Four years ago Saturday was the worst day of Mike Tannenbaum’s professional life.
Jets owner Woody Johnson, impatient after back-to-back years out of the playoffs, fired Tannenbaum on New Year’s Eve, 2012. The termination abruptly ended Tannenbaum’s 16-year run with the franchise — the last seven of which as general manager.
Tannenbaum doesn’t talk much about his divorce from the Jets, at least with reporters, but those close to him say he believes he was made the scapegoat by an impulsive boss. That he was dismissed unfairly just two years after the Jets reached the conference championship game for the second time in as many seasons.
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Tannenbaum, it seemed on the outside, got little of the credit when things went right in New York and most of the blame when they went wrong.
The weeks and months that followed were awful. Tannenbaum went through all the stages of grief, and for a time, he switched sides. He became an agent for pro coaches, but always with one eye always back on the NFL.
Now, at the dawn of another New Year, Tannenbaum is back on top. In just his second year as Dolphins’ football czar, Miami is in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. And for Tannenbaum, the success tastes so much sweeter this time around, associates say.
Tannenbaum declined comment for this story; he doesn’t speak with reporters during the season, deferring instead to his coach Adam Gase, who’s been widely praised for reviving a franchise long in exile.
Yet people within the organization know that without the leadership of Tannenbaum, this wouldn’t have been possible — certainly not this quickly.
Here’s just a few of the moves Tannenbaum to help right the ship:
He locked down Ryan Tannehill to what now looks like a team-friendly contract extension. He signed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and traded for touchdown machine Kenny Stills. He swung the trade with the Eagles that netted team cornerstones Kiko Alonso, Byron Maxwell and Laremy Tunsil.
He turned the offensive line from a perennial liability into a strength. He promoted Chris Grier to general manager. (Grier has been a clear upgrade over Dennis Hickey, and colleagues say he’s done an excellent job overseeing and directing the personnel department on a day-to-day basis.)
And Tannenbaum led the most important coaching search of his career, helping owner Stephen Ross zero in on Gase, who was the franchise’s consensus pick.
“When your big decisions are easy ones, that’s a comforting moment,” a team source said of the Gase hire.
Once his young, smart coach was in place, Tannenbaum eased into the background, believing that winning organizations are about their head coach and quarterback — not the men behind the curtain.
And he has allowed Gase to be the leader this franchise has needed for years.
The week Grier was promoted, Grier told reporters that “the talk of dysfunction within the organization is over.”
Grier didn’t elaborate; he didn’t need to. The infighting among members of previous regimes was well known throughout the league.
But there hasn’t been a whisper of that this year.
Ross and Tannenbaum have empowered Gase to run the team — and the 53-man roster — how he sees fit. The personnel and coaching staffs have agreed on player cuts “98 percent of the time,” one team employee said, “and when we don’t, we have to afford [Gase] that deference. We’ve given Adam a ton of autonomy for a reason.”
Said Gase recently: “There are very few days where we’re not together at some point in the day just making sure we’re all on the same page. That’s really been the key to constantly saying the same thing, because we’re always communicating. That’s really how we wanted it when we started, and we were able to maintain that throughout the year.”
Gase has rewarded the organization’s trust, respect and loyalty with wins.
He has demanded unflinching accountability from his players, staff and even the media. The coaching graveyard is filled with tombstones of brilliant football minds who lacked the ability to lead. Gase, at just age 38, has proven he has that ability.
It’s been a big reason why Gase has squeezed 10 wins out of a roster that even the team acknowledges is flawed. Sources say Tannenbaum knew the roster needed “a lot” of work heading into the 2016 offseason, and much work remains in the next one, no matter how deep the Dolphins advance into the playoffs.
Expect the defense’s back seven to get a makeover in the coming months; lack of depth at linebacker and safety was never more evident than a week ago Saturday, when the Dolphins surrendered 589 yards to the Bills.
Tannenbaum hasn’t pitched all strikes, of course. The Dolphins last spring gave $8.5 million in fully guaranteed money to defensive end Mario Williams.
He has been a major disappointment. Williams has had the worst season of a once-great career, tallying just 1 1/2 sacks entering Sunday’s season finale against the Patriots.
The team tried to be patient and strategic with Williams throughout the year, but the Dolphins privately acknowledge that the signing was a miss.
But on balance, Tannenbaum has had more wins than losses in the past 12 months. And in turn, so has the team he has assembled.
He’s not satisfied, however. No one in that building is. Team executives want to make a playoff appearance the norm, not a once-a-decade celebration.
Vance Joseph, the Dolphins’ first-year defensive coordinator, recently said that the Dolphins are only going to get better in the coming years. It will be up to Tannenbaum to use the tens of millions of dollars in available cap space to make that happen.
By helping build arguably the best Dolphins teams this century, Tannenbaum has earned the right to make those decisions.