In a season that has included abandonment by their best player, the firing of the head coach, questionable personnel moves, injuries sufficient to drive up health-care premiums nationwide, and enough on-field pratfalls to produce one of those Dick Clark-Ed McMahon blooper shows, nothing has come easy for the Miami Dolphins.
Not even hiring a new coach.
Oh, the Dolphins have certainly identified their man, and there are indications that LSU coach Nick Saban is more interested in the Miami job than in some of the other positions in the NFL with which he has flirted in the past. But as noted here dozens of times in past offerings, timing is every bit as important in football (perhaps more so) than it is with life in general.
Since timing is a factor with which Dolphins officials must deal, the coronation of Saban, assuming he decides to take a job he has been eyeballing for more than a year, might take a little longer than anticipated. Indeed, even when the seemingly rudderless Dolphins do have a sense of direction, in keeping with the way things have gone in Miami this season, they happen upon a four-way intersection.
The reason: Miami must come into compliance with the so-called "Rooney Rule," which essentially stipulates that the hiring of a new coach must be a process of sorts, and one that includes minority candidates. Ignore the guideline and you're going to take a hit in the wallet -- as Detroit Lions team president Matt Millen found out last year, when he was personally fined $200,000 for hiring Steve Mariucci without an open process.
Miami officials, and specifically lame-duck club president Eddie Jones, have stated publicly that they will comply with the NFL's hiring policies. Jones is an honorable man. Ditto owner Wayne Huizenga, despite his having made his first fortune in waste disposal, a calling typically associated with graft and kickbacks. The Dolphins brass, with a few exceptions, is a collaborative class act. Mainstream players leaguewide, generally in lockstep with commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFL policies, they aren't about to thumb their noses at the hiring guidelines.
How legitimate they make the coaching search, how they avoid an appearance of charade in a process that could well be little more than sham and window dressing, well, that's a story for another day. Trust us: If Saban takes the job, you will need reams of computer paper, and a few ink cassettes, to print out all the columns that will be written about the merits (or lack thereof) of the league's hiring policies. We are neither smart enough nor eloquent enough to compete with those wordsmiths who will wax poetic about the social implications involved in hiring a guy to draw up X's and O's.
This much we know: Despite reports that a decision is imminent, that an offer to Saban was to be made Friday, the process is going to slow down a bit. One source close to the situation termed it "tapping on the brakes," while another described it as "hitting the pause button." Contract negotiations, initially slated to begin Friday, are on hold. It might not be until the beginning of the week until things move forward with Saban.
And the reason is that Miami needs time, probably through the weekend, to interview at least one minority candidate. And, we hope, a viable one, although we are hard-pressed to divine how the Dolphins can complete that task.
Which brings us back to the issue of timing. And to the even bigger element of qualified candidates, beyond Saban, for the Miami vacancy.
We certainly don't subscribe to the theory that the league is bereft of estimable minority candidates. Not with veteran assistants such as Romeo Crennel, Greg Blache, Jimmy Raye, Terry Robiskie, Jerry Gray, Tim Lewis, Maurice Carthon, Donnie Henderson and others gainfully employed by NFL franchises. The snag is that the league's anti-tampering rules preclude Miami from seeking out those men until the 2004 season concludes.
That's three more weeks and, take this one to the bank, Saban isn't going to allow things to drag out that long.
League vice president Greg Aiello confirmed Friday that there are no loopholes, not a single exception to the rules, that would permit the Dolphins to circumvent the stringent anti-tampering guidelines. Those rules, it should be noted, also apply to non-coaching employees of teams, meaning that Miami couldn't seek permission to speak with, say, Joe Greene, who in Pittsburgh holds the title of "special assistant" in the Steelers scouting department, and who once worked for the Dolphins.
