Chris Mortensen archive: columns

Wannstedt better than his record with the Bears

Contrary to popular belief, Dave Wannstedt was not a bad football coach in Chicago.

Now, hear this: Dave Wannstedt may be a better football coach than Jimmy Johnson in Miami.

Johnson is a great CEO. He can make things click and, all in all, he understands personnel. He understands organization. He understands motivation.

Jay Fiedler
Jay Fiedler -- Wannstedt's choice as Dolphins' quarterback -- was 15-for-24 for 134 yards and threw one touchdown in his debut win over Seattle.

But in a football chess match, I would have taken Bill Parcells over Johnson. Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren, too. Throw in Jim Mora. And, yes, maybe even Dave Wannstedt.

That's why I believe the Miami Dolphins will be a better football team under Wannstedt than they were under Johnson.

Now, I know that's a mouthful. Nevertheless, I believe it.

Wannstedt's failures in Chicago (41-57) were well-documented. I just never heard an opposing coach privately say that the Bears were a poorly coached or an ill-prepared team. They just had bad players. Johnson has left him with good players.

I mean, much was made this past week that Wannstedt was 1-11 vs. Mike Holmgren going into the Dolphins game with Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks. Wannstedt is now 2-11 after Miami throttled Seattle 23-0. The game wasn't that close.

As for that previous 1-11 mark that Wannstedt accrued against Holmgren's Green Bay Packers, well, just compare at the rosters, not to mention the front offices of the Bears and Packers during that period.

Holmgren's right-hand man was Ron Wolf, one of the best general managers in the NFL. Wannstedt's right-hand man was Mike McCaskey. Get the picture?

Wannstedt's quarterbacks were Jim Harbaugh, Dave Krieg, Steve Walsh, Steve Stenstrom, Rick Mirer and Erik Kramer. Holmgren had Brett Favre.

Holmgren coached the Packers when they were loaded. Remember when Dorsey Levens used to back up Edgar Bennett? They had receivers like Sterling Sharpe, Robert Brooks and Antonio Freeman. Their Super Bowl championship year, they had Keith Jackson and Mark Chmura at tight end. On defense, Reggie White and Leroy Butler were in their prime, and Gilbert Brown was hungry, not just for the nearby Burger King.

The point here is that you had Wolf, one of the game's great talent men, stacking the deck for Holmgren, one of the game's great coaches.

The Bears had Wannstedt basically trying to do both jobs. He wasn't very good at one of them but, perhaps, even that was a little misleading.

Wannstedt had his choice of two jobs -- the Bears and the New York Giants -- following the Cowboys' first Super Bowl title in 1993. His close friend, Johnson, brokered the deal by convincing the Bears that the only way Wannstedt would take the job is if he had control over personnel. He also sold Wannstedt on the idea that a coach should always have control of personnel.

It was a mistake. Bears president Mike McCaskey pushed a good personnel man, Bill Tobin, out of the way. Wannstedt then inherited a splintered scouting staff that was working on a budget that barely surpassed that of the cheapskate Cincinnati Bengals. Support staff? Hardly. The Giants would have been the right choice for Wannstedt, who was doing his first duty as a head coach.

Miami is almost a complete contrast from Chicago, and not just on the weather front. The Dolphins' front office support staff is loaded, perhaps even overloaded. When Wannstedt makes a decision now in the personnel department, I believe he'll have pretty good information to get this right more than wrong. He can thank Johnson the CEO for that.

Marino never appreciated Wannstedt's lukewarm approach to the issue of whether Marino should return for another season. Let's face it, Wannstedt believed it was time [for Marino] to move on.

On the coaching side, Wannstedt always had told me that he learned a great deal from his failures in Chicago. He never spelled out every one of them, but I suspect that he could have had a stronger coaching staff with the Bears.

He did not make the same mistake in Miami. In fact, one rival AFC coach said he cringed when he saw that Wannstedt had guts enough to hire Chan Gailey as his offensive coordinator. That Gailey was just coming off a stint as a head coach (in Dallas) and still has aspirations to be a head coach never bothered Wannstedt. He just wanted the best possible person for the job.

There were other changes, including the hiring of the spirited Jim Bates as defensive coordinator. Wannstedt put together a better staff than Johnson, who also had handcuffed his coaches. In fact, I always thought Johnson intimidated his assistants into a fairly Neanderthal approach whereas his coordinator in Dallas, Norv Turner, was willing to fight for what he believed.

Johnson's marching orders of "run the ball" -- without any sophistication to the attack -- was shortsighted.

Turner believed in running the football, but he knew how to run the football. It meant throwing on first down, and throwing the ball downfield for big plays to give the offense some breathing room. I think Johnson wanted that; he was probably more frustrated that he couldn't find his Norv Turner in Miami.

Wannstedt, who spends much more time studying game tape than Johnson ever did, has a greater command of X's and O's. Of course, Johnson brought in Wannstedt last year to serve as an assistant head coach. Wannstedt did some coaching, but he was more of an extra set of eyes and hears for Johnson. He identified several problems and when the opportunity came for him to replace Johnson, he didn't hesitate to act on what he saw.

Aside from firing both coordinators, and fine tuning the staff, Wannstedt confronted the most delicate problem in south Florida -- Dan Marino. And he did it by not being confrontational.

Marino never appreciated Wannstedt's lukewarm approach to the issue of whether Marino should return for another season. Let's face it, Wannstedt believed it was time to move on, and Gailey almost certainly would have not taken the job if he had to force a new offense on an established star, such as he tried with Troy Aikman. Marino got the hint.

It was painful, but respectful, although I'm not sure Marino saw it that way.

Wannstedt shouldn't be perceived as Jimmy's boy, either. One of the first things Wannstedt did was thaw the iceberg that had separated the great Don Shula from the franchise. He also didn't hesitate to again hire Shula's son, Mike, who was abruptly fired from his offensive coordinator's job in Tampa.

Wannstedt also didn't embrace Johnson's idea of a successor for Marino (Damon Huard), and he didn't buy into the idea that J.J. Johnson was the answer at running back.

I'm not saying that the Dolphins are bound for the Super Bowl this year under Wannstedt. He's walking into an AFC East division that has a terrific trio of superstars in Indianapolis, and probably the best overall team in Buffalo.

As the quarterbacks in the division, the Colts have Peyton Manning, the Bills have Rob Johnson, the Jets have Vinny Testaverde, the Patriots have Drew Bledsoe and the Dolphins have Jay Fiedler.

I like Fiedler. He really is an impressive person to meet. He has a presence. But until he proves that he can play week-in and week-out at a fairly high level, then it is only healthy to presume that Wannstedt, like Johnson, will also fall short of Miami's quest to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1984.

It just won't be a big fall, as many have anticpated. HELP | ADVERTISER INFO | CONTACT US | TOOLS | SITE MAP

Copyright ©2000 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. Click here for a list of employment opportunities at