MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – The three men stood and smiled at halftime for fans, each likely thicker around the midsection than most of the Miami Dolphins' faithful remembered. Bob Griese grinned and pointed at the Hall of Fame ring that Don Shula was slipping onto his finger. Dan Marino steadied the iconic coach with an extended arm. The stands showered applause onto the trio that had created so many indelible Dolphins memories.
It was a touching moment, this halftime celebration with the cornerstones of one of the NFL's crown jewel franchises. But halftimes end, and what came after this one was Miami's disappointing 24-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Missed opportunities and a mediocre offense gave Dolphins fans their latest dose of the reality that has taken root in Miami. Much like wrinkles digging into the faces of the icons, the best days of this franchise are looking older and more weathered by the year.
All of which leads Miami to this offseason, and one of the most important decisions since Marino was plucked in the 1983 draft. With a talented roster that is largely set and a salary cap that is showing stretch marks in the near term, team owner Stephen Ross can't afford to miss on his next coaching hire. Not after a deacde of resets by the team – from Cam Cameron to Tony Sparano to Joe Philbin. This time, Ross needs the proven commodity. He needs the Super Bowl winner. The quarterback whisperer. The visor.
He needs Sean Payton.
While there may be other job openings on the horizon with younger quarterbacks or better short-term cap situations or better stadiums, none of them have the big stage potential of Miami. None of them are as ready to win in 2016 with the right tweaking. And none of them have an owner with the ear of Bill Parcells, who remains a close friend and adviser to Payton.
Of course, this would cost. After reporting that Payton could be exiting the franchise this offseason, someone from the Saints reached out to tell me it would be "comical" to suggest New Orleans would let him leave for nothing. So there would be compensation involved in reeling in Payton. But in this case, with the personalities on this Miami roster, it makes the investment worthwhile.
If years ago Ross was willing to "go big" as some reported for the likes of Jim Harbaugh or Jeff Fisher or Peyton Manning, then there's reason to believe he'll do it once more. Particularly given the talent Miami has on hand, and especially considering it might have a quarterback who needs only some top-shelf coaching.
This would be a big gamble on a big investment, but that puts Ross in territory that is familiar and comfortable. After all, he is the real estate magnate whom Forbes once dubbed: "The Billionaire Who is Rebuilding New York”. Securing the right architect for these Dolphins after the Philbin mistake is a drive through the park … on a bulldozer … clearing out an old duplex in favor of high-rise condominiums.
None of this is to disparage Dan Campbell. At 3-3, he has beaten some bad teams but also showed that the roster wasn't being pushed and challenged. He added some enthusiasm and energy, although mistakes weren’t erased. That's why a coach like Payton, with experience and success at the highest levels of the game, is necessary. Sure, there are other big names that could be pursued. Some might suggest a run at Tony Dungy or Bill Cowher, but nothing suggests either is looking to leave the comfort of the television studio. Jim Harbaugh would be a massive coup, but it's hard to disbelieve him when he says that his heart is committed to the University of Michigan.
After that group, who is worthy of being handed the keys? Jim Schwartz has rapport with Ndamukong Suh, but brought little discipline to his teams as a head coach. Todd Haley has a fine offensive track record as a play-caller and can develop young offensive players, but his style grinds on players quickly. Doug Marrone? He quit on the Buffalo Bills in hopes of greener pastures.
New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is bound to come up, too. He has had some engagement with several franchises in the past two years, including the Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers. He has revived a potential head coaching candidacy after a lackluster stint with the Denver Broncos where he failed to replicate huge success without Tom Brady or Bill Belichick.
But consider that McDaniels had some sizable relationship issues with multiple players (Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Peyton Hillis, Tony Scheffler, etc.) and burned through a defensive coordinator (Mike Nolan) in one season. There's also floating around that unflattering video of McDaniels screaming profanity at his Broncos offensive line. And lest anyone forget (and most have), he was fined $50,000 by the NFL after a team employee illegally filmed a San Francisco 49ers walkthrough in London. McDaniels allegedly never viewed the video, but the NFL said he didn't notify the league in a timely fashion, either. That's a lot of drama in a head coaching career that spanned only 28 games before his firing.
Of course, he's not the only assistant who will be a hot commodity. Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has done great things this season and went 8-8 in a one-year stint with the Oakland Raiders (which really was an accomplishment). The Atlanta Falcons' Kyle Shanahan has worked wonders with quarterbacks in multiple franchises and has been an offensive coordinator for eight seasons. His name and family genes also make him a splashy hire. The Chicago Bears' Adam Gase has been impressive in a short span and is making Jay Cutler look somewhat viable again as an NFL starter.
But other than Jackson and McDaniels, none of those guys have head coaching experience. It's unknown how skilled they are at managing the personalities of an entire roster or navigating a relationship with a personnel executive like Mike Tannenbaum. That latter point will be important, too, because Tannenbaum is sure to have a big thumbprint on this decision. His deepening role in franchise decisions could even make Eric Mangini – a Tannenbaum friend – a potential candidate.
It's a wide field with plenty of candidates. None look as attractive or experienced as Payton. And while others might come cheaper or without draft-pick compensation, is this the time to get cheap, when the salary cap is going to be pushing $150 million next season and the time is now to figure out whether quarterback Ryan Tannehill is on his way up or down?
Payton has the experience to check off all those boxes. And he's going to have the ability to look around. While there will be plenty of openings, few have Miami's lineage or stage. And even fewer have an owner who is tied in with some of the people Payton respects most.
Too much time has passed from the greatest eras of Dolphins football. Ross has a chance to change that now. He has to seize the opportunity, and make sure a halftime visit with aging icons isn't the best thing the Dolphins have to offer.
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