The Dolphins’ Blame Game: Wrap It Up & Move On


The Miami Dolphins are preparing for a Monday night battle against the rival New York Jets.  Tony Sparano has yet to lose against New York when playing in New York.  The Monday night stage will be the second for the team this year as they opened against another division rival, New England, in week 1.  It would spell the beginning of an 0-4 start.  Could this game on Monday night turn things around?  We will get to that later today, for now, we are going to wrap up our finger pointing.

How exactly did we get to where we are?  It’s actually a long process but one that is really easy to define.  You would think it would be as simple as 1-2-3 but it’s not.  It’s also not as simple as Bill Parcells failing to continue what he was supposedly starting.  Although getting here, to today, is a big part of it.  There is a history lesson to be learned here.  Unfortunately history is something that Miami has repeated over and over again for the last 15 years.

When did this all begin?  You need to go all the way back to Jimmy Johnson and pick up the time line.  Then we will look at the four we just covered and why they are to blame as individuals and as a whole.

When Wayne Huizenga hired Jimmy Johnson it ushered Don Shula unceremoniously out the door.  Shula wasn’t ready to leave but he did so gracefully.  Johnson was the savior.  The man who would turn the franchise into perennial winners, Super Bowl winners.  He did that in Dallas, and his return to Miami would bring the same.  Championships to south Florida.  Jimmy however had a problem.  He didn’t work within a salary cap structure in Dallas.  In Miami, as GM and HC he couldn’t simply buy his team and other teams were reluctant to trade with the salary cap infrastructure.  It was far more difficult than what he had in Dallas.

Ultimately, Johnson simply gave up.  It wasn’t fun for him because winning wasn’t as easy as it was in Dallas and with every loss or failed attempt he heard the calls from fans for Don Shula.  Johnson walked away but kept the ear of Wayne Huizenga who hired the failed Chicago Bears HC Dave Wannstedt after a year stint as the DC in Miami.

To his credit, Wannstedt would actually win more games than those who proceeded him.  But it was his personnel decisions that drove the team into the ground.  Wannstedt couldn’t handle being a HC and a GM and his failed attempts to do both created serious salary cap implications that would hinder the growth of the team for years after he left.  His failed attempts at draft picks netted very little in the overall picture and the future of the franchise was sinking fast.  By the time Wannstedt resigned during the 2004 bye week, the team was a wreck on the field and the cap was out of control.

Wayne Huizenga immediately turned once again to the popular name.  Nick Saban.  Saban came in with full control and when he wasn’t terrorizing the Dolphins staff he was cutting salary and taking bites of a cap economic issue by gutting the team.  Saban however made the same mistake Huizenga did, he went with the name.  Dante’ Culpepper.  Culpepper never made it a full season in Miami on the field and by the time that Saban realized he was over his head and not able to recruit as freely as he had LSU, he left and went back to the college ranks.  Job unfinished.  Another HC that was wooed by financial reward from Wayne Huizenga.

It appeared that finally Wayne H. was going to go with the lesser known.  Hiring Cam Cameron and a general manager.  Randy Mueller.  The one season that the Dolphins worked under the two was a failure.  Nothing was gained during that season in terms of personnel or anything put in place for the future.  It was simply a waste and paved the way for Mr. H. to swoop in and take Bill Parcells away from the Atlanta Falcons.

And here we come to the blame.  Prior to Bill Parcells the team was simply mismanaged from coaches who could not operate as GM’s to GM’s who had no experience being anything more than mid-level management.   Parcells would have or should have changed that.  He was the guru.  A personnel genius, a motivator, a student of the game, and the list goes on.  He knew the “X’s” and the “O’s”.  South Florida was his home, it should have been a dream job.  But once again, Wayne H. threw a ton of money in his face and then to make sure he didn’t lose him, guaranteed every dime of it and promised to stay out of his way.

A season later, Wayne decided to sell the team and Stephen Ross came on board as a minority owner.  A year later who would by the majority shares.  Ross left Parcells alone and took to the stadium and entertainment side of the game.  Where football stopped and the extras for the fans began.  He added celebrity owners, added flair to the stadium mall, added more of a concert feel.  Ross wants a Sunday football game to be an event.  He had Parcells running the team and he only needed sink his stadium funds back into the stadium.

Then, like Johnson and Saban before him, Parcells quit.  He never fulfilled his end of the agreement.  In fact while getting paid from Ross he agreed to field phone calls from other teams who were seeking his opinions on players and the draft.  In other words, he could do whatever he wanted without repercussions.  He left Miami with a defense that was unfinished in it’s transition for a 4-3 to a 3-4, he left an offensive system that was catered to a QB who was sidelined with yet another shoulder injury, and no plan for how to address the future.  Bill Parcells was simply in a “win now” mode but refused to buy the parts to actually win.  Putting all the blame on his first time GM, Jeff Ireland and first time HC, Tony Sparano.  And he walked away from it all getting paid every dime he was promised.

In the grand scheme of things, everyone is to blame in some way shape or form.  There is no absolutes.

