When he arrived in the spring of 1997 as the new coach of the New York Jets, Bill Parcells could have decided to take a slow, steady approach to rebuilding a team that was 1-15 the year before.
That’s not what he did.
He gathered everyone on the Jets staff, which at the time included present-day Dolphins football czar Mike Tannenbaum as the director of player contracts, and told them there would be no time to enjoy a honeymoon season.
The rebuild, Parcells ordered, would be done on the fly.
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Parcells wanted to build a team for today as well as tomorrow.
“I called the meeting with all the people in the organization, male and female,” Parcells recalled last week. “I told them we were going to do everything we could to change the fortunes of the franchise as soon as possible. I don’t know what my exact words were, but I told them we needed everybody to try to do everything they could to help us. And I told them I would do whatever I could to help them.”
And that was the start of the Jets lifting themselves to a 9-7 record the first season under Parcells, and 12-4 with an AFC East title and berth in the conference title game the following season.
Parcells, it must be noted, was hired by the Dolphins in December 2007 and used a similar philosophy to immediately turn an embarrassing 1-15 team in 2007 into an 11-5 division champion in 2008.
And the reason this is important today is that formula for turning things around quickly — without pause for a honeymoon phase … maximizing the talent already on the team … acquiring older veterans, often at discounted prices from their previous deals … mixing the veterans with up-and-coming youngsters and rookies — is what the Dolphins are trying to replicate this offseason.
Tannenbaum witnessed firsthand how it worked in 1997 and saw it work for the Dolphins from his perch as the Jets GM in 2008. So even as the Dolphins speak of an organizational approach and decision-making, this is Tannenbaum’s baby the Dolphins are birthing.
And this isn’t about rebuilding.
This isn’t about enjoying a honeymoon season for new coach Adam Gase.
“What we’re trying to do is get better,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said at the NFL annual meetings. “We’re trying to win. I think we have a lot of great players. When you have a fifth-year quarterback, you shouldn’t be rebuilding.”
It’s not just about the quarterback being a veteran and not wasting his prime. Ndamukong Suh is the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL and Miami has a handful of players making more than $8 million per year on average.
So there are compelling reasons the Dolphins believe they should not whitewash the entire roster and start anew.
Outside the organization, however, the team’s logic is challenged by facts that would point out that a rebuild is the right way to go.
After all, the Dolphins have a rookie coach.
The Dolphins have a rookie general manager.
The Dolphins have an owner who has never seen his team finish above .500, much less get in the playoffs during the seven years since he paid $1.1 billion for the club.
But it’s not just about winning now. Parcells was thinking, win immediately but build it to last. That didn’t happen after 2008 for the Dolphins, but Parcells did have better success doing it in New York.
So what can make this version of the same approach work? The Dolphins believe they have a plan in place to compete for the division title today even as they hope a young team grows up quickly and endures.
“I like the athleticism we’ve added at linebacker, certainly safety, the size at corner,” Tannenbaum said. “Those are a couple of areas that come to mind. There’s still more work to be done. And the other thing, too, that is always a factor is we have young players — every team does — that are going to have to play more, that are going to ascend, have more responsibilities.
“Guys like Kenny Stills and Jay Ajayi, Dion Sims. They’ll have a lot more opportunities this year and it’ll be up to them to embrace it. Improvement from within is always an underrated aspect of when you’re trying to improve your team year over year from the previous year.”
Indeed, the Dolphins got older at defensive end this offseason with Mario Williams replacing Olivier Vernon. They added 31-year-old veteran Jermon Bushrod and 30-year-old Kraig Urbik to compete with last year’s much younger starting guards.
The Dolphins got older and pundits were puzzled. But study the rosters of all the AFC East teams.
Miami is the youngest team in the division, and it’s not even close.
The Dolphins today have 45 players who are 25 years old or younger on their roster. That is the most of any team in the AFC East.
The Dolphins today have six players who are 30 years old or older on their roster. That is the fewest of any AFC East team.
The Dolphins have 10 starters who are 25 years old or younger. That trails only the Buffalo Bills, who have 11 such starters, including five on offense.
The Dolphins have only four starters, including long snapper John Denny, who are 30 years old or older. That is the fewest older starters of any team in the AFC East.
So although some critics (yes, including me) wagged fingers indignantly for losing the 25-year-old Vernon and replacing him with the 31-year-old Williams, the Dolphins just kind of shrugged because facts don’t bear out that they’re an aging team.
“He’s a good addition for us. We need some veteran leadership in that locker room,” Gase said of Williams. “I think that the guys that we’ve signed so far are going to be good additions in that area. We’re so young. We are so young in that locker room, and we need some guys to come in there [and] if things don’t go right, we got guys that can pull guys up to be like, ‘Hey, this is the NFL. It’s not going to go smooth. You’re not going to go 16-0. It’s tough.’
“We needed some veteran presence in that locker room, and I think Mario is going to bring that.”
Parcells notes that having young players mix with veterans is not the only way to win now and later. It is ultimately about talent. He knew good players when he saw them. And he was able to round up more from his previous coaching stints because he knew they would fit.
“The kitchen wasn’t empty when we got to the Jets, now,” he said. “There were some young players that were there. But they were good players, too.”
The questions with these Dolphins is are they adding the right vets and are the youngsters on the team good enough to be part of a turnaround?
The team believes Jarvis Landry, all of 23 years old, definitely is good enough. But is 24-year-old guard Billy Turner? Are 23-year-olds Stills and DeVante Parker?
The answer to those questions will help decide whether this plan to build on the fly rather than rebuild was the right thing to do.