MIAMI -- From a luxury suite at Dolphins Stadium, the coach with the most victories in league history -- and the only sideline general in the modern era of the NFL to shepherd his team to an undefeated season -- watched a debacle unfold.
The private vantage point from which Don Shula witnessed the New England Patriots' 49-28 dismantling of the hapless Miami Dolphins on Sunday, the first game Shula attended this season at his old workplace, included every creature comfort imaginable.
But you have to wonder what was more uncomfortable for the Hall of Fame coach: Watching the Patriots in their relentless pursuit of perfection and perhaps joining Shula's 1972 Dolphins as the only unblemished teams in modern history? Or seeing the once-proud Dolphins franchise that he helped build to lofty heights in South Florida continue its spiral toward the most imperfect season in NFL history?
Dubious Decisions In '07
There are three primary mechanisms for acquiring players in the NFL -- trades, free agency and the draft -- and the Dolphins appear to have made questionable decisions in each category this season:
• TRADE: After pursuing Trent Green for two months in trade talks, they completed a deal with Kansas City for the 14-year quarterback in June. In exchange for a fifth-round draft choice, Miami got a player who was supposed to solidify a position that has been in flux since Dan Marino retired following the 1999 season. But Green, 37, suffered a severe concussion for the second consecutive season and was placed on injured reserve last week. In the six games he played, Green wasn't particularly effective, throwing five touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
• FREE AGENCY: They signed nine-year linebacker Joey Porter after he was released by Pittsburgh, whose personnel department doesn't make many mistakes in assessing its players. Miami awarded Porter, 30, a five-year, $32 million contract. The return on that investment so far: 25 tackles and one sack. Team officials have pointed out that Porter, who generally played on the weak side in Pittsburgh, is aligning at strongside linebacker now and not being asked to rush the quarterback as much. Still, he hasn't made any real impact in terms of big plays.
• DRAFT: Despite a foot injury that scared off several other teams, Ohio State wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. was drafted with the ninth overall pick, a choice roundly criticized by Dolphins fans. The jury still is out on Ginn, who will get a lot more playing time now, after the trade of Chris Chambers last week. Ginn has averaged 20.0 yards per catch, but he has just six receptions and is not as polished a receiver as many felt he would be. He is averaging 24.6 yards on 29 kickoff returns and has 10 punt returns for an average of 7.3 yards. He has yet to score a touchdown.
-- Len Pasquarelli
Shula has not commented publicly on the feeble state of the Dolphins, whose poor play will be exported this week when they face the New York Giants in London, the NFL's first regular-season game overseas. But some members of the Dolphins' undefeated 1972 Super Bowl VII championship team can no longer bite their tongues.
"Pathetic" and "ridiculous" were the terms employed by Hall of Fame middle linebacker Nick Buoniconti in an interview with The Miami Herald earlier this week. "Embarrassing," declared former running back Jim Kiick. Added ex-defensive tackle Manny Fernandez: "It's just sad."
Indeed, at 0-7 for the first time in franchise history, and with talk the Dolphins could become the first 0-16 entry in league annals, it is a sorry state of affairs. And not even the most senior members of this season's team dare attempt to portray the current situation as anything other than bleak.
"We're just not very good right now, especially on [the defensive side]," assessed middle linebacker Zach Thomas, the longest-tenured Dolphin at 12 years. "I mean, we can't even play right now with the mediocre teams in the league, let alone with a great team like [the Patriots]. They were awesome and we were awful. ... It just isn't pretty right now, is it? You can say, 'Well, if we just keep grinding, work hard, it will get better.' But it isn't getting any better.
"It's bad. ... And I really don't know how you fix it."
Adding injury to insult for Thomas, the feisty linebacker's 2007 Mercedes was rear-ended on his way home from Sunday's game. Thomas missed two games earlier this season because of a head injury sustained in Week 2's game against the Dallas Cowboys, and now he's sidelined for the London contest due to whiplash.
Such is the mounting misfortune of the Dolphins that they could lose a key player to a mishap suffered during a seemingly innocuous fender-bender.
"You name it, and it's happened to us this year," 11-year defensive end Jason Taylor said. "Everything that could go wrong, it seems, has gone wrong. There's been injuries, inconsistency, whatever."
