By John Turney
At first, Kim Bokamper was playing in what seemed to be an ideal position then, in 1980 or so a transition occurred and by 1983 he was seemingly in a defensive position that did not suit his body style and skill set. And while he performed admirably it just didn't work very well in our view.
Going back to 1976, when Bokamper was taken 19th overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 1976 NFL Draft, he had some bad luck when he missed his rookie season with a knee injury.
He was likely seen as a younger faster version of Bob Matheson—a player who could play linebacker and also rush the passer when needed. Matheson was the player, if you remember, that made the '53 defense' go, he was the player that allowed the Dolphins to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 using the same personnel because he had the skills to stand up and play 'backer or rush the passer at end from either side.
But he was 32 years old in 1976 so it was time to look for a replacement.
In 1977 Boklamber won the starting left linebacker spot and Matheson moved inside from right linebacker as the Dolphins moved from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base, but they still used a 4-man line in nickel and that fourth lineman was Bokampher at left end.
The right end was A.J. Duhe and both he and Bokamper were All-Rookie selections.
In 1978 it was business as usual except the defense improved and the Dolphins made the playoffs for the first time since 1974. Bokamper was excellent but as we mentioned in posts about some outside linebackers it was a crowded league in terms of talent so Bokamper didn't get any post-season honors for 1978. He did in 1979, making the Pro Bowl (his only one) but was healthier and made more big plays in 1978 than in 1979. But, that is often how it goes—a player has a big year, then gets recognition the year after.
As we mentioned Bokamper was a Pro Bowler in 1979 but in 1980 the transition was occurring.
Defensive end A.J. Duhe was not performing as well as he had from 1977-78 (he was hurt at the end of 1978) and in 1979 he was hurt again early in the year and lost his right end job to Doug Betters. In the 1980 camp, he couldn't win it back. So, as the verified story goes a sportswriter suggested to Don Shula that Duhe be moved to inside linebacker.
At first, Shula balked but then became intrigued by the idea an implemented it. The experiment began and it worked well. Duhe would play inside linebacker in base and sometimes 'dog' or sometimes cover (though he wasn't good at it yet) and in passing situations would play inside as a tackle next to Bob Baumhower or even outside and rush as an end or go off the field for a nickel back.
But this changed Bokamper's role. Duhe was doing many of the things Bokamper had been doing in the nickel defense and you could even see Bokamper playing some base 3-4 end which he could do if he had to, but it was not an ideal spot for a 6-6, 245-250-pound player.
The next season, in camp, Shula told the media that Bokamper was going to move from linebacker to being a situational player, a right defensive end in passing situations.
Bokamper told the media he was "glad" about the change that he could just play "fast and loose". Actually, it was Bokamper's wife who was more concerned about the change asking the obvious question "Why change when he's been so successful as a linebacker"? Duh.
The move was precipitated by the acquisition of Bob Budzinski from the Rams. The Dolphins paid a high price for him, a second-round and third-round pick plus a swap of second-round picks where the Dolphins took a lower one. In today's draft value chart terms, it would constitute a low first-rounder.
Since solid Larry Gordon was entrenched on the right side, where Brudzinski played for Los Angeles from 1978-80, Bru moved to left outside linebacker, where he did play as a rookie, albeit in a 4-3 scheme so that made Bokamper a defensive end.
Another change took place well. Doug Betters moved to left defensive end and veteran Vern Den Herder was to backup both ends and Bokamper was supposed to be the right end but his play versus the run, which Bokamper admitted was not good cost him the starting job and by week one Bill Barnett started and when he hurt his leg, eleven-year vet Den Herder became the starter.
That made Bokamper the designated pass rusher—coming in on likely passing downs. He also would also play some base 3-4 (to spell Den Herder) but he was essentially a third-down player.
|Late preseason Dolphins depth chart|
And in that role, he played well. Outside of Fred Dean, Bokamper may have been as effective a nickel rusher as there was in the NFL that year. It wasn't just the 7½ sacks but the pressure he applied when in the game. He played well in the 1981 playoff Dolphins-Chargers marathon recording two sacks and deflecting a pass.
