Those of us baby boomers who as kids anxiously awaited the arrival of the Sunday newspaper, so that we could crawl up into the lap of our father and have him read us the "funny pages," will recall Joe Btfsplk, the poor sap from the L'il Abner comic strip who walked around with an omnipresent black cloud hovering just above his head.
Fifty-some years after famed cartoonist Al Capp created Joe Btfsplk, it seems that the Miami Dolphins have collectively, and unwittingly, taken on his doomed persona.
Emerging for training camp from an offseason fraught with pratfalls, the Dolphins are Ziggy, the round, little guy of greeting card fame. They are the Poor Soul, as played by the late, great Jackie Gleason, an ensemble that could have filled up the credits in those old Sad Sack movies. Public relations impresario Harvey Greene, who annually dispenses the NFL's thickest media guide, might want to consider renaming the 2004 edition "The Book of Job."
In just seven months which have gone anything but swimmingly, the Dolphins have been transformed into potential guppies, the sudden and startling exit of weirdo tailback Ricky Williams on Friday perhaps relegating the club to bottom-feeder status in the AFC East.
And perhaps rendering coach Dave Wannstedt and general manager Rick Spielman the newest members of the NFL endangered species list.
They are good guys, the coach and general manager, solid football men. There aren't many guys around who have averaged 10 victories per year with their current team, as Wannstedt has done in his Miami tenure, despite failing to pilot the Dolphins into the playoffs for two straight seasons. Spielman puts in the long hours requisite to his job, and is a solid talent evaluator, although he might want a do-over on last year's decision to choose linebacker Eddie Moore over wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the second round of the 2003 draft.
One could probably argue, rather convincingly, that the Dolphins' two top football men have been victimized by the litany of looniness that transpired in the offseason, that they were merely passengers aboard the Titanic as it began taking on water. Point taken. But the departure of Williams demonstrated in some ways what a dysfunctional franchise the Dolphins have become, and revealed Wannstedt and Spielman as enablers of sort in what has been the worst offseason stretch in club history.
Five different times on Friday, a stunned Wannstedt spoke to Williams, who had phoned the coach in Naples, Fla., to essentially inform him that the next time the two crossed paths might well be in Naples, Italy. But it appears Wannstedt did not share the news of Williams' decision with his immediate superior, Spielman, or with the guy who signs his paycheck, owner Wayne Huizenga.
On Saturday morning, when Spielman returned a late Friday afternoon message left by a reporter on his office answering machine, he sounded like a man knocked back on his heels when the scribe asked if Williams had apprised Miami officials he was walking away from the game after just five seasons. Granted, it isn't hard to feign surprise over a set of fiber-optic cables, but the incredulity obvious in Spielman's voice was either real or a terrific act. And Huizenga -- who, appropriately enough made his first fortune in waste disposal, and now sees his team perhaps headed to the scrap heap -- was said to be uniformed as well.
Some business paradigms would contend that it is best to limit knowledge of potential disaster to a select few in the management hierarchy. In this case, it appears that the only people who knew on Friday that the Dolphins could soon be turned into chum were the head coach and those in close proximity to him as he screamed at Williams on the phone. The loop was a purposely tight one and now, alas, could become a noose.
Maybe after operating for four seasons as the Dolphins' football major domo, Wannstedt forgot there is a new management flow in the organization. Or maybe he simply felt he could contain the situation. No matter the rationale, the incident demonstrates a basic lack of communication. It's doubtful anyone else in the Miami management model could have sweet-talked Williams into a change of heart. But once Wannstedt grasped the gravity of the situation, the people who count should have been made aware of his conversations with the reluctant tailback.
Yeah, even in football, good results begin with good communication.
In the case of the Dolphins, then again, not even the most renowned linguist ought try to translate the wackiness that has ensued for months.
There was the audible called by Dan Marino only days after he had agreed to become the vice president of football operations. And the extended search for a general manager, a hunt that ended with the promotion of Spielman, an in-house guy. Miami traded for quarterback A.J. Feeley and he might not be as good as Jay Fiedler, the man that they want him to replace. Offensive coordinator Joel Collier, shuffled into the job when Norv Turner left to coach the Oakland Raiders, had to resign the position, citing exhaustion. Williams failed a second league drug test for marijuana. Tight end Randy McMichael was charged with smacking his pregnant wife.
Long before Williams decided he wanted to commune with hut people, and travel the world wafting on the wings of a self-produced purple haze, the Dolphins had somehow gone from fish-functional to dysfunctional. Despite the strong and positive message from Wannstedt at a Sunday news conference, if you're a Dolphins fan, you've now got to ask yourself this question: How can a franchise that couldn't make the playoffs with Williams the past two years hope to qualify for the postseason while he is out earning frequent flier miles instead of his earning his $3.735 million salary?
Their public façade aside, you can bet Spielman and Wannstedt, whose futures could be ultimately determined by how they and their team respond now, have asked themselves that question a time or two in the past 48 hours.
For years, Williams talked about reaching the top of the mountain. He forgot to alert anyone, until Friday at least, that he was talking about Nepal.
Truth be told, though, when a guy elicits pleasure from sticking blunt chunks of metal through anatomical parts, maybe no one should be surprised when he takes a time-out from body piercing, and instead drives a figurative knife into your heart.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.