And now, it seems, could come ignominy. Because this is, by most standards, a deplorably bad Dolphins team.
Despite a respectable No. 15 ranking in the league statistics, the offense is anything but explosive. Cleo Lemon, a lifetime backup quarterback, now is the starter. Chris Chambers, the most capable receiver, was traded to the San Diego Chargers last week. And star tailback Ronnie Brown, arguably the team's one bright spot, was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered against the Pats.
The loss of Brown came on the heels of the announcement that quarterback Trent Green, who was supposed to stabilize a position that has been in flux since Dan Marino retired in 1999, is gone for the season, victimized by a second concussion in two years.
The defense, which looked good in training camp and was being counted on to play well until the offense of first-year head coach Cam Cameron caught up, has gotten old very quickly. There isn't much team speed on the unit. And injuries have ravaged what little depth existed. Miami has started five different safeties, and last week, the Patriots abused fifth-year veteran Cameron Worrell, a guy signed as a free agent in the spring to play special teams but now forced into the starting lineup.
How desperately do the Dolphins need safeties? On Wednesday, they signed free agent Lance Schulters, who played for Miami in 2005 but wasn't in an NFL training camp this summer. But he did meet two critical criteria. The nine-year veteran played for defensive coordinator Dom Capers in 2005, so he is familiar with the scheme. And he has a passport, so he could make the trip to London this week.
Noted one Miami player, who asked not to be identified: "This is what it's come to around here. For us right now, 'continuity' means we sign a guy because he was here a couple years ago.
"It's pretty desperate."
In fact, continuity is a prized element the Dolphins have not possessed, at least not in very healthy doses, of late. Cameron is the team's fourth head coach since Shula retired in 1995, and that does not include the interim stint of Jim Bates, who took over for the final seven games in 2004 after Dave Wannstedt resigned. Nick Saban, of course, infamously fled back to the college ranks after just two seasons.
Maybe it was more than the $4 million a year contract that lured Saban back to the college ranks. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the talent base in Miami had eroded to a dire level. The team, after all, has not been to the playoffs since 2001 and has not won a postseason game since 2000. The last time the Dolphins appeared in a conference championship game was 1992.
"That's hard to believe for a franchise of this [stature]," Brown said Sunday afternoon while standing on crutches. "You think of the Miami Dolphins, and you think of winners."
Not right now you don't.
What must make all of this difficult for owner Wayne Huizenga to swallow is that he's the kind of owner for whom "football people" love to work. He writes the checks, gets out of the way and allows the people he hired to run the football operation do their jobs. But the people he has hired have perhaps been poor decisions on his part. Certainly, those people have made poor decisions.
Through The Decades
Here's how the Dolphins have fared since 1970, when Don Shula became the head coach:
Consider Saban's choice of defensive back Jason Allen in the first round of the 2006 draft. Allen was a player recruited by Saban in high school, and although Allen opted to attend Tennessee, Saban remained familiar with him from their SEC ties. One would think Saban would know Allen's strengths and shortcomings. Apparently, he didn't.
Scouts weren't sure whether Allen was a safety or a cornerback. Indications are that he is neither. Less than two years into his NFL career, what Allen most appears to be is a bust.
Of course, the Dolphins aren't alone in misjudging first-round picks. But consider this nugget from Sports Illustrated's Peter King: In the six drafts from 1998 to 2003, Miami had 59 choices. It exercised 46 of those picks and used 13 other choices in trades to acquire veteran players. Remarkably, none of the players from those drafts is on the current Dolphins roster.
"You know what I'm shocked about?" Buoniconti said. "How the Patriots make all the right decisions and how the Dolphins make all the wrong decisions."
Typically, Buoniconti and other members of the '72 Dolphins annually gather and pop a bottle of champagne when the last unbeaten team goes down and Miami's unblemished record still stands alone. Given the brilliance of the Patriots in 2007, it might be a long time before they break out that champagne. And as far as toasting the 2007 edition of the Dolphins, well, a bottle of rotgut will be more appropriate than Dom Perignon.
Certainly for some Miami players, the events of this season have already been pretty tough to swallow.
"It hurts," Taylor said. 'We've got a lot of issues that ... well, I won't even get into them.
"But it's pretty bad."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.