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An SPF Tale of Two Waynes

After NFL's week one, Patrick Snow sounded the alarm.  The Florida teams in the SPF Footprint were in trouble.  It wasn't just about losing games.  It was about losing their identity.  The Dolphins were losing theirs.  The Bucs were losing theirs.  Even more damaging, the Jaguars didn't even have one yet to lose.

The Bucs have righted the ship.  Even though it was only one win, it was how they did it.  Gruden showed that when healthy his offense works.  They attacked down the field.  Who cares that Garcia and Galloway are on the wrong side of 30?  Buc fans could remember what it was like during Gruden's first Tampa campaign that end with a Super Bowl win. 

Gruden is the Bucs identity.  He's won a Super Bowl for them, and it looks like he could do it again with the right personnel.

SPF has been calling out the Jaguars and the Dolphins with sit at numbers #11 and #12 (out of 13 teams) respectively in this week's T.I. Poll.  These teams are in trouble.  Atlanta lies below them only on the most unprecented of circumstances and could rise above them if the Byron Leftwich signing proves to mesh with Bobby Petrino's offensive philosophy.

Miami's Wayne

The Dolphins are a legacy team:  Super Bowl wins, winningest NFL coach of all time in Don Shula, great statistical QB of all time in Dan Marino, and the NFL's only undefeated season.  Shula was the one constant during all of these accomplishments.  He coached both the undefeated era and the height of the Marino era.

Today's column by Greg Cote shows the key problem - the records are going away.  Within a game or two, Brett Favre will hold all of Marino's records.  Assuming good health, Peyton Manning will pass Favre before he retires.  Both of these QBs have won Super Bowls which Marino failed to do.  Cote doesn't mention this, but even Shula's total wins and the undefeated season have lost luster because they are products of a bygone NFL era.  In the salary cap era, it is close to impossible to build dynasties.  This leads to shorter coaching career and more fluid rosters.  As the years go on, Shula's years with the Dolphins will seem less amazing and more quaint, like leather helmets and the drop kick.

The longer this team has sustained mediocrity the further the fans will get from their biggest asset - connecting their present team with its past history of success.  It's hard to put Shula's success into perspective, but here is the biggest number outside his all time wins:

Number of seasons Shula was Miami's coach - 26

Number of losing seasons during Shula's Miami tenure - 2

The Miami Dolphins are one of the most important teams of the Super Bowl era.  They've won two, went to three others covering the 70's and 80's, and went to the playoffs 8 out of 10 years during the 90's.

The downhill slide started when Shula was forced into retirement .  Jimmy Johnson, a national champion coach at University of Miami and a Super Bowl winner with the Cowboys, openly campagined for the job from his seat at Fox Sports and his boat off the coast of Miami.  Shula had not adjusted well to the new salary cap era, and it looked as though Marino's greatness would never be complemented by a running game or a defense.  Shula already had his rings and records so it seemed fitting to usher in the next "great" Dolphins coach. 

Unfortunately, Johnson killed the franchise.  Although he went to the playoffs three of his four years as coach, he failed to win a Super Bowl, let alone even coach the Dolphins in one.  Worst of all, he undermined the face of the Dolphins franchise.  Johnson implied again and again that Marino was not a winner, but a stats QB.

The road for both Johnson and Marino in Miami came to a pathetic end with a 62-7 drubbing by the Jacksonville Jaguars.  After that game, both Marino and Johnson retired and headed for the broadcast booth.  

Like the worst kind of social disease, Johnson's tenure as Dolphins coach was the "gift that kept on giving".  Having marginalized Shula's influence in the organization over Johnson's, Huizenga agreed to hire Johnson's choice to be his successor - Dave Wannstedt.

A proven loser as the Chicago Bears coach, Wannstedt was still one of Jimmy's guys.  Johnson assured Huizenga that Wannstedt would be the next best thing to Johnson himself.  I guess in a way Johnson was right.  Wannstedt coached for 5 years with 4 winning seasons and two playoff berths. 

However, Wannstedt only won one playoff game, the season right after Johnson retired, and never went to the playoffs again after year two.  Wannstedt also frittered away the best years of the young defense Johnson built (much in the same way Johnson frittered away Marino's career) without ever restocking.  Wannstedt also made the disasterous Ricky Williams trade that set the franchise back even further.

By the time, Huizenga finally pulled the plug on the ineffective Wannstedt, too much damage had been done.  Unlike his fiery predecessors, Wannstedt soft and likable, constantly trying to put a good spin on his team's obvious mediocrity.  Over Wannstedt's impossibly long 5 years as Dolphins coach, he conditioned a fan base that had previously expected excellence to accept far less.

The fact that Wannstedt replaced Dan Marino with Jay Fiedler was a slap in the face to the franchise's legacy.  To ask a fan base that had only known Hall of Famers at the QB position (Bob Griese and Marino) to rally behind a career backup had a corrosive effect that can't be measured.

