The helicopter hovered high over the Miami Dolphins' practice field, a conspicuous symbol of owner Stephen Ross' wealth and his desire to bring the NFL's hottest head-coaching candidate into the fold. And Jeff Fisher, a man who once parachuted out of a copter to join a Tennessee Titans practice, got the message loud and clear.
Fisher, according to a source familiar with his thinking, left South Florida on Tuesday with stone crabs in his stomach and a very positive impression of Ross and the Dolphins' organization. He is scheduled to spend Wednesday and Thursday interviewing in St. Louis, where Rams owner Stan Kroenke has also targeted him as a top head-coaching candidate, and he may still be in the mix in Jacksonville (where the Jaguars have an opening), Indianapolis (where Colts coach Jim Caldwell is still employed after a front-office shakeup) or even Dallas (if Cowboys owner Jerry Jones goes against his recent public assurances that coach Jason Garrett's job is safe).
Yet make no mistake – the Dolphins are putting the hard sell on Fisher, and their efforts have been largely successful. The biggest potential obstacle to a deal between the two parties may be Kroenke (or, if he were so motivated, Jones) blowing him away with an even more compelling pitch.
Forget all the noise out there about Fisher, who left the Titans last January after a 16-plus season run, being primarily motivated by the presence of a franchise quarterback or insisting upon personnel control. His most important consideration is his comfort with an organization and a belief that its ownership is motivated to win and aggressively focused on that goal – and Ross, during Fisher's recent visit, made a convincing case.
Was Tuesday's helicopter ride partly responsible? Well, yes and no. Fisher has been aboard military choppers in Iraq (as part of an NFL-sponsored coaches tour) and obviously isn't going to be swayed solely by the superficialities of recruiting.
Conversely, Fisher couldn't help but juxtapose Ross' five-star treatment with the no-frills approach of his former employer, Titans owner Bud Adams. Fisher, remember, coached the franchise from its move to Houston (as the Oilers) to Nashville, with an interim stop in Memphis. The team played home games in four different stadiums from 1996-99 and at one point operated out of sparse, temporary trailers.
Fisher flew on Adams' private plane when he accompanied a Titans delegation to the Hall of Fame induction of current Tennessee coach Mike Munchak in 2001, but it was hardly a common occurrence.
What is it with Ross, coaching searches and aircraft, anyway? Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland famously took the owner's private jet to California last January to meet with then-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, even though Dolphins coach Tony Sparano was still employed, creating a public relations nightmare.
Harbaugh ended up taking the 49ers job, and Ross and Ireland returned to conduct an awkward press conference at which the owner apologized for his treatment of Sparano and announced that he had given the coach a two-year contract extension. Sparano was fired in December after the Dolphins' record dropped to 4-9 in his fourth season and Todd Bowles was named interim coach.
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To outsiders, the current search has also appeared clumsy, with Ross' close confidante, longtime Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson, participating in Fisher's interview but, according to nfl.com, absent for those of Bowles and Chicago Bears special teams coach Dave Toub.
However, this seems to be a reflection of the franchise's overriding desire to bring Fisher into the fold, and if they land him, Ross and the organization will be vindicated.
In addition to coming away with a favorable impression of Ross, Fisher believes he could easily work with Peterson – who may accept a formal role of team president in the near future – and Ireland, the team's holdover GM. He goes way back with both men. Ireland, in fact, was an 11-year-old ball boy at Chicago Bears training camp in 1981, when Fisher was a rookie defensive back.
Fisher, who spent much of 2011 season watching NFL game tapes, was highly impressed by the talent on the Dolphins' roster among other things. And while the Dolphins still have an unsettled quarterback situation, this is not a deal-breaker for Fisher. Contrary to some reports, he is not 100-percent sold on the Rams' Sam Bradford as a franchise quarterback, either.
Besides, given the Dolphins' desire to enter into a long-term arrangement with Fisher, and his track record of stability as the Titans' coach, such considerations are not preeminent. Instead, Fisher wants to feel as though he is part of an atmosphere where success is expected and encouraged, and he craves an owner whose commitment is unwavering.
Among the reasons for Fisher's departure from the Titans, three weeks after Adams had announced the coach would stay on in 2011, was a disagreement over the makeup of his staff. Fisher believed he'd been assured upon agreeing to return that certain assistants could be brought aboard, including his son, Brandon. When he was later informed that ownership had balked at such an arrangement, Fisher felt misled and betrayed, and the process of negotiating his buyout commenced.
Brandon Fisher, incidentally, spent this season with the Lions as a defensive coaching assistant. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, a former Titans defensive coordinator under Jeff Fisher, glowed in November about Brandon's talents, describing him as a "rock star."
Still, the Rams remain an intriguing option for Fisher, who has a favorable opinion of Kroenke. The organization's chief operating officer, Kevin Demoff, is the son of Fisher's longtime agent, Marvin, and it's likely that Fisher – were he to take the coaching job – would have a strong say in the hiring of the team's next general manager. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is still under contract despite the firing of head coach Steve Spagnuolo and the rest of his staff, would seem to be a poor fit with Fisher, who believes in a power-running attack.
At this point two other teams with coaching openings, the Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, do not seem to be in the market for his services. The Jaguars' search has been more deliberate than that of the Rams and Dolphins, making a successful run at Fisher less likely. Fisher would also seem to be an intriguing option for Jones, his former colleague on the NFL competition committee, should the Dallas owner decide to make a play. Earlier this week Jones said he "unequivocally" supports Garrett, who went 8-8 in his first full season as the team's head coach.
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If Jones did decide to reverse course and make a run at Fisher, it would be tricky, as he would also need to interview a minority candidate to comply with the Rooney Rule. The Dolphins have already satisfied that requirement by interviewing Bowles, and they appear to be poised to enter serious negotiations with Fisher, if and when he decides that they are his preferred destination.
In the meantime, literally and figuratively, Ross and his operation are flying high in the coach's mind.
As for what's on my mind, here are this week's queries, and a top-to-bottom referendum on the 12 teams still playing:
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6. New England Patriots: How crazy is it that none of their 13 victories came against a team with a winning record – and will that absence of quality competition come back to bite them in the playoffs?
9. Detroit Lions: Can Louis Delmas return to help keep a struggling secondary from being carved up Drew Brees – or, for that matter, could Dick Jauron, Lem Barney and Night Train Lane in their primes?
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12. Cincinnati Bengals: Given the Bengals' inability to stop Ray Rice – and most running backs they faced over the second half of the season – could Arian Foster and Ben Tate have 100-yard games on Saturday?
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- Jeff Fisher