The Miami Dolphins are about to go through something the franchise has never experienced in its 41 years of existence: a real coaching search.
For a team that's about to have its fourth head coach (including interim Jim Bates) since November 2004, the Dolphins are oddly inexperienced at the art of finding a coach. Most of the time, the replacement was predetermined. From having Don Shula lined up before they fired George Wilson in 1970 to knowing they wanted Nick Saban after the 2004 season, the Dolphins have never gone through a traditional hiring process.
There have been some perfunctory interviews, such as listening to Bates and Art Shell in 2004 before making the run at Saban. There was also the interview that former special teams coach Mike Westhoff demanded in 2000 before assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt was elevated.
But when it comes to a full-on search, the Dolphins have never done one. Not in 1996, when Jimmy Johnson was essentially hired before Shula retired. Not in 2000, when Johnson flamed out, but managed to pass the torch to Wannstedt.
Now, the Dolphins are left to start over after Saban slinked off to Alabama after the first losing season of his career. Saban did that without facing up to the fans, players or even the coaches he hired. For a guy who preaches character, it was not a classy exit.
That said, the people who say Saban should have stayed miss one important point: If he didn't want to do the job, let him go. The faster, the better.
Of course, the popular notion is that the Dolphins are in disarray. Coming off a 6-10 season with an aging roster and a gaping hole at quarterback, that notion has legs. But if the Dolphins remain calm and sort through the issues that confront them, the solutions aren't that difficult. Between some smart in-house moves and a little patience, the Dolphins could easily put together a strong combination of people to get the team back to the playoffs, where it hasn't been since 2001.
Here's the plan:
- Step 1: Put general manager Randy Mueller in charge of personnel decisions and let him rebuild the depth of the roster. Mueller, whose talents were not significantly tapped under Saban, is an adept evaluator of talent. He showed that during his time with the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints.
At one point in time, Mueller acquired quarterback Jake Delhomme, Marc Bulger and Aaron Brooks – the last signal caller to direct New Orleans to the playoffs before this season. The Dolphins would do well to have somebody with that type of quarterback-picking savvy.
Mueller is also a sly negotiator in trades, as the Dolphins found out in 2002, when he traded running back Ricky Williams to them for what became two first-round picks. Furthermore, if given a chance to hire a coach, he could easily handle that with aplomb. However, that's unlikely to happen in the current power structure.
- Step 2: Try to hire the now-retired Bill Cowher, but be patient. Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga likes the idea of a CEO-type coach. Cowher is the only one who clearly fits the bill right now with his 15 years of credibility, including two Super Bowl appearances.
More important, Cowher's style fits with the Dolphins' philosophy and talent. The Dolphins use a 3-4 defense, which suits the talents of Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas and Channing Crowder. On offense, Cowher's belief in a strong running game accentuated by a vertical passing game would work well with running back Ronnie Brown, wide receiver Chris Chambers, tight end Randy McMichael and quarterback Daunte Culpepper, assuming Culpepper can return from injury next season. In fact, Culpepper is remarkably similar in style to Ben Roethlisberger, who fits Cowher's philosophy perfectly.
Finally, Cowher would have a smooth transition because defensive coordinator Dom Capers and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey both worked under him with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The problem is that the Dolphins can't afford to surrender multiple draft picks to acquire Cowher – who's still under contract with Pittsburgh – right now. This is not the same situation as what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were facing in 2002, when they worked out a deal to hire Jon Gruden away from the Oakland Raiders. The Dolphins are not in position to win a Super Bowl yet because they lack depth of talent.
Thus, the Dolphins may have to wait on Cowher. If that's out of the question, they need to get away from the CEO philosophy and find someone else. The top candidate out there is Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who would develop an offense similar to the one Scott Linehan ran in Miami in '05. Linehan's offense played to the strengths of Brown, Chambers and McMichael and was the best attack the Dolphins have had since Dan Marino left. Martz could also keep Dom Capers as the defensive coordinator, to give the team continuity.
- Step 3: Fix the quarterback. Of all the personnel issues the Dolphins face, there is none bigger than quarterback. That's true on any team, but particularly true in Miami because there is enough talent on the rest of the roster to make the team competitive while Mueller rebuilds.
