We have seen this only once before in the 51 years Miami has had both teams — the Dolphins and Hurricanes — each starting a football season with a new head coach.
It happened nine years ago in 2007 with Cam Cameron and Randy Shannon. Of course Cameron, of the peculiar “fail forward fast” philosophy, would lead the worst year in Dolphins history, 1-15. He failed and got fired fast. Shannon was a gradual disappointment, petering out in not quite four full seasons.
Both, though, were heralded hires, which is easy to forget.
Cameron arrived from San Diego as the offensive mastermind who’d developed a young Philip Rivers. He was the clear favorite of Dolfans in a Miami Herald poll of candidates. I wrote approvingly of the hire (I’ll admit with a wince), noting it was refreshing the club was bringing in a purely offense-minded head coach for the first time in franchise history.
Shannon? He was family, born and raised Miami, The U personified. He was a former Canes player and assistant who seemed ready for the big promotion, a decision fans received enthusiastically.
You cannot be sure about any new coach, is the lesson. You have some idea, sure, based on his résumé. But as any coach is introduced you are seeing the tip of the metaphoric iceberg and can’t know if what is unseen below will turn out to be a massive future a la Don Shula or a massive failure such as doomed Cam.
So what have we in Adam Gase and Mark Richt?
Potential in one and proof in the other, an exciting combination.
Now, finally, we’re about to see what both men have brought as King Sport and King Junior get set to unfurl. Richt’s Hurricanes open their season Saturday, just six days away. Gase’s Dolphins, after a final exhibition Thursday to mark the public unveiling of the refurbished, newly named Hard Rock Stadium, open their regular season Sept. 11.
Their new career chapters could not be starting more oppositely. Richt gets the college luxury of a soft opening, with UM’s first two games at home against smaller lightweights Florida A&M and Florida Atlantic University. Gase’s Dolphins will be ready or be crushed against the toughest start of any NFL team: at the Seattle Seahawks, then at New England in the Patriots’ home opener.
Expectations are moderately high for the Hurricanes. They are ranked No. 26 nationally, although Florida State and Clemson are the clear favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The outlook is dimmer for the Dolphins, who are, for example, ranked 26th of 32 teams in ESPN’s latest power rankings. (Twenty-six. Not a bad place to be on Saturdays, not so good on Sundays.)
The reason both Miami teams have new coaches is clear: the cumulative effect of a slide to mediocrity and growing fan impatience. The Canes last won a national championship in 2001 and haven’t enjoyed a 10-win season since ’03. The Dolphins last won a playoff game in 2000 and have not reached the postseason since ’08.
Enter new coaches, who bring new hope before the first meaningful ball ever kicks off.
Gase embodies the possibility of greatness, the idea the forlorn Dolphins, like the blind squirrel finding a nut, might finally have made an inspired hire. Richt personifies experience as the most tested veteran coach UM has ever brought in, someone whose Canes background is merely an added bonus, not a primary rallying point.
In retrospect, Gase and Richt are exactly what Cameron and Shannon were not.
Cameron had also interviewed for NFL head coaching jobs with the Texans, Rams, Cardinals and Falcons, but only Miami extended an offer. He was the older guy the Fins got because others didn’t want him. By contrast the Dolphins get Gase, 38, on the ascent, as the first franchise to recognize his readiness. He’s the young “it” guy. Miami got who others wanted and for whom praise has been unequivocal. Peyton Manning loves Gase. Mentor Nick Saban raves about him. Dolphins players swoon. “Excited,” is Ryan Tannehill’s word for Gase’s arrival.
Shannon? UM was gambling on a man who had never been a head coach at any level. By contrast Richt arrives after 15 years at the helm at Georgia, tested in the rugged Southeastern Conference and before that as Bobby Bowden’s offensive chief at Florida State.
In Richt the Canes get a man whose sudden availability made his hiring a jackpot no-brainer — right from every angle. In Gase the Dolphins get the budding star who could be the Next Big Thing in pro coaching.
Both are offense-minded, in different ways but with a like goal — protecting their quarterbacks.
Richt says he’ll do it with balanced offense, with dedication to a prominent running game even though quarterback Brad Kaaya has the talent to put up prolific passing numbers.
“But he wouldn’t be as good as if he has a running game,” Richt noted.
Over on the pro side of town, Gase’s fast-paced, often no-huddle offense will allow Tannehill to release the ball quickly, often with short passes, to avoid sacks. It’s a small miracle Tannehill has yet to miss a start because of an injury, considering he has been sacked more times (184) than any other QB the past four seasons.
Gase wants what he calls “a great tempo,” adding, “there’s a time and a place [for deep throws], but there’s also a time and a place to not get sacked 60 times in a year. If you want to stand back there and have your quarterback get his brains beat out, then go at it.”
Tannehill, handcuffed by departed coach Joe Philbin, enjoys latitude under Gase to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Asked what he is more comfortable with approaching this season compared with last, he began, “more in command of the offense.”
Expect to see more underneath passes to running backs under Gase, either by design or as audible check-downs.
Dolphins running backs caught a lot of passes in the 1980s and ’90s, when Miami had some of its best offenses. Terry Kirby set the club record for catches by a running back with 75 in 1993. Running backs accounted for 161 total catches, a Fins record, in ’95. Last season’s total was 81, and that was the most catches for Dolphins running backs since 2009.
Dolphins ballcarriers caught 10 passes in Thursday night’s dress-rehearsal victory over Atlanta in Orlando, a number that would extrapolate to 160 over a full season. New running back Arian Foster, expected to share the workload with Jay Ajayi, is especially capable as a dual threat.
I love Foster’s attitude and perspective, as when he was asked Thursday about scoring a touchdown and whether that was special as he recovers from injuries and a career downturn.
“No, it’s just football,” he said. “People are going through real problems, and football is entertainment. Hopefully we can get people to not worry for three or four hours on a Sunday. It’s just football.”
It is. But it is passionately held. And I’d venture few cities rank above Miami in the category of having teams that have won multiple Super Bowls and college national championships but slipped from national relevance in a way that leaves fans desperately hungry to win big again.
It is the only reason Adam Gase and Mark Richt are here.