One potential candidate who could be approached is former Raiders coach Art Shell, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman, currently a vice president in the league office. And there are unemployed coaches and coaches in the college ranks who would allow the Dolphins to meet the "Rooney Rule" mandates. Southern Cal offensive coordinator Norm Chow is of Asian American descent. Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom, who just got a one-year contract extension, certainly is worthy, having toiled for years as an NFL assistant. The Dolphins had actually targeted Tyrone Willingham in the wake of his dismissal at Notre Dame, but dragged their feet, thinking he wouldn't land a new job so quickly. Instead, he grabbed the University of Washington opening.
Even being in compliance with the hiring policies, though, doesn't necessarily get Miami off the public relations hook, especially if the search is perceived as a sham. The team did not interview any minorities when it hired Jimmy Johnson and then Dave Wannstedt and has a dearth of minorities in its front office.
John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group of coaches and league executives whose aim is to promote minority candidates for coaching and front office jobs, has been very vocal about the potential for a sham process. Several players have echoed that the team needs to interview legitimate candidates. Both Wooten and the Miami players have made their points well and should not be ignored. But how do you stop a team, as was the case when the Lions hired Mariucci, from bringing aboard the man they already have singled out as their best fit?
It's a knotty question. One that the league, despite its admirable efforts to increase the number of minorities in the coaching candidate "pipeline," must continue to address. As for Dolphins management, it must address a problem of a more immediate nature: How to comply with the "Rooney Rule" within the next week or so, essentially the period after which Saban's patience and interest figure to simultaneously run out.
For a franchise whose timing is about as good as that of starting quarterback A.J. Feeley, the clock is ticking.
Around the league
If Saban does, indeed, accept the Dolphins job, it will probably precipitate the departure of current general manager Rick Spielman in what would be a major reshaping of the front office. There is little doubt Saban will want his own personnel team in place, a general manager or personnel director with whom he is familiar and comfortable, and with no ties to the past. There have been rumblings that Saban would pursue Baltimore personnel chief Phil Savage, who might be in line for the Cleveland Browns general manager position. But we're hearing the Savage rumors are just that, rumors, and that there are other potential personnel guys Saban will more seriously consider. Essentially, Saban wants his own version of Scott Pioli, the Patriots personnel whiz who operates in perfect concert with Bill Belichick (Saban's longtime friend and confidant), a guy with little ego who works hard and doesn't care about who gets the credit. A few names to keep in mind: Atlanta assistant general manager Tim Ruskell, Chicago college scouting director Greg Gabriel, San Diego assistant general manager Buddy Nix, and Tampa Bay college director Rustin Webster, among others.
Following his 48-hour flirtation with the University of Mississippi opening, it's tough to see how San Francisco head coach Dennis Erickson can return to the 49ers in 2005, but stranger things have happened, we suppose. It had to send a strange message in the locker room, when Erickson interviewed for the Ole Miss vacancy, didn't it? But less than 24 hours after his session with Mississippi officials, Erickson announced to his players that he was staying in San Francisco, and explained why he felt compelled to check out the college job. From what we can gather, talking to a few players, the Erickson speech was fairly well received. And there is a contingent (albeit it not a burgeoning one) of players who are very loyal to the 49ers coach. Still, given the line in the sand that Erickson and owner John York seem to have drawn over the issue of assistant coaches, it would seem a long shot that the coach is back for another year. But, at the risk of being redundant here, Erickson's departure isn't quite the fait accompli some people have made it out to be. Word is that York recently suggested to general manager Terry Donahue that, if they are going to seek changes from Erickson, they, too, might need to make some alterations. So there could be, with the emphasis on could, be move toward détente in the San Francisco front office.
It would appear that the assistant coaches who have come under scrutiny from 49ers management might include Greg McMakin (linebackers) and Gregg Smith (offensive line), two longtime Erickson buddies and guys that he will fight to keep. Some feel that the team's linebackers, clearly the strength of the defense, have been confused at times in 2004. Players also have suggested that the offensive line has not been able to compensate for the loss of center Jeremy Newberry to injury. Tackle Kwame Harris, a first-round pick in 2003, has not played well and there is a feeling that versatile Kyle Kosier, who gets bounced around but always gives a fair accounting of himself, should have been playing ahead of rookie second-rounder Justin Smiley. How porous has the line been? In a recent game in which he had 40 "dropbacks," Tim Rattay was hit, according to one player, on 18 occasions.
