Dolphins lead way in coaching gaffes

BY Alex Marvez • January 12, 2011

As the NFL head-coaching carousel spins, Stephen Ross has done the impossible.

He’s made Miami Dolphins fans yearn for what now seem like the halcyon days of H. Wayne Huizenga.

During 16 years of team ownership, Huizenga regularly tried copying different NFL management models to win a Lombardi Trophy only to experience diminishing returns. Under his tenure, three of football’s most respected head coaches — Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban — didn’t sniff a Super Bowl before leaving ignominiously.

By the time an exasperated Huizenga began divesting himself of the team in 2007, the Dolphins were headed toward a 1-15 season and had pressed the reset button once again by hiring Bill Parcells to run the show.

Three years later, the franchise is in free fall once again. Only this time, Ross is the boss.

Having assumed full control from Huizenga in the 2009 offseason, Ross recently faced the first major crisis of his ownership regime. He failed miserably.

Over the past nine days, Ross has caused more mayhem than the guy from the Allstate commercials ever could. Ross let head coach Tony Sparano twist in the wind for most of last week while personally pursuing one potential replacement (Jim Harbaugh) and having his minions contact another (Bill Cowher). After being shunned by both, Ross gave Sparano a two-year contract extension worth a reported $6 million.

Like that blood money is going to make everything better.

Once it became known that Ross thought he could do better, Sparano was emasculated. He is now painted as a fall-back option, especially because Sparano doesn’t have a history of NFL head-coaching success. No type of revamped contract can earn Sparano respect from a dispirited fan base or Dolphins players who already were starting to grumble after two straight 7-9 seasons.

Ross also created what may be an insurmountable wedge in the working relationship between Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland.

This mess trickled into an awkward news conference last Saturday when Ross publicly tried to explain the mess he created while Sparano and Ireland sat uncomfortably at his side.

“Not until after I read the newspapers did I realize the anguish I’d put Tony through,” Ross said. “I’m not familiar with going through this process, but I never thought it would be national news. I was a little naive.”

Just for kicks and giggles, let’s take Ross at his word. Let’s pretend that a 72-year-old, New York City-based billionaire socialite who added an “orange carpet” for D-level celebrities to sashay down at Dolphins home games had no clue as to how the media works. Let’s pretend that none of Ross’ close confidants — Ireland, Parcells or ex-Chiefs president Carl Peterson among them — tried to tell him the potential fallout if Harbaugh or Cowher couldn’t be signed. Let’s even discount Ross’ callousness in not realizing how Sparano would personally feel by shopping his job to others.

Had he truly learned a lesson, Ross wouldn’t have made the situation even more toxic by later giving his two cents on Xs and Os.

But that’s exactly what Ross did during an interview with a team-operated website that was published Monday. Ross said he told Sparano, “I want an aggressive, creative (offense) not playing just to keep it close, where people really are a little more unpredictable.”

Under different circumstances, sharing those thoughts publicly wouldn’t be a big deal. Something similar happened last year in Pittsburgh when team president Art Rooney II made it clear he wanted head coach Mike Tomlin to run the football more. Rooney told me that wasn’t a swipe at Tomlin. Rooney was simply echoing what was already obvious to him, Tomlin and every Steelers fan.

Fair enough. Tomlin, though, already was entrenched in his position as a Super Bowl-winning coach. Sparano doesn’t even have an offensive coordinator on staff after the embattled Dan Henning retired. Sparano also lost an entire week that could have been used to pursue a replacement while uncertain about his future.

Ross’ comments make it even more difficult now for Sparano to make a quality hire. Not only is Sparano clearly on the hot seat entering next season despite the extension, but what coordinator wants to worry about a neophyte owner giving his two cents about the play-calling?

Oh, and one more thing. The Dolphins still haven’t found a replacement for Dan Marino a decade since the Hall of Fame quarterback was forced into retirement. Chad Henne was among the NFL’s biggest disappointments in 2010. There is no promising prospect behind Henne — Chad Pennington would separate his shoulder holding a clipboard — or any guarantee Miami can find an upgrade via the draft, trade or free agency in an offseason that may be derailed by NFL labor strife. If a work stoppage should occur, there will be no personnel moves or implementation of a new offensive system until a collective bargaining agreement is reached.

No wonder Parcells removed himself from power before the 2010 regular season even started. He saw the train wreck that was coming.

Miami is better off in some areas than when Ross arrived, especially on defense. But the Dolphins also play in a division with two powerhouses — the New England Patriots and the New York Jets. Those clubs have owners who hired the right people to build a winner. So far, there isn’t enough proof to believe that Sparano and Ireland can do the same. If Ross truly felt Sparano was the best man for the job, he wouldn’t have sniffed elsewhere.

Ross should have known all about cutting losses and how to get a deal done with the kind of big-name coach he clearly craves by applying the lessons personally learned as a real-estate mogul to Miami’s football operations. Instead, these Dolphins are headed back into the tank once again — and Ross only has himself to blame.

Ross isn’t the only NFL owner and/or executive whose handling of their team’s head-coaching position has generated controversy. Here’s a look at five other teams whose moves haven’t exactly inspired confidence:

Denver

The Broncos can only hope their search ends better than how it started. New team executive John Elway lost interest from a top candidate after repeatedly calling him by a different first name during a news conference (Note to John: It’s Mike Mularkey, not “Mark” Mularkey). New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams also bowed out of consideration. Elway’s link to Stanford University wasn’t enough to woo Harbaugh, who instead left for the San Francisco 49ers.

In his defense, Elway’s hands are somewhat tied because the Broncos already are on the hook for a reported $6.7 million in coaching salary to the deposed Josh McDaniels and Mike Shanahan. That will limit how much Denver can pay McDaniels’ successor. John Fox, Perry Fewell, Rick Dennison and Dirk Koetter are part of the first round of interviews, along with interim coach Eric Studesville.

Oakland

Al Davis has destabilized his squad again, firing a head coach (Tom Cable) who had just finished 6-0 in the division and was well liked by his players. Davis now has gone through six different head coaches in the past 10 years. It seems logical that Davis would promote well-respected offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to replace Cable. Then again, you can’t assume anything with the Raiders — except another season without a playoff appearance.

Cincinnati

Mike Brown did the opposite by staying true to his nature. The imperious Cincinnati Bengals owner showed he is fine with not winning a playoff game in eight seasons under Marvin Lewis — eight!!! — by signing him to an extension. Optimists hope the franchise will surge should Lewis be given a bigger say in personnel decisions, especially if that curtails Brown’s willingness to gamble on character risks. But if the franchise isn’t fixed by now under Lewis’ reign, there isn’t much reason to believe things are going to change.

Tennessee

Because he doesn’t want to eat the salary, Titans owner Bud Adams basically has admitted being too cheap to can Jeff Fisher after this season’s miserable 6-10 campaign. That’s quite a vote of confidence. At least Adams likes him better than quarterback Vince Young, who is on his way out after repeated clashes with Fisher.

Houston

Texans management has convinced team owner Bob McNair that newly hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is the missing piece needed to get into the playoffs. Phillips had better do better than last season in Dallas or Gary Kubiak also will be losing his head-coaching gig. The Texans have yet to reach the postseason in nine NFL seasons, the past five of which have come under Kubiak’s watch. McNair, though, remains reluctant to make a change because Kubiak is such an offensive wizard.



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