Nick Saban arrived too late to save the sinking ship.  His Belichick background allowed him to coach up the Dolphins from 4-12 to 9-7 in year one, but when Saban lost Ricky Williams to a drug suspension before year two, Saban had to take a chance with the injured Duante Culpepper at QB.  Saban knew he needed a playmaker to make up for Ricky's absence. 

The Culpepper gamble didn't work because he never was fully healthy.  The Dolphins sank back down.  When Alabama came calling with a yearly offer and total guarantee that exceed Saban's Dolphin contract, Saban left. 

SPF has always guessed that he gave Huizenga a chance to match, but only if Huizenga would allow him to rebuild the team going into 2007.  Huizenga would never agree to that coming on the heels of his massive financial investment in Dolphins Stadium.  He had to have a coach that would say the Dolphins were still a playoff contender, something Saban wouldn't do.

Now, Dolphin fans have Cam Cameron as their leader.  Another milquetoast guy from the Wannstedt cloth, a career assistant and proven loser as a head coach.   The media like him better than Saban, but his tenure will only reinforce the Wannstedt effect on this once proud franchise.

Jacksonville's Wayne

These following exchanges occured in a Florida Times-Union interview with Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver right before the 2007 season commenced, fresh on the heels of releasing Byron Leftwich.

FTU: What about [James] Harris' status? His first pick [Leftwich] didn't work out, and some of the other first-round picks haven't lived up to expectations.

Weaver:  This business is not an exact science. We're not the first club to have to cut a first-round draft pick. James Harris has done a good job. We've had some first-round draft choices that haven't reached their potential, but we think some of these guys are still a work in progress. Look at the whole body of our work. Our drafts have been pretty good.

FTU: Does Del Rio have to make the playoffs to save his job?

Weaver:  No. We really believe we're building the right way. You've got to be patient. If you look at our last three seasons, we're seventh in the league (in the regular season). That's not a bad record.

FTU: But isn't it all about the playoffs?

Weaver:  I want to be in the playoffs, but when you're in the top quartile in the NFL, you're doing something right.

FTU: So will he be the coach regardless of the record this year?

Weaver:  Jack is my football coach. Absolutely. I don't see anything other than a disaster that would change that.

FTU: What's your definition of a disaster?

Weaver:  I'm not getting into that. I have every confidence in Jack Del Rio. Jack Del Rio is my football coach, and I expect him to be here next year and the year after that and into the future.

Wayne, we hate to tell you, but you already are in the middle of a disaster, and his name is Jack Del Rio.  You need to learn from your namesake who resides just a few hours south of you on I-95.  You have your own Jimmy Johnson on your hands right now, but without any of Johnson's history or pedigree.  Considering your Jaguar team has none of Miami's history or pedigree from a team perspective, this might be a major league disaster waiting to happen for the future of your team.

The Jaguars are going down the same road as the Dolphins, but it can be even more damaging, perhaps costing the Jacksonville market their NFL franchise.  Like Johnson, coach Jack Del Rio (a Johnson disciple BTW) came in as part of a dream team.  Johnson supposedly would have Shula's blessing and input as well as Marino's.  Del Rio replaced Tom Coughlin who had total control of the Jaguars.  Weaver made it clear that he felt that kind of power was a mistake so he hired James "Shack" Harris from the respected Baltimore Raven organization as his GM.  Weaver made it clear that all decisions would be made by himself, Harris, and Del Rio together.

However, it is crystal clear that Jack Del Rio is starting to run the organizaiton unilaterally, just like Johnson did in Miami.   This is a very, very disturbing thing.  All one has to do is read recent column's by the Florida Times-Union's Sam Borden, one on the departure of Byron Leftwich and the other on the struggles of WR Matt Jones.  We don't blame Borden.  He's a local Jax sports columnist who needs to keep a good relationship with Del Rio, but come on now, Borden is either furthering Del Rio spin or drinking Del Rio kool-aid.

Del Rio, a defensive coach, inherited two monsters at the DT position, Marcus Stroud and John Henderson - both drafted by Tom Coughlin.  Over the next four years, the Harris/Weaver/ Del Rio triumvirate drafted 4 straight offensive players in the first round - QB Byron Leftwich, WR Reggie Williams, WR Matt Jones, and TE Mercedes Lewis.  So far, Del Rio has been unable to make any of these picks into consistent and productive starters.

Instead, Del Rio masterminded Leftwich's departure and is now publicly calling out Matt Jones.  The offense under Del Rio's QB of choice David Garrard has averaged less than two TDs a game. 

Del Rio can spin all he wants, but Leftwich was a winner.  He won games and he threw TDs with few interceptions. Leftwich also made Reggie Williams a better player as well.

