SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland was sitting in the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., in January, after a Senior Bowl practice, when he spoke admiringly about how the 49ers transformed from 6-10 in 2010 to 13-3 and within minutes of a Super Bowl last season.
“They’re an inspiration,” Ireland said. “They’ve got a good defense, a really good offensive line. They’ve got a new leader [Jim Harbaugh]. They needed new leadership and a new inspiration. That’s what you aspire to be. That’s what we would like to be next year.”
Eleven months later, as the Dolphins visit San Francisco on Sunday, the 49ers are serious Super Bowl contenders, and Miami (5-7) remains a lot closer to 6-10 than 13-3. So why hasn’t Ireland’s 49ers vision materialized, at least not yet?
Comparing their rebuilding projects and lessons to be learned:
### High picks: The 49ers were worse than Miami for a longer stretch: 46-82 between 2003 and 2010. That’s significant, because the 49ers got more high first-round picks than Miami -- six in the top 11 since 2005, compared with Miami’s four (Jake Long, Ronnie Brown, Ted Ginn Jr., Ryan Tannehill).
And though the 49ers erred by taking Alex Smith first in 2005 (Aaron Rodgers went 24th), they generally procured more impact players in the first round, when they often – but not always – picked higher than Miami.
The 49ers drafted elite tight end Vernon Davis sixth in 2006 (Miami took Jason Allen 10 picks later); All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith – who has 31.5 sacks in his first 27 games, most in NFL history - at No. 7 in 2011 (Pouncey went eight picks later); receiver Michael Crabtree 10th in 2009 (Miami took Vontae Davis 15 picks later); and right tackle Anthony Davis 11th in 2010.
Then there was the draft of 2007, when then-Dolphins GM Randy Mueller took Ginn at No. 9, and the 49ers followed with five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis at No. 11 and Pro Bowl tackle Joe Staley 28th.
Staley is rated the second-best left tackle by Pro Football Focus, compared with 46th for Long.
The irony is that the Dolphins dealt Ginn to the 49ers for a fifth-rounder (cornerback Nolan Carroll) in 2010. Ginn has been pretty good on returns but has just two catches for one yard in 2012.
And the jury is out on whether Tannehill (picked eighth in 2012) will be better than the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick (36th in 2011).
### Picks in the third round and lower: Both teams have done a good job with some of them. Miami plucked Paul Soliai, Reshad Jones, Brian Hartline and undrafted Davone Bess, among others. Soliai has been a Pro Bowler and Jones might be one soon.
But the 49ers found four Pro Bowlers in those rounds: linebacker NaVorro Bowman (selected 18 spots after Miami took John Jerry), safety Dashon Goldson (drafted long after Miami took John Beck, Lorenzo Booker and others), punter Andy Lee, and Frank Gore (65th), who proved far better than Ronnie Brown, taken second overall by Nick Saban that year (2005).
By the way, the 49ers’ fifth-round starting cornerback (Tarell Brown) has played much better than Miami’s (Carroll).
Also, in 2011, the 49ers took Kendall Hunter 115th, long after Miami took Daniel Thomas 62nd. Miami wanted a bigger back – and Thomas is much bigger than Hunter – so the move made sense. But Hunter has been the better pro, averaging 5.7 yards per carry before a season-ending injury; Thomas is at 3.6.
### Free agent pickups: Both teams made several good one between 2008 and 2010, including Justin Smith and Ahmad Brooks for the 49ers; and Cam Wake, Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby for the Dolphins. But the 49ers acquired more contributing players in 2011 and 2012 --- cornerback Carlos Rogers (a Pro Bowler last year), safety Donte Whitner, receiver Mario Manningham (41 catches, 449 yards) and Jonathan Goodwin (ranked seventh among all centers). Randy Moss (19 catches, 296 yards) has more touchdowns (two) than any Miami receiver.
The Dolphins added Kevin Burnett and Matt Moore in 2011 but nothing of value beyond Marcus Thigpen and injured Richard Marshall this year. In March, they passed on Manningham, who got a reasonable two-year, $7.4 million deal and would have given Miami a better top-three receiver group.
### Coaching: Players think highly of Joe Philbin, but he isn’t Coach of the Year in his first season, as previous Dolphins target Harbaugh was in 2011.
### Among lessons to be learned here: Miami cannot afford a second consecutive year of securing little from free agency, despite Philbin’s reluctance to dabble much. The league is too good, and the Dolphins have too many holes, to fix every need in the draft, where their record is spotty. The 49ers demonstrate how to supplement the roster selectively but effectively. The 49ers' depth is so strong that they haven't needed to use their 2012 draft class at all this season (until Sunday's game).
### Tannehill has only seven touchdown passes (on pace for 9.3), and for some historical perspective on how bad that is, consider: Elias tells us that since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only two quarterbacks have started all 16 games and thrown fewer than 10 touchdowns: Trent Dilfer (four in 1995) and David Carr (nine in 2002).
The fewest by a Dolphins quarterback (minimum 12 starts)? Bob Griese in 1970, with 12 in 14 games.
### A bad sign, with Aldon Smith awaiting: Nate Garner has allowed four sacks in his two most recent games playing tackle. And the 49ers don’t seem overly impressed with Jonathan Martin; Justin Smith calls him merely “serviceable.”
### Former Canes great Alonzo Highsmith says the NCAA is out to get UM. You certainly have to wonder from some of its actions recently, not only that threatening letter to former players, but also the fact they’re going on a fishing expedition by asking people – during interviews - whether UM followed rules regarding practice hours and whether staff volunteers violated rules by doing any coaching. What’s the justification for looking into that?
The NCAA essentially has used Nevin Shapiro’s claims as an excuse to investigate every aspect of the football and basketball programs. It even has asked people about Shapiro’s involvement with baseball (there’s no indication of any). By the way, the NCAA has not responded to a local attorney who told the NCAA that his former players would not speak to the NCAA but would not be admitting guilt by their silence.
### A person involved with FSU program confirms that Randy Shannon's name has been tossed around internally - along with others - for the Seminoles' vacant defensive coordinator. Shannon, the former UM coach, is TCU's linebackers coach..... As reported by CBS' Bruce Feldman, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins (Mississippi State) and Manny Diaz (Texas) are on FIU's radar for its head coaching job, unless Butch Davis suddenly decides to take the gig. Collins was formerly FIU's d-coordinator; Diaz is son of the former Miami mayor.
### Telling about the Heat’s defense: According to synergysports.com, the only Heat rotation player who is holding players he’s guarding to a lower shooting percentage than last year is Shane Battier. LeBron James is the same.
Players guarded by Udonis Haslem (who is playing more center this year) are shooting 54 percent, compared with 36 last year. With Chris Bosh (now exclusively at center), it’s 51 percent, compared with 36 last year. Mario Chalmers (victimized by repeated blow-bys) has jumped from 38 to 47, Ray Allen 33 to 47.
“Numbers wise, we have never had a defensive team this low,” said Haslem, who as team captain, said Friday he plans to gather players – without coaches – to discuss it.
He wonders whether exterior motivation is needed to snap them out of this. “This team performs best when people are not rooting for us," Haslem said. 'Maybe we can get back to being the most hated team in the world.”
### The Marlins, turned down by Jeff Keppinger, now will have to settle for a journeyman third baseman such as Ryan Raburn or Matt Downs or try to trade for one.