Dave Wannstedt: The Return


It’s been seven years, four head coaches, and twelve starting QB’s since Dave Wannstedt walked a sideline during a Miami Dolphins football game as a coach.  This Sunday, Dave returns as the Buffalo Bills assistant head coach and assistant inside LB coach.  It’s a small side story to a bigger game but one that shaped the Miami Dolphins into what they are today.

It’s hard to argue with Dave’s success in Miami as it relates to season records.  His teams finished 2000 and 2001 with 11-5 records.  2002 ended with a 9-7 season followed by a 10-6 season culminating in his 4-12 mid-season resignation in 2004.  In those five seasons, Wannstedt took the team into the playoffs twice.  His first two seasons with the team.  In 2000, the Dolphins beat the Colts and moved on to the divisional round where they lost to the Raiders.  A year later they got crushed by the Baltimore Ravens.   The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Colts in 2000 and their last playoff appearance was in 2008 under Tony Sparano.

To this day however, Wannstedt is proud of what he accomplished in Miami.  Proving to us even after all these years that he still doesn’t get it.  Dave Wannstedt, like Tony Sparano who fist pumps mediocrity, was content with winning numbers not winning seasons.  In fact, at one point during his tenure he pointed out that despite not making the playoffs at 10-6 his season was still a success.

Coming back to Miami won’t bring cheering fans wearing orange and aqua as Wannstedt is the single most blamed person for the state that these Miami Dolphins are in today.  Everything that still happens now points back to glaring mistakes made during the tenure of Dave Wannstedt.

In 2003 the Miami Dolphins selected Safety Yeremiah Bell in the sixth round of the playoffs.  In 2004, they took RG/RT and all around turn-style Vernon Carey.  They are the only two Miami Dolphins currently on the team from the Dave Wannstedt draft era.  While DE/LB Jason Taylor played the majority of DW’s seasons as coach, he was drafted by Jimmy Johnson.  In fact of all Dave Wannstedts draft picks, aside from Carey and Bell, only Rex Hadnot (2004) and TE Randy McMichael are still active in the NFL.

So why is Dave Wannstedt so reviled in Miami?  His winning career record of 42-31 is by far the best combined record for the Dolphins since Don Shula left.  The four coaches since DW have combined for a 41 – 55 record over six seasons.  Not including this one.  Wannstedt was proud of those numbers when he spoke with South Florida media this past week.

"“The record speaks for itself,” “You’d take 10 1/2 wins over four years,” Wannstedt says. “And that’s what we did.”"

For Wannstedt his failure as a HC and his responsibility and blame for the failure of the franchise started upon his arrival under Jimmy Johnson.  After JJ walked away prior to the 2000 season, Wayne Huizenga handed the job and total control to Jimmy’s assistant.  Armed with one of the best and youngest defenses in the NFL, Wannstedt couldn’t turn around an offense that was inept.  His first decision as a HC was showing HOF QB Dan Marino the door.  He then brought in Jay Fiedler from the Jacksonville Jaguars, a back-up who’s most productive NFL day came in a mop up role in the 62-7 route playoff loss only months before.

Wannsteds inability to draft or even evaluate talent would eventually catch up.  When injuries mounted in 2003, DW didn’t have the depth to compete.  His further inability to manage the salary cap structure would eventually make it impossible for college recruit Nick Saban to make an immediate impact on the team.  Leaving him to cut players after player to get the team into a manageable situation.

Despite his two seasons of playoffs and his winning record as a coach, DW is best known and hated in Miami for what he didn’t do.  He didn’t draft a QB.

Passing on Drew Brees is still one of the most talked about draft blunders each April.  Opting instead for depth in round one with a cornerback Jamar Fletcher.  Fletcher’s impact on the team was negligible at best and his tenure in Miami was short lived.  His decision to draft Eddie Moore over WR Anquan Boldin also is a thorn in the sides of Miami drafniks.

Wannstedts past is the Miami Dolphins future.  The salary cap and poor years of drafting crippled the team to the point that it simply couldn’t be repaired over night.  Two first round draft picks on Ricky Williams who would later help facilitate the final departure for Wannstedt in 2004 when he took to a tent in the Australian Outback to smoke pot.  Even with Ricky behind center, Wannstedt simply didn’t know when enough was enough, often running the younger version of today’s Baltimore Raven to the point of complete exhaustion, relying on him singularly to make up for the lack of playmakers on the offense.

A once competitive team under Shula and Johnson gave way to mismanagement under Wannstedt.  As stated above, Nick Saban couldn’t dig the team out of the hole fast enough to make the NFL appealing.  So he quit leaving the team only marginally better in terms of cap structure.  Still even Wannstedts drafts, as poor as they were, netted two current players on the roster compared to Nick Saban and Cam Cameron.

Saban’s draft yielded Ronnie Brown and Channing Crowder who are both gone.  Cam Cameron’s draft netted Brandon Fields and Paul Solia.  Looks like everyone got to keep two.  The years of Wannstedt in terms of players caught up with the Dolphins in 2007 when Cam Cameron took over for Nick Saban and drove the roster into the ground.  Working to revamp the remaining salary cap issues and the dead weight on the roster, Cameron and General Manager Randy Mueller cleaned up the remaining mess and got the team back to zero.  It came with a cost.  The team finished with one win and eventually cost both men their jobs.

Enter Bill Parcells.  With a gutted team, Parcells was to be the savior of the Miami Dolphins but history shows that names will not often give you the success you are seeking.  Four years into the Parcells fingerprint and the Miami Dolphins have failed to develop a winning tradition and the team will once again likely be seeking a change in philosophy and coaching at years end.

Dave Wannstedt has no fingerprint on these Miami Dolphins, he was simply the first domino to fall into the rest and created the downward spiral that would eventually cost Miami their success and their history of being one of the top yearly teams each season.  The mistakes made by Wannstedt while in Miami were left for others to clean up and eventually cost them all their sanity and their reputations.

Sunday, he returns.  His Bills are sliding fast out of the playoff picture and the loss by the New York Jets should be enough motivation for the team to come out swinging for a victory.  One game back of the division leading Patriots, the Bills now have a chance to take over sole possession of second place.  But they will need to do that against a resurgent Miami Dolphins team who have found some swagger and confidence in an otherwise collapsing season.

When this season is all said and done, the Miami Dolphins who have two remaining games against Wannstedts’ Bills could be the factor in deciding whether or not the Bills are in the hunt for a playoff spot or sitting by watching as their season tanked.  It would be a fitting way to kick that off on Sunday and sending a big thank you to Dave Wannstedt in the process.