What follows is a purely fictional account, a horror story of sorts about a league where Jeff Fisher is still a head coach, the Browns are almost a dynasty, and the Rams briefly taste success with Sam Bradford under center.
Suspend your disbelief and join me as we trip through the rabbit hole and into a world where one decision in January 2012 changes the course of no fewer than five NFL franchises, temporarily reversing the fate of some of the league’s most notorious losers.
Jan. 3, 2012
A helicopter lands on the 50-yard line at an empty Sun Life Stadium. Three men hop out — Dolphins owner Stephen Ross; Carl Peterson, an advisor to Ross; and a third man with wraparound sunglasses and a feathered mullet unruffled by the chopper’s spinning blades.
It’s Jeff Fisher. He’s just wrapped up a handshake deal to become Miami’s next head coach, never taking the meeting requested by the St. Louis Rams.
Ross outbid Rams owner Stan Kroenke for Fisher, luring him to South Florida for a cool $8 million per season on a four-year deal. It seems like a lot of money for a coach who’s never won a Super Bowl, hasn’t had a winning season since 2008, and whose last playoff win came in January 2004.
But that’s totally more the fault of the Titans being a disaster of an organization, right? Fisher’s a blue chip NFL coach, with 17 years experience and a .542 record.
Jan. 13, 2012
On top of Fisher, the Rams tried to get Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher, too.
In the end, they to settled for Aaron Kromer, the New Orleans Saints offensive line and running game coach. He’s not the brand name Kroenke wanted to get for the Rams, but surely Kromer, who’s been coaching NFL offenses since 2001, can turn around the league’s worst scoring unit and make Sam Bradford into the superstar the Rams have been banking on.
It’s a new day for the Rams!
March 4, 2012
“This team can win a Super Bowl with Chad Henne,” Fisher tells the press after announcing a new three-year, $45 million contract for the veteran quarterback.
March 12, 2012 — The Trade
Cleveland strikes first, before Washington*, sending over a trio of first-round picks, including first-rounders in 2013 and 2014 along with the No. 4 pick this year. The Browns also surrender their second-round pick this year, No. 37.
*It’s impossible to separate narrative from fact when it comes to Fisher during his hey day. Narrative says that the Rams traded the No. 2 pick to Washington, in part, because of Fisher’s relationship with Mike Shanahan. The Browns reportedly had an identical offer on the table for the Rams’ No. 2 pick.
The Browns take Robert Griffin III with the second pick. Duh. They also manage to hang onto the No. 22 pick that year, which they send to Washington along with some later picks to move up to No. 6 and draft Alabama running back Trent Richardson.
There’s finally hope in the Dawg Pound, real hope, that a franchise turnaround is imminent.
But those aren’t the only dominoes to fall in the draft that year. Having wrested control over the Dolphins’ personnel department early on, Fisher sets his eyes (smartly concealed behind breakaway blade-style sunglasses, even in the draft room) on LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, despite the team’s relative strength along its defensive front.
In the second round, Fisher is convinced to scoop up Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill, before the rival Jets can get him. He’ll be the perfect replacement for Brian Hartline, who Fisher jettisoned in free agency. A few more defensive players and running back Robert Turbin (instead of Lamar Miller), leaves Fisher smiling when the draft ends.
“This is a 10-win team, at a minimum,” Miami’s head coach promises hungry fans.
The rest of the draft pretty much unfolds like you’d expect. The Rams are able to get a steal on Day 2 with Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden. Sure, Bradford’s on the road to recovery, but juuuuuust in case, it’s good to have a blue-chip prospect like that behind him.
One more big domino falls early in the first round. The Bills use the 10th pick to take Texas A&M passer Ryan Tannehill. He can hold the clipboard for Ryan Fitzpatrick that year, and take some time to learn the pro game, so the thinking goes anyway. College football fans are stunned that the NFL can be so screwed up as to see franchise QB talent in Tannehill.
Rough start for the Dolphins
It’s a tough way to start the season, but Fisher has the Dolphins ready to go. They narrowly lose a tough road game to the Houston Texans, the AFC South favorites.
“I sure didn’t see the holding on third-and-6 on that drive in the fourth quarter. And I’m not here to make excuses. If the officials get that right, we convert and come away with points on that possession. Again, that’s not on the refs though. I’m real happy with this team,” Fisher says after the game.
