Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross ended a year's worth of speculation on Monday by firing head coach Tony Sparano. Sparano had been the team's head coach since 2008, when he led the Dolphins to their only playoff appearance since 2001. 2008 will prove to be the bright spot of Sparano's tenure, as he finishes with a 29-32 record in over three years at the helm of the Dolphins, who will finish the season with a losing record for the third consecutive year. Ross famously courted Jim Harbuagh- now head coach of the San Francisco 49ers- in January, and signed Sparano to a contract extension when he failed to land Harbaugh.
Sparano's firing coincides with the report from ESPN's Chris Mortensen that former Kansas City Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson will join the Dolphins front office in Bill Parcells' old role. Furthermore, current general manager Jeff Ireland is expected to remain with the team. Ross has denied he will bring Peterson on board, but Mortensen is reporting that is not true. Peterson's seemingly imminent hiring raises three questions: first, what more has Ireland accomplished in his three plus years on the job than Sparano that merits staying? Second, if Peterson is hired, what direction would he take this team in the rebuilding process? Finally, how would a Peterson/Ireland team fare in building the Dolphins?
Did Jeff Ireland Earn His Right to Stay?
Ireland came to the Dolphins along with Sparano and Parcells following the 2007 season. The team was immediately rebuilt in the image of past Parcells teams: power football. This meant big offensive and defensive lineman, a strong defense, and a power running game. Sparano fit the mold well- he was the offensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys during Parcells' stint as a head coach there. Ireland was hired as a scout for the Cowboys in 2001 and was promoted to Vice President of College and Pro Scouting in 2005. Since he has only had final say in personnel decisions with the Dolphins for one year, it is difficult to determine his team-building philosophy. However, since Parcells chose him to assist in front-office decisions, it is likely that they share philosophies. Perhaps Ireland has seen that the NFL has evolved in the past decade and can assimilate, but he should have seen the change years ago when he was getting started.
Even if he didn't have the final say on personnel, he needs to be evaluated. Thus far, Ireland has produced mixed results. Some early, non-first round draft picks have hit (Sean Smith, Kendall Langford, and Brian Hartline) and some have missed (Phillip Merling, Nolan Carroll, and Pat White). There is also the controversial choice of taking T Jake Long over QB Matt Ryan, but that is mostly attributed to Parcells and wasn't necessarily a bad choice, even if it may not have been the correct one. Some trades and free agent signings worked out (Karlos Dansby, Reggie Bush, and Kevin Burnett) and some didn't (Jake Grove, Gibril Wilson, and Justin Smiley). Again, it is hard to know how much Ireland had to do with any of these moves (except Bush and Burnett), but there still has to be a way to assess his job thus far. Ireland may not have a terrible record, but he doesn't have an exemplary one, and his record is indicative of an outdated way of building a team.
Can Carl Peterson Build a Winning Team?
Peterson spent 20 years running the Chiefs from 1989-2008. During his time there, the Chiefs made nine trips to the postseason, but never made it to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs' best teams in the 1990's were built on defense and running, which was popular at the time and generally considered the best way to build a team. In fact, three of the four head coaches he hired (Marty Schottenheimer, Gunther Cunningham, and Herm Edwards) were definitely defensive-minded head coaches. The fourth head coach, Dick Vermeil, had reputed gurus Mike Martz and Al Saunders as offensive coordinators during his seasons overseeing great offenses. If Peterson favors defensive-minded coaches, and it appears he does, he needs to show a record of someone who has the ability to adapt to modern NFL needs.
Let's start with the quarterbacks of the Peterson era in Kansas City. Peterson signed, drafted, or traded for quarterbacks Joe Montana, Steve DeBerg, Elvis Grbac, Rich Gannon, Trent Green, Brodie Croyle, and Tyler Thigpen while in Kansas City. Joe Montana had previously been benched in San Francisco in favor of Steve Young, and was well past his prime by the time he arrived in Kansas City. Rich Gannon went on to have four Pro Bowl seasons with the Oakland Raiders, all coming after he left Kansas City. Trent Green had a couple of good years, but was marred by interceptions and benefitted from having Al Saunders call plays and Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson running the ball (more on them soon). The other quarterbacks had their moments, but none made a lasting impression, and none could be considered franchise-type quarterbacks. Peterson never selected a quarterback in the first round of the draft and only twice picked quarterbacks in the second round. Those quarterbacks were Mike Elkins in 1989 and Matt Blundin in 1992. Ever hear of those guys? Me neither. Peterson never showed an inclination to draft and develop a quarterback, instead electing for stopgap options throughout his career.