While the Culpepper trade didn't work out this season (and its failure was accentuated by the success of Drew Brees in New Orleans), the Dolphins need to remain patient with him. He still has the talent to be a great player, he just needs to heal. He hit a roadblock last season physically, but there is still hope.
That said, the Dolphins shouldn't be shy about taking a quarterback on the first day of the NFL draft this year, perhaps in the first round. In short, the Dolphins need to have a failsafe if Culpepper doesn't return. This could be an interesting year for that, particularly if LSU's JaMarcus Russell declares for the draft.
Those are the primary steps and they all speak to the foundation of the team. While Dolphins fans and management can find other holes – such as the weak offensive line or lack of a great outside linebacker opposite Taylor – those types of holes are typical of any team. Even the contenders this year have drastic holes.
But general manager, coach and quarterback are essential problems. If there's a weakness in any one of those, a team has serious problems.
With all apologies to the many of you who sent letters the past few weeks, I didn't receive them until recently because of a technical glitch. As usual, there was a fine collection of letters making excellent points, such as me overlooking Saints wide receiver Marques Colston for Rookie of the Year (he was the clear favorite until he got hurt and Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young took off).
As usual, there were some silly points, such as the one reader who said I should never write about black quarterbacks because I'm white. There were also the usual idiots who write, "You've never been a player, so you shouldn't be allowed to write about them." By that logic, since 99.9 percent of us will never be President of the United States, I guess we should never write or say anything about his job performance, either. In fact, we shouldn't even be given the opportunity to vote, since we're so unqualified.
But I digress.
Since there were way too many letters to respond to, I'll deal with a few points.
- Where was Emmitt Smith? ("The 'greatest?' Not yet," December 15, 2006): Many of you chided me about not including Smith in my discussion of LaDainian Tomlinson of the San Diego Chargers and the greatest running backs of all-time. Smith is the leading rusher in NFL history and set the league touchdown record for a season at one point. Smith was great, but I don't put him in the class of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders.
To me, Smith is akin to Nolan Ryan in baseball. Ryan had fabulous talent, was the greatest strikeout artist of all-time, won 300 games, threw more no-hitters than anyone and was an amazing workhorse. But he wasn't the best pitcher of all-time and probably doesn't rank in the top five if you talk to baseball experts.
Smith piled up a lot of stats that are wonderful and his longevity should be saluted. He also won three championships, which is a testimony to his greatness. He'll be a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer. But I also think that a fair number of players could have done what he did playing with the talent he had around him for the bulk of his career. For instance, can you imagine Eric Dickerson as a Cowboy?
To me, what Brown, Payton and Sanders did in their careers is better than anyone because they were transcendent talents at their position. For instance, Brown quit at the top of his game as the leading rusher of all time. He also averaged 5.0 yards per carry for his career despite the fact that the NFL was completely a running league at the time and defenses were geared to stop him.
Of course, we could go on forever, but we'll leave it at that for now.
- Black quarterbacks ("Downside to athleticism," Dec. 21, 2006): There were some excellent and thoughtful letters, including one from Aria Alaudini of Columbus, Ohio. But I think a lot of people missed the point that offensive tackle Wayne Gandy of the Atlanta Falcons was trying to make. The result was a lot of "race card" remarks and the usual contradictory histrionics about how black quarterbacks are either overly criticized or not taken to task enough by the media because of their skin color.
Gandy's point is this: If you have a black quarterback, there is generally an expectation of athletic ability that changes the way people teach/coach them. This is a subtle point, but the results are dramatic. Furthermore, the same thing has played out with white quarterbacks who were great runners, such as Steve Young and John Elway.
Basically, the running ability has lured too many coaches into thinking they can do too much with a quarterback. Instead of teaching the art of passing the ball first, which leads to an efficient offense, the coaches and players lean too heavily on the running ability of a quarterback, which creates a lot of bad plays in tight situations, such as sacks.
Thus, you have quarterback Michael Vick in his sixth season, playing in his fourth different offense and he still isn't a great passer. Vick has the ability to throw the ball, but he still leans too heavily on his running ability. Is Vick to blame for that? He shares a lot of it because he hasn't taken the game seriously enough. However, Falcons management needs to understand it's also at fault for the approach taken with him.
