as a wide receiver and was thought by most experts to be a reach.
In a strange twist, the Dolphins' general manager is now Randy Mueller, who was the Saints GM who traded Williams to the Dolphins. Dave Wannstedt, then Miami's coach, was the party of the second part and said if Williams rushed for 1,500 yards in 2002 ``that would put us in the Super Bowl.''
It didn't. Williams gained 1,853 that year and the Dolphins went 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
Wannstedt, a defensive coordinator, not a personnel guy, fell into the same trap that Mike Ditka did when he gave up the Saints' entire 1999 draft for Williams with the idea that a running back can carry a franchise. Just look at Minnesota, currently 2-3 even with rookie RB Adrian Peterson leading the NFL with 607 yards rushing. That's a pace close to 2,000 for the season for a team that will have a good year if it's 8-8.
Meanwhile, Miami's defense, its strength for the last decade, is aging fast.
It has names - its front seven, for example, includes Jason Taylor, last season's Defensive Player of the Year. But Taylor is 33, DL Vonnie Holliday is 31, and DT Keith Traylor is 38. One linebacker is the talkative and injury-prone Joey Porter, signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh. He's 30, and middle linebacker Zach Thomas, the glue of the unit, is 34.
Other than 29-year-old Will Allen, a mediocre cornerback, the rest of the defense is very young - that gap Cameron described. No wonder the Dolphins are allowing 30 points a game.
On offense, they dealt their best wide receiver, 31-year-old Chris Chambers, to San Diego this week for one of those needed draft choices. Last year's leading receiver, Wes Welker, was traded to division-leader New England last spring after the Patriots signed him to an offer sheet as a restricted free agent.
But the real problem is quarterback, a hole that's existed since Dan Marino retired after the 1999 season. Cameron decided to let Daunte Culpepper go and brought in 37-year-old Trent Green, who two weeks ago went down with what could be a career-ending concussion. Cleo Lemon is the interim and it won't be long until it's tryout time for John Beck, this year's second-round pick.
Yes, it's injuries. Pace is one of the NFL's top offensive tackles, Jackson one of the league's best running stars and Bulger a very good QB. There also have been offensive line injuries besides Pace.
But the Rams' problems have been on defense over the past few seasons in a descent from 12-4 in 2003 to 8-8, 6-10 and 8-8.
That's the result of bad draft picks.
In 2001, for example, the Rams had three first-rounders and used them on two defensive tackles, Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis, plus safety Adam Archuleta. None has been better than average and none remains with the Rams. Same for linebacker Robert Thomas and DT Jimmy Kennedy the next two seasons.
Instability at the top is one reason. Charlie Armey, who put together the Super Bowl teams, was eased aside by Jay Zygmunt, more a money man than a football man. Dick Vermeil left as coach and Mike Martz, who took over, squabbled with Zygmunt and team president John Shaw.
Martz, who got one of those ``genius'' tags as offensive coordinator of the 1999 Super Bowl winners, took that tag to heart, one reason why the Rams' defensive draft picks haven't come close to the ones on offense. He was fired after the 2005 season and Scott Linehan took over. In his second year, Linehan already is in trouble because of injuries and defensive problems.
Fair? Of course not.
But that's the NFL.
DIRTY DOZEN. The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play.
1. New England (6-0). Any argument?
2. Indianapolis (5-0) See above.
3. Pittsburgh (4-1). Mike Tomlin already is suggesting his team might belong with the above two.
4. Jacksonville (4-1). Decent shot at beating the Colts on Monday night.
5. Dallas (5-1). Stayed with the Pats for 2 1/2 quarters.
6. Green Bay (5-1). Two straight shaky games for Brett Favre.

27. New York Jets (1-5). Season about gone. Chad Pennington might be, too.
28. Buffalo (1-4). And a QB controversy to boot.
29. Denver (2-3). Two plays from 0-5.
30. Atlanta (1-5). It's Byron Leftwich's turn to get battered.
31. St. Louis (0-6). Injuries to blame for only part.
32. Miami (0-6). Need more players in their prime. See above.

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