As you might suspect from some of my posts, I’m fascinated by how successful football teams are put together, like the most successful team ever: the 1972 Dolphins. Yet somehow, I'm almost equally fascinated by how truly terrible football teams are put together. And this decade’s Miami Dolphins have been one truly terrible football team. I’ve tackled the topic several times—the bad drafts, the bad trades, the bad free agent signings. I’ve leveled blame against Dave Wannstedt, Rick Spielman, and Nick Saban among others. But there’s one person who I haven’t talked about much because, until recently, I hadn’t realized just how much of the blame he deserves.
When Wayne Huizenga became the Miami Dolphins’ new owner back in 1990, he appeared to be a welcome change from previous owner Joe Robbie. Miami achieved great success under Robbie, but Robbie was a well-known cheapskate and, though he was shrewd enough to steal away Don Shula from the Colts to coach the Fins, the two men had a terrible personal relationship. After Huizenga entered the picture he upgraded the Dolphins’ facilities and I don’t know that he and Shula ever had words with each other (at least not until 1995). Miami stopped having ugly contract holdouts and when the free agency era dawned the Dolphins weren’t shy about splurging. Despite Huizenga’s freer-spending ways though Miami never reached the same heights they had when Robbie ran the show. Yeah the team consistently won but Super Bowl appearances were becoming a distant memory. Tiring of the embarrassing postseason losses to Buffalo, Huizenga forced Shula out and replaced him with Jimmy Johnson. When a burnt-out Johnson quit four years later, Huizenga inserted Johnson’s right-hand man, Dave Wannstedt.
Huizenga preferred to put all the power over the football side of things in the hands of one person. In turn Shula, Johnson, and then Wannstedt each called all the shots. Unfortunately, Wannstedt lacked both Shula’s coaching ability and Johnson’s personnel acumen. As the fortunes of the team crumbled Huizenga changed his philosophy of giving a single man the reins of power. Mike Tanier lays it all out beautifully in his essay on the Miami Dolphins in the 2008 Football Prospectus. As Miami began to crumble under Wannstedt’s “leadership”, the team underwent a succession of disastrous front-office moves as Huizenga frantically sought undo past errors and restore the team to greatness. Or at least goodness. First Rick Spielman was brought in to assist Wannstedt with personnel decisions. That didn’t work. Huizenga then brought in Dan Marino (?!?!) to oversee football operations but luckily for his reputation and his sanity Dan realized his enormous mistake and ran back to his CBS and HBO gigs before it was too late. Huizenga then promoted Spielman over Wannstedt. Then he fired Wannstedt. Then he brought in Nick Saban to coach while keeping Spielman. Then he fired Spielman and brought in Randy Mueller as the personnel guru to work with Saban. When Saban quit, Huizenga hired Cam Cameron to coach the team but he kept on Mueller. Finally, Huizenga brought in Bill Parcells to be his chief football guy and had Parcells just blow up the whole team. Parcells canned Mueller and Cameron and brought in his own coach and GM, men who’ve worked with him before and who answer to Parcells.
As Tanier points out, from the time Huizenga first brought in Rick Spielman, the team kept changing coaches and general managers but never at the same time. Every time somebody new came in he had to work with someone already there, somebody already partly responsible for the mess the team was in. Huizenga made it impossible for the team to start rebuilding as each new person he brought in was tasked with winning right away and each new person had their own idea of just how to make that happen. Unlike the long and successful Shula era no one person was ever fully in charge (except maybe Nick Satan for a year). What a disaster; a disaster lasting years. How did I miss this pattern? I’ve concentrated most of my fire over the years on the bad decisions by Wannstedt and the others but clearly, not only did Wayne H. hire a series of fools, he created a situation where nobody could possibly succeed regardless of their abilities. It’s Huizenga who deserves most of the blame! I think deep down I was rationalizing all the false starts and disappointments on the grounds that Huizenga was at least trying (the Dan Snyder syndrome). That at least he was willing to spend big bucks without morphing into your classic interfering owner a la Jerry Jones or George Steinbrenner. Huizenga was content to let his football people make all the personnel decisions. Huizenga’s only role was just to hire GM’s and coaches (and write the checks) but he screwed up those choices every single time and, while putting one incompetent in charge is never good, Huizenga kept compounding his mistakes by forcing multiple incompetents with different agendas to work together at the same time. The result: 1-15 in 2007, a play away from the worst single-season team performance in NFL history.
Hopefully, the hiring of Parcells and the imminent departure of Huizenga from the ranks of NFL owners at long last brings this pathetic era to a close.