Barry Jackson

Shula, Jimmy Johnson enjoying Dolphins’ turnaround

From left: Jimmy Johnson; Don Shula; and Wayne Huizenga share a laugh moments before the game in this Aug. 19, 1996, file photo.
From left: Jimmy Johnson; Don Shula; and Wayne Huizenga share a laugh moments before the game in this Aug. 19, 1996, file photo. Miami Herald file photo

The man who coached the Dolphins to two Super Bowl victories in what feels like a lifetime ago is on the phone now, sounding every bit as ebullient about these playoff-bound Dolphins as any success-starved Dolphins fan might.

"I am so happy and proud of them the way they've turned things around," Don Shula said. "I like the coach a lot."

Meanwhile, the man who succeeded Shula after winning two Super Bowls in Dallas is also on the phone (not at the same time, of course) and also sounds genuinely delighted about Miami’s turnaround.

"I am pulling for the Dolphins – I pull for teams where I have friends," JJ said from his home in the Keys. 

Here’s what the two most successful NFL coaches in Dolphins history had to say as the Dolphins approach their first playoff game since 2008:

• Shula, who remains the NFL’s all-time leader in coaching victories, was thoroughly impressed by Adam Gase when they met last spring and respects how he has crafted a system and a game plan to fit his personnel.

"It looks like he does that to me; he’s not forcing anything," said Shula, who guided the Dolphins to the playoffs 16 times in his 26 seasons. "He's a guy that really works hard and gets the most out of his players. 

“I think he's a down-to-earth guy. He's not flashy or flamboyant. He's a guy that is very serious and knows a lot about his job and what it takes to be coach. You can’t help but feel he’s doing the right thing."

Shula likes watching Jay Ajayi: "I had some pretty good running backs in my day with [Larry] Csonka, [Jim] Kiick and Mercury [Morris]. This guy is more of a Mercury type of running back. Great leg strength and speed and quickness."

On the quarterback situation: "I like what [Ryan] Tannehill showed [before the knee injury]. He's an athlete playing quarterback. I always like a quarterback with that kind of athletic ability.

"[Matt] Moore is stepping in and doing a great job. The backups for me were very important to the success I had. Earl Morrall was unbelievable. He did it in such a classy way. [Don] Strock didn't want to start and was great coming off the bench and making things happen….

"[Jarvis] Landry seems to be open when they're looking for somebody…. When Cam Wake comes off that edge; he's tough – the [opponents] have got to give him a lot of attention as they prepare to face him."

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase talks throughout the 2016 regular season

The best news: Shula, 87, says he feels reinvigorated after having a pacemaker installed last spring.

"I’m not playing golf anymore [but] I’m feeling good," he said.

He was hospitalized last May for fluid retention and sleep apnea before getting the pacemaker.

"Thinking back, I can't remember feeling that bad," he said. "But I didn't know how bad it was. The pacemaker is exactly what I needed. I feel better."

• Like Shula, Johnson also raves about Gase.

Gase made a move reminiscent of JJ when he cut three offensive linemen after the Tennessee loss that dropped Miami to 1-4.

"As soon as he did that, it put a smile on my face," Johnson said. "If you watched Fox NFL Sunday, I was bragging on Adam Gase half a dozen times throughout the year. He’s done a tremendous job.

"The discipline, his approach right off the bat, making some personnel changes, benching some players, cutting some players, shuffling some players. That’s what a head coach has got to do. A lot of head coaches are reluctant to do that. There are a lot of good coaches in the NFL, but a lot of good coaches don’t handle personnel as well as others. It’s not just X’s and O’s. And obviously he’s a good coach, too."

JJ hosts a lot of important NFL people – including Patriots coach Bill Belichick – at his home in the Keys during the offseason and expects Gase to visit in the coming months.

Gase "had gotten in contact and wanted to come down prior to this season and talked to Troy [Aikman] and our schedules didn’t match up, but I will get with him in the offseason," Johnson said.

JJ said he believes Tannehill is a franchise quarterback and can be a quality quarterback capable of consistently winning playoff games "as long as Adam Gase is coaching him."

As for Sunday, "only Gase and Tannehill can make that call [about whether Tannehill should play Sunday]. My past history in the NFL is I would rather have a pretty good backup at 100 percent than a starter at 75 percent."

JJ - who called Ajayi "a really good player and a great find" - says Sunday’s result "depends on if Pittsburgh is playing at their best. It depends on Pittsburgh more than Miami.

"Pittsburgh is a difficult team to gauge – they’ve had a few games where they stunk it up. But they have three of the best players in the entire league on offense. Le’Veon Bell is the best all-around back in the league."

COUPLE OTHER NOTES

• We hear the Dolphins decided to play defensive end Mario Williams ahead of Jason Jones Sunday because they wanted a bigger player against Pittsburgh’s offensive line and believe Williams could have a breakthrough.

Williams is 6-6, 300 pounds. Jones is 6-5, 278.

After getting the news, Jones then requested and received his release.

Cam Wake, looking back on Friday at the Dolphins’ decision not to make him a starter at the beginning of the season to conserve his energy but changing their mind after a 1-4 start: "That sounds like a great plan. 'Up by 30, go in to pass rush, everybody win, yay.' But this is football. It doesn't always work out that way, and we had to make some adjustments. If I'm still having to prove that I can be a starter, then that's a whole other conversation."

Wake, making his first playoff appearance after finishing sixth in the league with 11.5 sacks, put his career in perspective this way: “I wasn’t the sought after guy, I wasn’t the front page story. I wasn’t drafted. I was kind of in the back door – kick the door down – way to get in to where I am. There was no silver spoon. There was nothing handed to me. Even to this day, I had to fight and work for everything that I have. I take that motivation with me every time I step on the field. Where I got to is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, as the saying goes. But it continues to fuel me.”

• Ajayi won the Dolphins’ Dan Marino MVP award on Friday in a joint decision by the media and team... Landry was fined $48,000 for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against New England.

For an update from Ryan Tannehill on his status, please click here. For a look at the Dolphins’ plans at linebacker on Sunday and in 2017, please click here. And please follow me on Twitter (@flasportsbuzz)

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