The 1996 New York Jets did the unprecedented. They spent more money in player acquisition than any other NFL team and turned that huge investment into all of one win in a terrible, defining, forgettable, memorable season.
Miami Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum is a student of that terrible New York winter of discontent because the housecleaning that followed helped bring him to the team as a contract negotiator under a new brain trust headed by Bill Parcells.
And that year under Parcells taught Tannenbaum a lesson he is putting into action today with these Dolphins:
“If any team in the history of football or any sport could have said, ‘We need three years to blow it up and start over, it would have been Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick in ’97,” Tannenbaum said during a break in the NFL owners’ meetings. “If they’d said, ‘Hey what they did last year was historic, we need time,” everyone would have understood.
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“But we won nine games the next year. We lost to the Detroit Lions in the last game or we would have made the playoffs. And that taught me first hand there are no excuses for bad contracts or bad picks. You need to win for today and develop for tomorrow.”
And that is where the Dolphins are today.
Under Tannenbaum, and with the blessings of owner Stephen Ross, and the agreement of general manager Dennis Hickey and coach Joe Philbin, the Dolphins are trying to build a team that will win this coming season even after a quick and certain rebuild to the roster.
That’s right, the Dolphins are rebuilding this offseason.
No, they haven’t said as much and probably won’t. No, there will be no excuses about the process if it isn’t an immediate success because, well, fans don’t care about excuses.
But look at what has happened this offseason to the Miami roster and it reminds of what is happening to the team’s stadium. In Miami Gardens, the Dolphins gutted Sun Life Stadium and are in the process of a two-year refurbishment that will make it seem, as Ross said Monday, like a new stadium when all is complete in 2016.
The Miami roster is undergoing similar work at its Davie training facility.
Wide receiver Mike Wallace “apologized” for his antics of 2014, Ross confirmed Monday, but was traded to Minnesota anyway. Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was traded to New Orleans.
Brian Hartline, Brandon Gibson, Randy Starks, Phillip Wheeler and Nate Garner were cut.
Jared Odrick, Jimmy Wilson and Charles Clay, all starters in 2014, all left via free agency.
And while players the Dolphins identified as overpaid or underperforming were jettisoned, a younger, different team is being molded this offseason.
“What we’re trying to do is on the one hand sign an Ndamukong Suh and sign Brice McCain and trade for a Kenny Stills, but on the other hand move on from guys like Dannell Ellerbe and Mike Wallace and be balanced,” Tannenbaum said.
The 2015 Dolphins: Rebuilding on the fly.
This process is about changing things while avoiding a terrible, catastrophic fallback year where the team goes from a mediocre 8-8 to a wholly unacceptable 6-10 or worse. This process is about going from mediocre to good for a long time to come.
And although there have been internal debates and disagreements about how that should happen, everyone is on board with the process starting at the very top.
“One, you want to win immediately, but you also have to look at the long term,” Ross said. “I wouldn’t want to be getting a lot of old veterans just to win that year to go back to where we were. I want to build a dynasty that people want year in and year out so you’re not making excuses. It’s how you’re growing and how you’re getting better.
“We looked at the team and looked at how to make it better in every area. You also have deal with the salary cap. There were some salary cap casualties. But I thought signing a player like Ndamukong Suh could have a bigger impact than having a lot of lesser players. I think he will cause all the players to play better and make them better.”
Ross admits the Dolphins may have less depth now but insists the team is “better” and “faster” today than when 2014 ended in disappointment — again — with the team out of the playoffs and fading late in the season.
The blame for that late season swoon clearly was placed on talent because Ross kept the coaching staff intact with the exception of coaches that moved on for promotions.
Ross even gave Philbin a one-year contract extension.
But now he expects results. The owner said he wants “improvement” and when pushed to define what that vague term means, he starts talking about making the playoffs — something Miami hasn’t done since 2008.
The Miami brain trust is confident their rebuild-on-the-fly plan will work.
“It’s a reasonable plan,” Tannenbaum said. “It’s realistic. This team was in the playoff conversation the last two years, the last two games of the year. So it’s not a pipe dream. If we can improve the team and obviously try to clean some things up along the way, that’s really our charge.”