There continue to be some indications that Jim Haslett might yet save his job in New Orleans if the Saints follow up last week's victory at Dallas with a few solid efforts. A few insiders have insisted that owner Tom Benson is looking for excuses not to fire Haslett and revamp the personnel department. One source noted Benson tends to be so "easily elate-able" (his term), that a hot streak down the stretch might camouflage some of the team's shortcomings for the owner. There is a political ramification here, as well: Benson is battling with the state over how to refurbish the Superdome, now that it appears there is no sentiment for building a new arena, and he will try to spend as little of his own money as possible. Having to pay out millions in contracts for coaches and front office types no longer with the team would send a message to politicos that Benson isn't as cash-strapped as he might want people to believe.
Here's yet another example of why the New England Patriots are so good: Even though defensive end Rodney Bailey hasn't played a single snap for them this season -- having gone on injured reserve for the year after rupturing his Achilles tendon in training camp -- the team quietly signed the four-year veteran to a two-year contract extension. There was no official announcement of the deal, which paid Bailey a modest signing bonus and base salaries of $600,000 for 2005 and $650,000 for 2006, but it was still a savvy move by a franchise that does such a great job in all the little areas that seem to make a difference. Bailey was signed off the Pittsburgh Steelers this spring as a restricted free agent, and the Pats surrendered just a sixth-round draft choice as compensation. Retaining him means keeping around a good, live body, and securing the services of a player at a position where every team finds it difficult to build depth.
To say the Pats are very conscious of maintaining depth on the defensive front is an understatement. All-Pro Richard Seymour, who figures to get an extension in the summer, is under contract through '06. Ty Warren, the first-round pick of a year ago, is locked up through 2008. This year's first-rounder, Vince Wilfork, is under contract through 2009 and rookie second-round end Marquise Hill through 2008. When you've got good, young defensive linemen in this league, even some who haven't played a snap for you this year, you try to keep them around.
At a league meeting earlier this week in Dallas, a session that basically was for salary cap managers, teams were apprised that the spending limit for the 2005 season is likely to be in the range of $85.5 million to $86.5 million. On the low end, that would represent a bump of about $5 million from the 2004 ceiling. That is essentially in line with the kinds of cap increases over the past few seasons. Not even the new television contracts with Fox and CBS, consummated last month, are apt to cause the cap figures to dramatically spiral in coming seasons. For openers, the bump in network rights fees wasn't nearly as significant as in the past. Second, the league works hard to avoid huge increases in the cap limits, in part by funneling part of the new revenues to improved fringe benefits. Players receive 64.75 percent of designated gross revenues in 2004 and that piece of the pie will grow to 65.5 percent in 2005. The official cap number won't be finalized until sometime in February, when the revenues from the '04 season are tabulated. As for the much-discussed extension to the collective bargaining agreement, it will certainly not be completed by year's end, as some league officials had hoped. A more realistic target now is sometime before March of next year.
Kind of an unusual admission by Jets coach Herm Edwards this week, in conceding that quarterback Chad Pennington is still fighting through some soreness problems with his right shoulder, but it was obvious the New York star was playing under some duress. The Jets quarterback isn't exactly the strongest-armed guy on his best days at 100-percent peak efficiency. But watching him against the Pittsburgh defense last Sunday, it was clear he couldn't fit the ball into the small spots, and lacked some of his trademark accuracy. It looks like Pennington won't be totally rehabilitated until the spring, after he has time to rest his damaged shoulder. In the meantime, Rich Cimini, the excellent Jets beat writer for the New York Daily News, floated some interesting Pennington statistics this week. In his first 16 career starts, Pennington, who in September signed a $64 million contract extension, had 32 touchdown passes, just seven interceptions, a passer rating of 108.9, an average of 25.0 points per game and a 10-6 record. Over his past 15 starts, the numbers have dipped precipitously to 14 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions, an 84.1 rating, 20.0 points, and a 9-6 mark.