Stephen Ross – He is not to blame for Bill Parcells or Jeff Ireland.  He inherited them.  He is to blame for Tony Sparano.  If you believe that this team is in the mess they are because of coaching and not player personnel than Ross shoulders that blame.   He should have fired Tony last year when he began looking for other coaching candidates.  What he is tasked with now is to figure out where his structural problem is.  Does he part with Tony and Ireland?  Does he retain Ireland and not Sparano?  Where will his coaching search begin and end?  Does he go with flash and big names like Cowher and Gruden potentially making the same mistake as his predecessor or does he go with proven track winners and motivators like a Jeff Fisher or a Brian Billick?

While the team did not get to this point because of Stephen Ross, as the owner he is tasked with fixing it at the end of this season and whatever happens next is squarely on his shoulders.

Jeff Ireland is not to blame for some of the draft blunders.  For two seasons he was under the eye of Bill Parcells.  Parcells chose the players with or without Ireland’s input.  Ireland has had two decent drafts post-Parcells but his inability to find key components for the team is his burden.  His lack of realization of team needs is rightfully questioned.  The lack of playmakers on the roster or a singular person to build the team around is something that he could have done in one season away from Parcells.  Instead, he continued the task of adding players who would add depth and special teams contributors.  The fact is none of the players on the roster are bound to another.  There is no complimentary style of play between say Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett but instead two individuals who play the game differently.  That does not build a team and that is where Jeff Ireland shoulders the blame.  Ireland may be gone after this year and his last two drafts may become fruitful but his free agent decisions and his spending trends do nothing for the make-up of a roster.  There simply is no flow or reason behind his signings.

Good teams and great teams sign depth players year after year, bad teams need to find stars first and they cost money.

Tony Sparano is not entirely to blame for his roster.  Jeff Ireland puts players on the team.  Sparano does however have input and it’s clear that some of his demands are far from panning out.  John Jerry and Marc Columbo to name a few.  Put an average first time coach on a team with no chemistry and you don’t get a winner.  You don’t even get a winning attitude.  Sparano likes to talk big, saying that “one game can turn around a season” but when you are 4 games out of first in your division and you have yet to win a game, one game will not turn anything around, it will simply get you a tick in the win column.

Sparano is a players coach, they love him, but he doesn’t motivate them.  Sparano is the perfect coach for a veteran savvy team who already knows how to motivate each other.  The reality is that over the last four years, the make-up of this team came from the draft and those kids do not know how to win at the NFL level and Sparano can’t teach that.  It’s where he fails.  His shortcomings are something that the players physically can’t overcome.  To his credit, he did not pick his coaches until this past off-season when he added Brian Daboll.  Prior to that Parcells gave him his staff, so as much as Chad Henne was hindered by Henning, Sparano was too.  But that simply isn’t an excuse that will win a new contract.  Sparano needs to win and he simply isn’t doing that.

The players are not to blame for the coaching or the mismanaged attempts by their GM and former Czar.  But they are responsible for playing the game and executing the plays that are called in.  It is their responsibility to get better acclimated to their teammates and how they choose to breakdown film.  It’s their jobs to get prepared and at this level they shouldn’t need to be motivated.  Still, they are not built around a concept but instead, individual pieces of a puzzle without the edges already in place.  They can rally with words all they want but they still need to go out and win a game before anyone really takes notice of what they are saying.

Bill Parcells is not to blame for the last two drafts but he is to blame for Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano, not because he hired them but because he never fully developed them.  He didn’t stick around to make them better or lead by example or offer advise, instead, he handed them what he wanted if he were the HC and the GM and forced them to run it his way.  It blew up.  When Parcells walked he left two key components of Miami’s structure staring blankly at a wall and asking “Now what?”  Neither had players on the field that fit within their own identity and neither worked close enough to form a join perception on what the team should be, instead, they were only handed the Bill Parcells model without the Bill Parcells.

For all the good things that Wayne Huizenga tried to do to make this team a winner ultimately, he failed.  Wayne H. is all class and I would take him back in a minute to own this team.  Not that I don’t like Stephen Ross, I just find Mr. H. approachable.  I have met him on three different occasions and he remembered me each time.  He was a fan and an owner and he mingled with the fans.  He was not set apart like Ross appears to be.  There was no celebrity in Wayne H., only big names.  Where he failed was in his attempt to bring in the best pedigrees he could find and when they turned him down he threw more money at them.  Wayne H. bought his coaches and GM’s and as a result of not making them actually work for what he was paying, they all left with Wayne’s money in the bank.

Placing blame, singularly on this team is almost impossible.  It’s a group effort that is amplified by a winless team on the field.  It’s part Huizenga, part Ross, it’s part Ireland, and part Tony Sparano, and it’s a lot of Bill Parcells.  The Miami Dolphins have an owner who didn’t pick his management team but can now make that change, they have a GM who is protecting his job instead of investing in his future, a HC who should have been gone last year and is struggling to breath this year, and a football czar who doesn’t even speak the teams name.  It’s coaching decisions on the field and personnel decisions off it, it’s coaching and it’s management, it’s player execution and ownership novice.

It’s everyone, and only Stephen Ross has the power to change it, fix it, and restore this team to what it once was.  As regime after regime has tried and failed.

The good news?  The team is young and talented but misguided.  A few fixes here and there, some additions and subtractions, and a solid management team that works perfectly together will have this team turned around sooner rather than later.  Or they will simply be more blame to pass around.