On January 16, 2008, the Miami Dolphins ended a short search for a new head coach by hiring Tony Sparano. Three days later, the Baltimore Ravens made what seemed at the time to be a similar move when they hired John Harbaugh to become their head coach.
Harbaugh, like Sparano, had never been an NFL head coach. Neither was even an NFL coordinator when hired, although Harbaugh had previously been the Philadelphia Eagles special teams coach.
So two similar situations. Two similar hires.
But here we are 11 years later and Harbaugh has won a Super Bowl. He has taken his team to the playoffs in seven of his 11 seasons. And he is still the head coach in Baltimore.
The Ravens had one general manager during that entire time and are now on their second because Ozzie Newsome retired at the end of 2018.
The Ravens have had one owner since 2004.
So consistency. And steadiness. And commitment have led to success in Baltimore.
You already know they don’t quite stack up.
The Dolphins used to be like the Ravens are now. Joe Robbie owned the team from its fledgling season in 1966 until his death in 1990, and his family kept the team until January of 1994. Don Shula was the head coach for 26 seasons.
There was stability in Miami. There was a commitment to one thing, and that was always winning.
But here we are in 2019, and this Dolphins franchise looks, sounds, acts nothing like that one from long ago.
And it has gotten progressively worse.
Brian Flores is about to embark on his first season as the Dolphins’ latest coach. He is the team’s sixth head coach in the same time the Ravens had only Harbaugh on the job.
The Dolphins have had five men — Bill Parcells, Jeff Ireland, Dennis Hickey, Mike Tannenbaum and Chris Grier — head the personnel department since 2008 while Newsome alone remained in Baltimore.
And current owner Stephen Ross is the second owner the Dolphins have had in the time only Steve Bisciotti has owned the Ravens.
So on Sunday what you will see is a case study in stability versus instability. And if you’re unsure which is better among these polar opposite ways of doing business, the Ravens and Dolphins have played eight games since that 2008 season.
And the Ravens have won seven of those eight.
With those results, you would think Ross would be thinking about using the more successful approach. You would think Ross would have learned that instability and lack of commitment simply do not work in the NFL.
You would think. And then you would look at the owner’s record and see he has given each of his three previous non-interim head coaches an average of only 48 games on the sideline before firing each of them.
This year, after 10 full seasons as owner, Ross announced a new approach to how his franchise would conduct its football business. So, yeah, a course change.
And the most concise and insightful way Ross explained what he wanted to get away from was this:
“We’ve been operating under a philosophy that we had a good young roster and it needed maybe free agents and draft choices and we’d be very competitive,” Ross said the day he fired Adam Gase.
So having a young roster, adding free agents and more draft choices was apparently wrong.
Ross suggested the free agency additions were going to stop. They didn’t, the Dolphins signed free agents this offseason.
Maybe he meant the chase for expensive veterans was going to stop. It didn’t. The Dolphins recently tried to trade for Houston Texans franchise player Jadeveon Clowney. And the team had significant interest in New England free agent Trey Flowers until the price for him reached outer orbit.
Ross clarified his meaning last March when he said the Dolphins’ approach would be to draft good players and develop them. He made it plain that the plan was about the future. And he spoke proudly about how the young players already on the squad would form a strong nucleus for that future.
“We have a good young nucleus to start with,” Ross said. “It’s not like we’re starting all over again. We have great players. You walk around [among general managers, coaches and owners at the NFL annual meeting] and guys say ‘Hey, I want [Laremy] Tunsil. I want this guy.’
“Yeah, so do we. We’re going to keep them, Xavien Howard and all of that kind of stuff. We have some real good ballplayers. And we are a young team, but there are positions we need to get better at. You’re not going to go buy those positions. You’ve got to draft and build them and grow them.”
Ross said this on March 26. On August 31 the Dolphins traded Tunsil to the Houston Texans.
So things changed, as they always seem to with the Dolphins. In March the team’s brain trust was stiff-arming other clubs interested in bidding on Tunsil. Not interested, they said, because of new a philosophy set for the future.
Five months later the new philosophy set for the future apparently had aged and could be significantly adjusted.
This is typical of the Dolphins.
This organization changes course more often than a bumble bee. The Dolphins are here or there or someplace else they weren’t at a few days or weeks ago.
It starts at the top with Ross. And then it seeps down.
So Ross says in November 2016 he has finally found the right coach in Gase. And in December 2018 Gase is fired.
The team is committed to quarterback Ryan Tannehill when it drafts him in April 2012. And then-coach Joe Philbin feels no longer committed in April 2014 when he asks general manager Dennis Hickey to draft quarterback Derek Carr.
Ross hires Hickey after an extensive GM search in January 2014. And then effectively knee-caps Hickey by hiring Tannenbaum as executive vice president of football operations in January of 2015.
The Dolphins love Ndamukong Suh so much in 2015 that they give him quarterback money to play defensive tackle. Then they push him out the door after the 2017 season.
They traded Jason Taylor in 2008. Brought him back in 2009. Let him leave in 2010. Brought him back in 2011.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman promises to run a hurry-up offense in 2012 and 2013. And doesn’t either season.
Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor promises to run a hurry-up offense in 2014 and 2015. And doesn’t either season.
The Dolphins announce they’re going to play man-press and ask the personnel department to find man-press cornerbacks. And then they rarely play man-press on defense.
These examples of the Dolphins failing to commit to something they do may seem more like a history lesson. So let’s move the focus to this year.
They hire offensive line coach Pat Flaherty in February 2019. And fire him after two padded practices in July 2019.
They promise in March they’re not going to sign other team’s used-up free agents because those almost never work out. Then they add offensive lineman Jordan Mills and tight ends Dwayne Allen and Clive Walford weeks later and end up cutting all three because, not surprisingly, they didn’t work out.
The Dolphins conduct the talent-gathering portion of the 2019 offseason as if they intend to pull back (tank) during the 2019 season. They get rid of dozens of players who needed to go, but don’t do what all teams that want to compete do:
They don’t replace many of those guys.
And they certainly don’t upgrade from any.
Defensive ends Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn are released and traded, respectively. But there is no chase of, for example, Za’Darius Smith in free agency. Smith, who had 8 1/2 sacks for Baltimore in 2018, got a contract worth a whopping $16.5 million per season from the Green Bay Packers.
And the Dolphins were probably not interested in paying the Smith, 26, that much money when free agency opened in March.
But seven days ago they were interested in trading for Clowney, 26, and would have paid him $16 million for the 2019 season.
So which is it? We don’t want high-priced pass rushers? Or we do want high-priced pass rushers?
We’re tanking? Or we’re not tanking?
That, by the way, is a thing. The Dolphins hate that anyone believes they’re tanking. Flores fumes at the idea.
Except Flores didn’t exactly demand the personnel department put together a plum 2019 roster for him, did he? He defended the idea of trading Tunsil, one of the team’s best players for draft picks that won’t help him until next year at the earliest.
Anyway, tanking or not tanking is not the point. But it is symptomatic of the franchise’s inability to commit to something and then stick to it. This franchise is like a bachelor who freaks out after dating the same woman for six months.
And that inability to stay the course, to stay committed, is no way to find success.
The way to find success is to have a moral compass and a conviction about the things that are proven and true. And then sticking with those convictions even through tough times.
And how should that work, John Harbaugh?
“If you’re teaching good principles, sound principles, from a perspective of being all in and you believe in it yourself,” Harbaugh said, “and you stick to it.”