However, one historic note is that with Duhe at linebacker and Bokamper at end Bill Arsnbarger expanded his zone blitz scheme, which we've seen short clips of him using in Baltimore in the mid-1960s. With Bokpamper he called it "zone to Bo" and he'd blitz Duhe or another linebacker (later on it was Charles Bowser) and Bokamper would drop back to fill that player's zone coverage responsibilities. Arnsparger thought that Bokamper's skill set would make this work better than it might with other players.
Bengals defensive coach Dick LeBeau noticed and began to implement it into his defenses and the popularization of the zone blitz spread. LeBeau credits Arnbarger as the original seed but LeBeau took it to new levels.
In 1982 his role was to be the same as the previous year but injuries once again felled Barnett and Bokamper filled in as a starter and he played very well, especially in the playoffs (four sacks, giving him 7.5 sacks in 13 games). The Dolphins' defense, especially against the pass, was stellar and the "Killer Bs" went to the Super Bowl, losing to Washington.
Bokamper had his shot at glory in the big game as he had tipped a Joe Theismann pass up and into his hands with the goal line right in front of him for what would have been a huge pick-six, but if "ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas." However, Theismann saw the play develop and reached into Dokamper's hands to knock the ball to the ground. It was a tremendous play by Theismann and Washington went on the seal the win.
From 1983-85 Bokamper was the starting right end in the Dolphins 3-4 defense, Bill Barnett was moved to a backup spot for all three linemen in those seasons. At right outside linebacker a young, fast Charles Bowser became an effective blitzer lined up behind Bokamper's right shoulder and he was essentially the blind side rush, at least in 1983 and 1984.
Before the Rams game in 1983 (which Bokamper missed with a sprained knee) Don Shula stated that Bokamper was playing the run better than he ever had, but that is the kind of thing a coach says when your right end has no sacks. Bokamper did make some plays in 1983—he finished the season with two picks, one going for a touchdown, forced a pair of fumbles, and had two sacks but it was not the stuff of a Pro Bowl end or even the production a team wants from a blind side end.
In 1984 he was again hurt, and finished with just four sacks but was part of the Dolphins Super Bowl defense. The next year it was more of the same—2.5 sacks, a forced fumble as he played less and less and by 1986 his NFL days were over.
Bokamper wanted to play in 1986, he told the media that he had tried to play the run tough but going through tackles and wanted to change that in 1986. He wanted one last hurrah if you will, but in late August he was waived. Bokamper simply said he gave it his all and he could "sleep at night".
Indeed he could.
We wonder, though, what might have happened if he'd stayed at left outside linebacker and been allowed to be the nickel end (either left or right) in the 1980s as he had been in the late 1970s.
He was really the first to do that in earnest. (It is often hard to know who did something first in the NFL, so we use the term "in earnest" to denote that the first time something was done a lot, it was a thing, not just a once-in-a-while gimmick). Later, plenty of guys like Andre Tippett and Kevin Greene did it a lot. Now, players like Von Miller and plenty of others do it. But in earnest, Bokamper was the first.
As a linebacker on the tight end side Bokampers 6-6 frame and long arms and 250 pounds were effective in stopping tight end blocks and in patrolling his side for sweeps, kind of like Ted Hendricks did - Bob Trumpy, telling a television audience that Bokamper was, "Absolutely unblockable. He has very, very long arms and you can't get to his body."
And as a rusher, he was effective and getting better as his 1981-82 success showed.
But that frame was just too small, and rangy ("an angular player" the scouts called him) to play a base 3-4 scheme. That had to have hurt his career.
Or, in the alternative, why not use him as a nickel rusher, like in 1981 and some of 1982? He was effective then, especially in the playoffs, and note also he'd been excellent in the playoffs in the late-1970s as well, a "money player".
We are not in the habit of questioning Don Shula and Bill Arnsparger and Chuck Studley but in this one specific case, they may have erred. They really didn't put Bokamper in a situation conducive to getting the most out of his skills.
No one is perfect.
Had Bokamper come out of San Jose State in 1969 or 1970, in a 4-3 era, he may have had a career like Fred Dryer or Pat Toomay. If he came out in the late-1990s he may have been a taller Grant Wistrom or Patrick Kearney or players like that. He'd been ideal as a 40 end in those eras.
And he was excellent as a strongside 3-4 linebacker who was a nickel left end who essentially pioneered that spot. And it was taken away—for some reason even Bokamper's wife could not understand.
Maybe Coach Shula should have listed to Mrs. Bokamper. She showed a lot of wisdom.