The following column is about the Miami Dolphins, but please continue reading anyway.
The Dolphins have been the NFL's least interesting team for years. They've lacked even the rubbernecker appeal of hilariously doomed franchises like the Jets or (until, like, three months ago) the Browns. The only thing fascinating about the Dolphins in recent years has been their stubborn commitment to expensive mediocrity. They have been a Rube Goldberg do-nothing contraption that burns time and money and only produces a non-nourishing, .500-caliber football sludge.
But the Dolphins did three things in the last few weeks that suggest that the franchise is finally ready to stop swimming around in circles:
- They officially hired Patriots defensive assistant Brian Flores as head coach on Monday;
- They plan to part ways with Ryan Tannehill, per the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero;
- They tidied up their power structure by making Chris Grier a full-fledged general manager.
These moves will probably make the Dolphins a pretty terrible team in 2019, and that's a good thing. No team needs to finally start from scratch quite as badly as the Miami Dolphins.
The last time the Dolphins had a single, coherent organizational vision was when Bill Parcells took over the franchise before the 2008 season. Parcells installed Jeff Ireland as day-to-day general manager, hired Tony Sparano as head coach, imported Chad Pennington to provide competent quarterback play and improved the Dolphins record from 1-15 to 11-5 in one season.
But Parcells soon left the organization. Since his departure, the Dolphins have always had coaches and executives operating at cross purposes, some trying to rebuild while others try to win immediately, with the coaches blowing up the locker room chemistry set while the general managers overpay for veterans to replace the last batch of overpaid veterans.
Ireland proved to be inept and increasingly embarrassing without the Big Tuna around to make big-picture decisions. He alienated potential free-agent targets, traded away valuable players (Brandon Marshall), overpaid for inferior replacements (Mike Wallace) and drafted disastrously (Dion Jordan).
The Dolphins finally parted ways with Ireland in 2014 but retained two of his signature acquisitions: head coach Joe Philbin (a consolation prize when Ireland could not lure Jeff Fisher or Jim Harbaugh to Miami) and quarterback Ryan Tannehill (drafted eighth overall in 2012 after Ireland whiffed in an effort to sign Peyton Manning).
Ireland was replaced by the front-office tandem of Dennis Hickey (who handled scouting) and Mike Tannenbaum (in charge of gross overspending). Tannenbaum gradually wrested control from Hickey and continued Ireland's policy of paying ordinary starters like superstars and superstars like Ndamukong Suh as if they were royalty.
Philbin—exonerated in the 2013 Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal for not being aware of what was happening in the team's locker room—was fired early in the 2015 season for failing to turn Tannehill into Aaron Rodgers. Tannenbaum hired Adam Gase to turn Tannehill into Peyton Manning.
Tannenbaum signed Tannehill to a hefty extension. Grier replaced Hickey as the nominal general manager in charge of filling out Tannenbaum's draft board. Tannehill got hurt. Jay Cutler arrived like an old baseball pitcher to sponge up innings and paychecks. Guys who rubbed Gase the wrong way were shipped out of town. Tannenbaum added old-timers like Frank Gore and Danny Amendola to a 6-10 roster for incomprehensible reasons.
Fantasy football gamers making trades on their lunch breaks run their teams with more long-range vision than the Dolphins had in recent years. Ireland and Tannenbaum always spent so much money that the Dolphins couldn't sink into last place, even when their offensive linemen were rougher on each other than their opponents. And Tannehill was always just good enough to not replace. So the organization spun its wheels.
By the time the Dolphins fired Gase and reassigned Tannenbaum to vice president of cleaning the weight benches (or whatever) in late December, the franchise had produced just one winning season in the last decade, with nine finishes between 6-10 and 8-8.
By promoting Grier, hiring Flores and replacing Tannehill, they can finally pull themselves out of their decade-long rut. They just have to throw it into reverse so they can gain some traction.
The promotion of Grier tidies up an org chart that has looked like a drawer full of tangled old cellphone chargers since Parcells' days as emperor-in-absentia. Grier is a well-regarded talent evaluator whose resume dates back to Parcells' days with the Patriots. But before Grier can add talent, he'll be tasked with reducing payroll.
Tannehill's cap figure for 2019 is a whopping $26.6 million, and his is just one of many disorientingly inflated Tannenbaum contracts. Kiko Alonso is somehow signed through 2020 and carries an $8.3 million cap figure for this year. Reshad Jones is a fine defender, but only Tannenbaum could dream up a contract that pays a good-not-great 31-year-old safety over $17 million in salary and bonuses. And so on.
Grier said on Monday that no official decision has been made on Tannehill, but that's not something a general manager says when he plans to retain a starting quarterback with two years left on his contract. The Dolphins cap cleanse will almost certainly start—but not end—with the release of Tannehill.
The reset at quarterback is long overdue. There's a saying in the management and teaching fields: Some people have seven years of experience, while some experience the same year seven times. Tannehill embodies that saying. Contemporaries like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles and Kirk Cousins have risen, fallen, won Super Bowls, staged heroic comebacks, gotten traded and signed record contracts during Tannehill's endless gestation as a perma-prospect who was always poised to break out next year.
Purging Tannehill and other veterans with bloated contracts will plunge the Dolphins into a rebuilding cycle that should have come after the bullying scandal five years ago. And Brian Flores may be the perfect coach to lead them through the wilderness.
Pete Thamel's profile for Yahoo Sports provides a detailed snapshot of Flores: the rise from rough-and-tumble Brooklyn and Staten Island streets to an exclusive prep school and then Boston College; a grueling mentorship in the Patriots' 20-20-20 club (20-something-year-olds making 20 grand per year to work 20-hour days); a slow rise through the Patriots scouting and assistant coaching ranks.
Speaking to Flores during Super Bowl week, I didn't get the same Belichick Buddy vibe that radiated from other former Patriots assistants who shirt-tailed their way to head-coaching gigs. Flores has a quiet confidence, as opposed to know-it-all arrogance. He comes across as humble, process-oriented and player-focused, a stark contrast to the lofty, flighty chalkboard gurus Philbin and Gase.
And of course, it's easy to be optimistic about Flores after he just coached the Patriots to perhaps the greatest defensive performance in Super Bowl history.
The Dolphins gave Flores a five-year guaranteed contract. That's a signal that the organization is ready to be methodical and patient. Flores and Grier will have time to slow-cook a new roster. They aren't tanking—that's such an ugly, misleading term—they just aren't kidding themselves anymore.
The Dolphins will probably throw themselves into the rookie quarterback market in the first round. Once they purge some payroll, they will build around a handful of good young players from Grier's recent drafts: Kenyon Drake, Xavien Howard, Laremy Tunsil, Davon Godchaux.
If you've barely heard of these guys, it's because the Dolphins have been too boring and bloated to even talk about for so long.
That's about to change. The Dolphins finally realized that they must take a step backward to move forward. And for once, everyone in the organization will be in step.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.