Armando Salguero

Adam Gase – once compared to a young Don Shula – must avoid Tony Sparano’s career arc

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase stands on the sidelines in the second quarter as the New York Jets host the Miami Dolphins at Met Life Stadium on Sunday, September 24, 2017.
Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase stands on the sidelines in the second quarter as the New York Jets host the Miami Dolphins at Met Life Stadium on Sunday, September 24, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

You’ll recall that in 2008 the Miami Dolphins put together an amazing season in that they came out of a 1-15 disaster and won the AFC East by using a surprising decade’s old offensive formation.

After that wonderful season, fans adopted a mantra by which any critique of the team was rendered null ...

“In Tuna we trust,” the fans droned in the comments section that follow this post and on radio shows.

Then 2009 happened. And then 2010. And by the time the Bill Parcells era had passed with Parcells leaving, the firing of head coach Tony Sparano, and then general manager Jeff Ireland, no one was signing “In Tuna we trust” anymore.

But today I want to hearken back to that era because I believe Sparano was a solid football coach save for one major flaw: He never got himself a good quarterback he could use for years and years.

And why does that matter now?

Because almost a decade later I’m seeing past events start to resemble the present. I see Adam Gase’s Dolphins career arc starting to resemble that of Tony Sparano.

I’m not saying history is about to repeat.

But the threat is definitely evident to me.

Let’s go back to those fateful days of you trusting the Tuna like he was infallible. Remember those? The Dolphins started that first season of Parcells-Sparanao-Ireland with back-to-back losses. And everyone figured it was more of the same failed Dolphins from previous seasons.

But on the charter flight back from Arizona after that second consecutive loss, Sparano ordered his quarterback coach David Lee to install the Wildcat package into the offense. The team was flying cross-country at the time, but that’s when they really took off.

The Dolphins finished 11-5 and Sparano was a coach of the year candidate although he didn’t win the award.

The problem with those times?

The Dolphins were that good in 2008 because of the Wildcat, yes, but because quarterback Chad Pennington played like an NFL MVP. And, this just in to Miami Herald headquarters, MVP quarterback play will get you a winning record and into the playoffs.

The problem was Pennington came to the Dolphins with a history of being injured and, sure enough, he started the first three games the following year before going down for the year with a shoulder injury.

So in Sparano’s second year he lost his starting quarterback and his team’s record fell from 11-5 to 7-9.

Fast forward to 2016. Gase came to South Florida young and brash and full of confidence. And then he promptly lost four of his first five games. His first team was sucking wind early in the year just like Sparano’s did.

Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase talks about the 'simplified offensive' approach that resulted in a shutout loss to the Baltimore Ravens, 40-0.

Then stuff happened.

Running back Jay Ajayi became a thing.

Ryan Tannehill became a good game manager rather than a player on whose shoulders the offense rested.

The defense played well enough.

The last-place schedule helped.

And the Dolphins reeled off eight wins in the final 10 games to make the playoffs for the first time since ... That’s right, 2008.

And rookie coach Gase was a worthy coach of the year candidate although he didn’t win the award.

Gase visited legend Don Shula and the photo of him and the coach had fans saying they might have the next Shula on the team. Anything Gase said became gospel because, well, 10-6.

Sound familiar?

But here’s the scary part: In his second year, Gase lost his starting quarterback. And his second team has no magic. And fans are bitterly disappointed because they feel their team has regressed.

These Dolphins will finish either 6-10 or 7-9, depending on what happens Sunday against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale.

And we’re seemingly reliving 2009 again, folks.

But here’s the bigger issue and, I tell you it is franchise defining and will determine whether Gase goes on to become a successful NFL head coach or is back as someone’s offensive coordinator in couple of years:

Tony Sparano came off that 2009 season bruised by not battered. He still had a reservoir of good will with the fan base on which to draw. But he misspent that good will.

He went into his third season believing in a quarterback that didn’t merit the confidence -- Chad Henne.

He obviously didn’t know that at the time. He went in thinking Henne, about to start his third season, was ready to hit his stride. He thought Henne, who wasn’t good as Pennington’s successor in 2009, would learn and progress and break out in 2010. Sparano saw Henne look good in shorts throwing against air that spring of 2010 and thought it would translate to the season.

