The Miami Dolphins are 4-9 this season, but they are not far from being a contender.
There are several good pieces in place in Miami, and the cupboard is not as empty as the Dolphins' record might suggest.
Miami began moving in the right direction Monday by firing embattled head coach Tony Sparano. This move has been in the making since the team's 0-7 start. Sparano's recent hot streak only delayed the inevitable.
It's time for Miami to think about 2012 and beyond. The Dolphins are missing the two most important pieces of any NFL organization: head coach and quarterback. They must find today's version of Don Shula and Dan Marino.
The Dolphins were consistent winners under Shula and Marino. In fact, the pair once held the NFL record for most games won as a coach-quarterback combo. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady recently broke that record.
Since Shula and Marino retired, Miami has been in the doldrums with forgettable coach-quarterback pairings such as Nick Saban-Joey Harrington, Cam Cameron-Cleo Lemon and Sparano-Chad Henne. Miami's six head coaches after Shula posted a combined record of 126-127.
For the first time in four years, both spots are simultaneously open in this once-proud organization. The Dolphins must get it right or it could set them back another several years.
Miami owner Stephen Ross has deep pockets and isn't afraid to spend. He wants to make a splash. He must make a splash.
Football fans in Miami have short attention spans and have lost hope. The thousands of empty seats for every home game at Sun Life Stadium are prime evidence.
Miami is a glitzy town with an abundance of entertainment options. The Dolphins must compete with the Miami Heat's "Big Three" and the Miami Marlins, who are about to open a beautiful new ballpark. The Dolphins must give fans a reason to spend their hard-earned money on football and right now, there's no reason to do so.
It starts by hiring the right head coach. A big name with experience would help, but Miami could be hard-pressed to find one.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports the Dolphins plan to keep general manager Jeff Ireland on board and hire Carl Peterson as president. The "A-list" names such as Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden most likely won't come out of retirement unless they have complete control, or at least the ability to pick their own general manager and president. Veteran coach Jeff Fisher is a good possibility if he doesn't care about having a say in personnel. Otherwise, Miami must find the best NFL assistant to lead the team.
Finding a quarterback is next. Matt Moore is a good backup, but he's not the long-term solution who will lead a franchise to a Super Bowl.
Miami's quarterback question can be best answered in the draft. Fortunately for the Dolphins, 2012 is shaping up to be a very good quarterback class. Andrew Luck of Stanford leads the way, but he will be gone. Miami, with a top-10 pick, could have a chance at Baylor's Robert Griffin III, USC's Matt Barkley or Oklahoma's Landry Jones.
The Dolphins have one of the NFL's best left tackles, Jake Long, to protect their quarterback. Miami's next quarterback will have various weapons to throw to next season, such as receiver Brandon Marshall. Miami also has a solid defense that is only a couple players away from being elite.
With the right coach and a top-level quarterback, Miami could be dangerous.