Instead, Peterson built his offense around the running game. Running backs Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes, and Larry Johnson all starred for Kansas City during Peterson's tenure, while he failed to develop any receivers of note between Tony Gonzalez (drafted in 1997) and Dwayne Bowe (drafted in 2007). WR Joe Horn was drafted by the Chiefs in 1996, but didn't gain even 600 yards or start more than one game in a season until he joined the New Orleans Saints. It would be troubling enough if wide receivers were ignored by Peterson in the draft, but they were not. Peterson drafted 15 wide receivers and only Dwayne Bowe made a Pro Bowl and none of the other ones had careers of any consequence. The reason this is so troubling is that Peterson seems to lack the ability to identify talent at wide receiver, something that is crucial in the NFL today.
Peterson did experience success in Kansas City for many years, and drafting has something to do with that success. So who were some of his best picks? There's LB Derrick Thomas (nine Pro Bowls; Hall of Fame), CB Dale Carter (four Pro Bowls), G Will Shields (12 Pro Bowls; eligible for Hall of Fame this year), S Jerome Woods (one Pro Bowl), DE Jared Allen (one Pro Bowl), RB Jamaal Charles (one Pro Bowl), RB Larry Johnson (two Pro Bowls), G Brian Waters (five Pro Bowls; undrafted free agent originally signed with Dallas Cowboys, but debuted with Kansas City Chiefs), FB Kimble Anders (three Pro Bowls; signed as an undrafted free agent), FB Tony Richardson (two Pro Bowls), C Tim Grunhard (one Pro Bowl), LB Gary Stills (one Pro Bowl), and the aforementioned Gonzalez and Bowe. He also drafted current starters T Branden Albert, T Barry Richardson, LB Derrick Johnson, LB Tamba Hali, DE Glenn Dorsey, CB Brandon Flowers, and CB Brandon Carr. How many offensive skill positions did you count among current starters and best draft picks? Four. That's it. Four offensive skill players drafted by Peterson made the Pro Bowl and only two skill players are starting-caliber on the current team. Peterson's success with Kansas City is rather impressive, but it was built on defense and linemen.
While defense and a power running game cannot be ignored, it is hard to argue that Peterson amassed the kind of offensive talent in his final years that is necessary for success. Someone whose success is predicated on "the old ways" of the NFL might have trouble adapting to today's game. And it is not as though Peterson didn't have the time to adapt. The game changed while he was still in the Chiefs' front office. Franchise quarterbacks and dynamic offenses became the norm for winning teams and by the end of his time in Kansas City, those Chiefs teams were behind the curve from an offensive standpoint. The game changed and it seemed as though Peterson was unable to see it.
How Will a Peterson/Ireland Dynamic Work?
Hiring Peterson while retaining Ireland is bound to create a tense dynamic in the front office. Ireland has spent several years in the front office of an NFL franchise working his way up the chain of command. He spent three years under the tutelage of Parcells in Miami before being handed the personnel reigns. It is unlikely he would be so enthusiastic about giving that power back to Peterson.
Peterson, on the other hand, is an accomplished NFL executive. His teams made the playoffs nine times and Kansas City was one of the better teams in the league in their 1990's heyday, when they won 102 regular season games in the decade. If Peterson is hired, he will certainly want decision-making power, because he will feel as though he has earned it.
Would Peterson and Ireland be able to coexist? Perhaps they would. If they do, it means that Ireland, a guy who helped build the Dolphins roster that for a while was unequipped to compete in the modern NFL, will work under or with a man who has not proven able to build a modern NFL roster. Peterson is a part of the old guard that was not able to adapt. His track record proves as much. In 20 years, he never drafted a franchise quarterback, instead choosing stopgap options at the sport's most critical position. The past two decades have shown that franchise quarterbacks are imperative to a team's success. Peterson may understand a quarterback is important, but was able to find ways to win without an elite one. That doesn't work anymore. The best teams all have drafted franchise quarterbacks, even traditional defensive teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Franchise quarterbacks are essential today and the Dolphins sorely need one.
The Dolphins' biggest problem the past few years is that they weren't modern enough. The team philosophy failed and change is certainly needed. Sparano is a good leader, and may get another chance to be a head coach in the NFL, but he needs time to learn what it takes to win today. Ireland came up as a part of that old guard and needs time to learn before he gets another shot to run a team. It is probably too late for Peterson. He has been around too long and already failed to adapt. Firing Sparano was a step in the right direction for the Dolphins, but continuing with Ireland, Peterson, or both will only stunt the growth of this team.
Bob Dylan once wrote about the older generation, "your old road is/rapidly agin'/please get out of the new one/if you can't lend your hand/for the times they are a-changin'." If Ross is serious about contending in this league, he will need to get with the times. They have a-changed in the league, but don't look to be a-changin' in Miami.