The Rams, having used some of the draft capital acquired in the RG3 trade to bolster the offensive line, eke out a crucial win over the Lions. The ageless Steven Jackson runs for 90 yards and a touchdown.
The real star of the show is rookie running back Lamar Miller, the Rams‘ fourth-round pick. He’s Bradford’s most productive target in that game, executing beautiful wheel routes and taking one to the house in the fourth quarter that proved to be the winning score.
Perhaps the most surprising result from Week 1 was turned in by the Browns. RG3 proves to be every bit as exciting as we figured he would be. Thoroughly confusing the Eagles defense with the read option, he rushes for one touchdown and throws two more on the way to a 40-17 thrashing.
Trent Richardson is a non-factor in the win.
The Rams head into their bye week looking every bit like the new team we thought they could be. Bradford is finally throwing the ball down the field more than five yards at a time, and the offense is averaging more than 25 points per game.
St. Louis isn’t the only surprise team with a shot at the playoffs. The Cleveland Browns look unstoppable with RG3 cruising. Through the first nine weeks of the season, they’ve got a 6-3 record. Three of those wins came against AFC North opponents, a sweep of the Bengals and a split with the Ravens, the only team in the division that looks capable of competing with Pat Shurmur’s squad.
In the luxury suites, the team‘s new owner Jimmy Haslam is seen smiling and high-fiving his front office minions. The league‘s chattering classes whispered he’d never be able to bring stability to the Browns, much less build a winner, but the standings offer the perfect retort.
You have to look hard to find many smiles in Miami. But at 4-4, Fisher feels good about where his team is at. He reassures fans and the media that they could easily by sitting at 6-2 right now, if not for a handful of flags referees failed throw and the learning curve faced by his young team.
The future looks bright in St. Louis
The injury bug finally bites the Rams, again. Bradford goes down with a torn ACL in a win at Buffalo. They manage to finish the season with a 10-6 record, and thanks to splitting their series with the 49ers and the Seahawks, they edge Minnesota for the final wild card berth in the NFC.
Weeden does not prove to be the backup they thought. A four-interception performance in a humiliating Wild Card Round loss to the Packers leaves the Kromer and GM Les Snead wondering if they need to be aggressive looking for a veteran quarterback on the free agent market that spring.
But still, 10 wins and a playoff appearance is quite a turnaround for a team that looked lost and hopeless just a year before. Kromer wins Coach of the Year, beating out Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers.
There’s only person in St. Louis disappointed by the results: owner Stan Kroenke. Leaving the dreary fringes of the Rust Belt for Los Angeles is going to be that much harder to do with a playoff team on his hands. With a twirl of his villainous mustache, Kroenke mutters to his right-hand man that it’s back to the drawing board.
.500 finish for Miami
Fisher’s Dolphins finish 8-8, but as the coach reminds the friendly faces at the NFL Network, it really should’ve been 10-6, if not for a couple errant flags he didn’t agree with and his young team just needing a little more seasoning.
He’s also headed into the spring thinking about quarterbacks. Chad Henne underwhelmed, but Matt Moore put together a nice three-game run filling in after Thanksgiving. His 59 percent completion rate, 4:2 touchdown/interception ratio, and 88.0 QB rating made a positive impression on Fisher.
The start of a Browns’ dynasty?
RG3 wraps up the Rookie of the Year award with ease. More impressive is the Browns’ 11-5 finish. Griffin’s heroics delivered a thrilling win over fellow rookie phenom Andrew Luck and the Colts in the first round of the playoffs. But holes in the team’s secondary were exposed by Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Divisional Round.
But there’s a lot to be hopeful about in Cleveland. Except for Trent Richardson, a non-factor in the Browns‘ miracle turnaround.
The Super Bowl is a wild one that year. Tom Brady got the best of Peyton Manning in the playoffs again that year in the AFC Championship. But Bill Belichick and the Patriots are confused by what Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick throw at them in the big game. The 49ers win their first Super Bowl in almost 20 years. Kaepernick is named MVP.
2013 and beyond
Fisher gets fired in Miami, but it totally wasn’t fair, per league sources.
A young team and officials conspire again the next season against Fisher’s Dolphins. They finish 7-9. He stands on a convincing Week 10 win over the Patriots as a clear sign of progress.
“We’re close, real close. I feel better about where this team’s at than any other squad I’ve coached,” Fisher sells the media at his year-end press conference.