- Quarterback ratings are meaningless (Also from "Downside to athleticism") Matt English weighed in on the previous subject, but made a final point of saying that passer rating is the best form of measuring the efficiency of a quarterback. By that measure, Vick was clearly substandard and Vince Young wasn't all that good.
Sorry Matt, and all others who look at passer rating as something of significance, but it's about as important as using ERA to measure the talent of a pitcher, or batting average to measure the talent of a hitter. It only measures one aspect (throwing) and doesn't account for numerous factors, such as sacks and rushing yardage for a quarterback.
Beyond that, passer rating and passing, in general, is usually influenced strongly by the talent around a quarterback. Here's a great example: Marc Bulger (St. Louis Rams), Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys), Carson Palmer (Cincinnati Bengals) and Philip Rivers (Chargers) all finished ahead of Tom Brady (New England Patriots) in passer rating this season. In fact, even Kansas City Chiefs backup Damon Huard, who used to be Brady's backup in New England, finished ahead of Brady. Huard qualified for No. 2 in the NFL this season based on his 244 throws, which featured a TD-to-INT ratio of 11-to-1.
But based on what everyone knows, would anyone take any of those guys ahead of Brady right now? Heck, even guys like Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts) and Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia Eagles) had higher ratings than Brady and it's a fair bet that the majority of NFL coaches would still take Brady over them.
THIS AND THAT
- The firing of Art Shell in Oakland and hip surgery for Rod Marinelli in Detroit likely mean that the two teams with the worst records in the NFL will not have a coach in the Senior Bowl. The NFL has recently had the worst teams serve as the staffs in that game. Most likely, Tampa Bay and the Cleveland Browns, which both finished 4-12, will get a chance. Increasingly, teams have liked the idea of coaching in that game because coaches get a chance to evaluate the players more closely.
- More on Saban: There are several assistants who worked under Saban with the Dolphins who are particularly angry with him. It turns out that a year ago, after Scott Linehan got the job with St. Louis, he asked quarterback coach Jason Garrett and wide receiver coach Charlie Baggett to go with him. Saban blocked the moves, as he was allowed to do under league rules. In the process, Saban gave them a lecture on how they should be committed and loyal to the Dolphins. That sounds pretty hollow these days.
- Huizenga may have forgiven Saban for leaving, but Huizenga is still pretty upset with the holdouts by running back Ronnie Brown and safety Jason Allen after they were the team's first-round picks in 2005 and 2006, respectively. "I'm not having that again," Huizenga said this week, echoing a remark he made last year. He then took his point a big step further. "That cost us big-time. Ronnie got hurt [in 2005] because he wasn't ready and Jason still isn't squared away," Huizenga said, referring to the fact that Allen was on the bench all year. "That's not happening again. If I have to bite the bullet to prove my point, I will. If they're not signed in time this year, they can sit out the whole year. I don't care, we're not having that again."
- Some interesting names have appeared on Arena Football League rosters for the coming season, including former first-round picks Peter Warrick, Troy Edwards, Chris Redman and Marcus Nash. But the most intriguing name could be quarterback Adrian McPherson, the former all-everything Florida high school athlete who was kicked out of Florida State for gambling and stealing. McPherson is playing for Austin after missing the past season with New Orleans because of an injury incurred when he was run over by a mascot in a golf cart. Oddity aside, McPherson is an amazing talent who is still trying to make up for all the time he lost in college.
- After Philly backup A.J. Feeley completed 22 of 33 for 321 yards and three touchdowns in the season finale against Atlanta, one Eagles executive joked how he might be able to trade Feeley again for another second-round pick. That's what the Eagles did in 2004, sending Feeley to Miami before he flopped there and ultimately returned to Philly. That second-round pick the Eagles received eventually became starting wide receiver Reggie Brown.
- To answer the question of a reader regarding where fine money from the NFL goes, the answer is charity. The league picks out a favorite charity to donate money, such as the $35,000 that wide receiver Terrell Owens was docked for spitting on Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall.
- It looked like the voters for the AP Defensive Player of the Year might have taken the argument to heart that San Diego's Shawne Merriman didn't deserve the award because he failed a steroids test. Miami's Jason Taylor won it after an excellent season. Fair enough. The interesting part is that Merriman finished a distant third, behind not only Taylor, but also Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. In fact, it could be argued that Bailey's season was overshadowed in the debate between Taylor and Merriman.