Del Rio parlayed a deceptive 11-5 (lots of easy wins against bad teams) into a rich. long term deal.  Like his mentor Johnson, Del Rio quickly knew how to use this upper hand to his benefit.  When the Jags fell back to earth last season, Del Rio conveniently found a scapegoat for his inability to develop a consistent offense around the picks he was given - Leftwich.  Del Rio put him on IR last season even though Leftwich insisted he could play.  Then, Del Rio cut him in the final preseason week.

Mr. Weaver, please do not fool yourself into thinking that Del Rio is acting in the Jaguars best interest.  If Del Rio truly believed that either Leftwich of Jones weren't the real deal, his job as coach is to talk positively about them to the public while trying to move them in trade behind the scenes.  First round picks are an extremely valuable commodity in the NFL.  They cannot be wasted.  So far, Del Rio has burned one (Leftwich), squandered one (Reggie Williams), and on his way to burning another (Matt Jones).  This will only set the franchise back - something this franchise cannot afford to do anymore than it already has.

By season's end, Weaver should count on being forced to make a choice between Harris and Del Rio.  His grand plan of de-centralizing football decision will be abandoned through Del Rio's silent coup.

Del Rio is a smart guy.  He knows the choice is coming and that he could be on the wrong end looking for a job.  By jettisoning Leftwich and calling out the rest of Harris's offensive picks, Del Rio is setting himself up for his next job.  Del Rio's story in his next head coaching interview will be that he was saddled with bad players not of his choice.  Chances are, Del Rio will find another job based on that story.

Mr. Weaver - learn from Mr. Huzienga.  Don't allow a coach to save his own skin by gutting your roster of potential stars.  Your personnel, your draft picks are the core of your franchise's long term value.  Del Rio is only winning today thanks to the defensive selections made by Tom Coughlin. 

SPF's advice to Wayne Weaver - stop the madness.  If the Jaguars lose in Denver this weekend and lack of offense it to blame, call everyone out.  The fans in Jacksonville deserve to hear their owner say plainly and clearly that everyone is on notice.  If the Jaguars do not make the playoffs, no one's job is safe - including Del Rio's, Harris', and the players.

By doing this, you will force everyone to work together.  Del Rio won't be able to run and hide by cutting loose Harris' picks.  The players will get the message as well.  Most of all, the fans in Jacksonville will get the message that you will not accept mediocrity.

Long Term Outlook - Miami's ok, Jags not sure

The Dolphins are clearly still living in the Wannstedt era, but Huizenga can change all this with the stroke of a pen.  Bill Cowher will be available this offseason, as will other proven winners like Bill Parcells and Marty Schottenheimer.  Miami must get back on the winning track, but Huizenga has both the will and the dollars to do it.

The Jaguars are in much worse shape.  Blackouts, covered seats, wasted first round picks, and an uncompelling product on the field are what defines this team today.  In the NFL's smallest market that has little room for immediate growth, continuing on this path could be catastrophic.  Read this exchange from the same Florida Times-Union interview with Wayne Weaver quoted above:

FTU: Is the NFL viable in Jacksonville in view of the problems selling tickets?

Weaver:  Jacksonville is a good football market. That [ticket-selling problem] has more to do with being a small market and some of it is the economy right now. The market has a large blue-collar work force. They led the World Football League in attendance.

FTU: But the tickets were much cheaper, and Jacksonville has a low median income for an NFL city. Can the city afford NFL football?

Weaver:  We were filled up the first five years. I think winning makes a difference. I don't blame the fans. They remember the last three games of last year. We've just got to continue to grow and more people come in and we have to convert them to Jaguar fans.

Stop kidding yourself, Wayne.  You preach unity, but your coach is calling out and/or cutting your GM's players.  You say the Jacksonville market is strong, yet you complain about revenue sharing.  Your team - boring.  Your coach - already playing CYA games.  Your market - confused.

If the issue in Jacksonville is that the market is too small to field a winning team, something Weaver hints at with his actions (layoffs, cheap hires, covered seats) even though he denies it in print, then stop denying it.  You and the Jacksonville market would be better off having an honest discussion.  There are far superior markets than Jacksonville that are available, including Los Angeles, San Antonio, Birmingham, Portland, even down the road in Orlando.

The NFL has a mixed track record on building regional teams, something you must do to be successful in Jacksonville.  Start by preaching excellence and demanding it from everyone.  SPF doesn't believe that Weaver has an agenda to move the Jaguars, but he might be forced to do so. 

Mr Weaver, If you are committed to Jacksonville, wake up and realize that is your job and yours alone to make it work.  Your coach, your GM, and your roster will always have opportunities elsewhere in the league.  Your commissioner and fellow owners have done all they can do by giving you a Super Bowl and revenue sharing.  You are Jacksonville's final and only hope because no one else can and will ever have your committment to Jacksonville.

Look south, and realize, the other Wayne is the flip side to your coin.  The only difference is that he has the ability to make a few more mistakes.  You don't. 

It's time to press the panic button - for everyone's good.

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