But despite drafting more even defensive linemen and spare part running backs in the next two years, Fisher never gets the Dolphins better than the 8-8 record in his first season there. After a 4-12 finish in 2014, he’s fired.
A string of articles surface that January about what really happened in Miami. Citing well-placed anonymous sources, the MMQB and NFL Network both tell the story of a coach who never really got a fair shake, who was never really left to do his job and build a football team in Miami. It wasn’t his decision to sign Chad Henne to that big extension, and it wasn’t his decision to stay with Matt Moore as long as he did when there were perfectly good options like Case Keenum and Shaun Hill the coach would’ve preferred.
While the playoffs unfold, Miami again finds itself in a two-team race for the hottest head coaching candidate on the market, Rex Ryan. They easily outbid the Bills. Things are looking up for the Dolphins.
The wheels come off in Cleveland.
Hot on the heels of their surprising 2012 season, the Browns start the next year even better than the most optimistic fans could have imagined. RG3 is on a blistering pace, a sure-fire MVP, and the Browns are 5-0.
That’s when it happens. Chased out of the pocket in a Week 6 game against the Lions, Griffin pays the price for still not having learned to slide. It’s a torn ACL and MCL. His season is over, and so are the Browns’ playoff hopes.
By the middle of the 2014 season, when RG3 is finally ready to return, the Browns have lost the magic. Griffin just isn’t the same player he was before he got hurt, and an impatient Haslam guts the team’s leadership. Meanwhile the FBI is breathing down his neck for a fuel rebate scam at his truck stop company that he totally, totally didn‘t know about.
Mike Pettine gets one year to make it work in 2015. It doesn’t. A year later, they’re able to entice Chip Kelly to take the head coaching job. Despite the high-profile addition of Nick Foles, the Browns can‘t break six wins under Kelly. He’ll be back in college, coaching at UCLA, in two years.
The Rams finally get their man ... and a new home.
Bradford is still healing from torn ACL when the season starts in 2013. The team‘s marketing department tries to make the best of a bad situation, rolling out a clever campaign that summer built around the slogan “Weeden‘s Winners.”
By Week 5, internet forums have done a little rebranding of their own. “Weeden’s Wieners” are winless through the start of November. By the end of the season, tickets to a Rams game at the Edward Jones Dome can be had for as little as $3 a pop.
The only one who’s happy with the results is Kroenke, whose plan to relocate the team appears to be back on track. But he’s going to need a little help to get over the finish line.
Kromer is fired after the 2013 season. Rob Chudzinski accepts the Rams job in January 2014, but he’s only going to last a year. With Fisher available, Kroenke can finally have his man.
Remember, it wasn’t Fisher’s fault he coached such a mediocre team, per league sources. This is Jeff Fisher we‘re talking about, after all. There’s a brilliant coaching mind behind those breakaway sunglasses. But it’s not his commitment to the soft zone defense that intrigues Kroenke. He hires Fisher in 2015 with one mission: “get this team to Los Angeles.”
And it works. With a lot of help from the NFL and the promise of a glorious new stadium in Inglewood — complete with studio space for the NFL Network! — Kroenke is able to weasel out of his commitment to St. Louis.**
Despite their history in the city, the Memorial Coliseum is a lonely place for the Rams‘ inaugural season there. Fisher, a USC alum and Southern California native, fails to electrify the crowds with his team’s second straight 7-9 season, one in Missouri and one in L.A.
It will get better, Fisher promises, once his young team matures a little bit and they recover from the experience of moving across the country.
By the time the 2016 draft rolls around, Fisher can feel the heat, despite his stylish, very breathable fishing clothes. He knows the team has to do something bold that year as an act of good faith for the fans, especially with premium ticket sales for the new stadium just around the corner.
So he pulls off a blockbuster trade, dealing his way up to the middle of the first round to land the franchise quarterback this team’s been looking for since Bradford’s knees turned into butter.
A day after making the trade, Fisher isn‘t even breaking a sweat under the bright lights of the cameras at the press conference. Why should he be worried?
Christian Hackenberg is going to be the most exciting quarterback Southern California has seen since Norman Van Brocklin.
Frightening, isn’t it? Fortunately, this is only fiction. But there’s a lesson here.
You can fire coaches, change quarterbacks, turnover a roster, and even move a team to a different city. But there’s always another Jeff Fisher lurking, waiting to be pulled up through nepotism masquerading as meritocracy by an owner guaranteed to make a billion dollars no matter how much his team stinks.