We know none of that happened.

And when Sparano saw that Henne wasn’t blossoming into what he told everyone he’d be, the coach went back to Pennington -- by now an old quarterback who was as much on the team for what he brought to the quarterback room as what he offered on the field.

Pennington replaced Henne and threw two passes. And he got injured again because once quarterbacks of a certain age start getting injured, it is over.

So Sparano had to go back to Henne. And stick with Henne. And defend Henne.

And while 70,000 people in the stadium knew Chad Henne wasn’t the Dolphins answer at quarterback, the Dolphins insisted they knew better because they stuck with Henne one more year.

It would be Sparano’s final year as an NFL head coach.

(Yes, he has served as interim head coach a couple of places, but to date it seems his one big chance came in Miami and he went down with the Henne Titanic).

That’s not Adam Gase, you say?

Well, let me begin this paragraph by repeating what you’re already thinking and that is Ryan Tannehill is much better than Chad Henne ever was.

Henne has always been a bottom third of the NFL quarterback. Tannehill at his best has been a middle third of the league quarterback.

But this isn’t about Ryan Tannehill although some will try to make it about that. This is about how coaches stubbornly stick to some players even when it is wise to have viable options.

And that is what Gase has been doing with quarterbacks and is going to continue doing for the foreseeable future with Tannehill unless he WAKES THE HECK UP from his current stupor!

Gase, you see, trusted last offseason that Tannehill would be back to 100 percent this season. So the Dolphins didn’t go get a quarterback in the draft. They stuck with Tannehill, coming off an ACL injury he didn’t have surgery to repair, and they stuck with 33-year-old Matt Moore as the backup.

Fine. No problem. Understandable.

Gase went in thinking that Tannehill, about to start his second season in his offense, was ready to hit his stride. He thought Tannehill, coming off a major injury, would be healed and would learn and progress and break out in 2017.

Except the fairy tale scenario doesn’t always happen.

In real life Tannehill, the topic of much offseason praise, blew out the same knee the second week of training camp. So after believing in Tannehill and talking up Tannehill, Adam Gase has a Dolphins team that is about to turn in the Dolphins’ 2009 season all over again.

And where are we going in 2010, I mean, in 2018?

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase speaks to the media after the Miami Dolphins defeat the New England Patriots 27-20 at Hard Rock Stadium on Mon., Dec. 11, 2017.

Well, the Miami Dolphins fully intend to have Ryan Tannehill back as their starting quarterback.

And maybe Matt Moore comes back. Maybe Jay Cutler comes back. Maybe they sign Chad Pennington, too. Because we love to repeat the repeating!!!!!!

(Remember they re-signed Daniel Thomas? And kept Koa Misi? And Dallas Thomas?)

And again, this is not casting aspersion on Tannehill. He is way, way better than Henne. But he is also now way, way less durable than Henne.

Tannehill has had consecutive ACL tears in the same knee a mere nine months apart. You folks that wave that off as if it’s an inconvenience simply have no idea how serious that is. You fans love the repeating team, so repeat this:

Two ACL tears in the same knee in nine months.

And, yes, the Dolphins will soon begin a campaign of telling everyone how great Tannehill feels. And how far ahead of schedule he is. And how much stronger the knee is. And how the media should stop asking repetitive questions about the knee because Ryan is sick and tired of it.

Except ... Two ACL tears to the same knee in nine months.

Gase like Sparano can choose to believe all is well and there’s nothing to see here. He can believe, like Sparano, that his second season was a hiccup and it’s really that first year that truly measures his coaching ability and his team’s performance and his quarterback situation.

Or Gase can be wiser.

He can think about getting himself quarterback insurance in the next draft. He can start considering his and his franchise’s future by looking to that draft for a good quarterback that will be so talented he can play fairly quickly if needed.

That would change things. It would stop the repeating. It would give Gase and the Dolphins a chance to succeed even if Plan A (Tannehill) fails.

Or Gase can keep following the Tony Sparano career arc.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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