Credit Tampa Bay free safety Dwight Smith, who can be an unrestricted free agent in the spring, with some forward thinking. Smith played the first two seasons of his NFL career at cornerback, and became one of the league's premier "nickel" players (remember his two interception returns for touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVII), before switching to free safety in 2003 to replace the departed Dexter Jackson. But Smith, and agent Drew Rosenhaus are savvy enough to know cornerbacks draw much bigger paychecks in the NFL than safeties, and so the veteran player is already marketing himself in free agency as a boundary defender.
"I'm going on the free-agent market as a corner," Smith said this week. "You got all these cornerbacks who I know I'm better than, and they are getting $8 million and $9 million (in signing bonuses). And you want me to take a safety salary because I moved to safety to help (my current) team? I can't fathom it. It's not that I'm that greedy. It's just that you want to be paid what you're worth." Smith figures to attract a pretty healthy market. He is only 26 years old, has extensive experience, and has terrific cornerback instincts. The Bucs last month signed strong safety Jermaine Phillips to a four-year, $9.5 million extension, and might not be able to afford to keep Smith at such numbers. Fact is, Smith is going to demand more, and probably get it. And he likely didn't hurt his case by announcing already that he wants to return to cornerback, a spot where he has more value, and where every team, it seems, is looking for help.
According to a few pro scouts to whom we regularly speak, no potential unrestricted free agent has helped himself more in recent weeks than Cincinnati Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The four-year veteran, who even some Bengals coaches felt was a bit too fragile in the past, has really emerged, with 26 catches for 395 yards and three scores in the past three games. The Bengals have really challenged secondaries lately, getting more vertical, and it was felt Houshmandzadeh didn't fit that kind of game. But he has made big catches, added yards after the catch, and set himself up for a pretty nice payday.
It will be interesting to see if the Bengals can keep both he and tailback Rudi Johnson, another pending free agent. Contract talks with Johnson have gone nowhere, and the Bengals might gamble that first-round tailback Chris Perry, who has done next to nothing this season because of injuries, can step up. If money is tight -- and it will be now that quarterback Carson Palmer has triggered some of his escalator clauses -- the Bengals might also sacrifice wideout Peter Warrick if they can take that money and turn it into a deal with Houshmandzadeh. By the way, coach Marvin Lewis feels Houshmandzadeh has been the victim of three blatantly cheap shots this year: from New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, Cleveland corner Chris Crocker and Dallas safety Roy Williams.
With his recent slump (an average of just 2.6 feet per carry over the past two games), and the woes of the Cleveland offense, it appears that Browns tailback William Green will lose $4.5 million in potential contract escalators. Green's initial NFL contract stipulated that if he rushed for 1,000 yards in any of his first three campaigns, his base salary for 2005 would jump from $500,000 to $2 million and his base salary for 2006 would rise to $3.5 million from $525,000. Those extra bucks have all but evaporated. Green, who could be replaced in the starting lineup by the more explosive (but often injured) Lee Suggs this week, needs to run for 432 yards in the final three games to get to the 1,000-yard mark. Such a feat of the feet isn't likely. Green has said, however, that he hopes to be back with the Browns in 2005, under a new coach, and hopes to re-jump start his once promising career.
Think this isn't a season in which parity has morphed into dis-parity? Consider this: Through 14 weeks, just 43.2 percent of the games played have been determined by seven points or less and just 22.3 percent by three points or fewer. If those numbers hold up over the final three weekends, it would be the lowest percentage of seven-point games since 1992 and the lowest quotient of three-point contests since 1998. Last season, 48.4 percent of all games had a margin of seven points or fewer and 23.4 percent of games were determined by three points or less. There also have been only nine overtime contests to date in 2004.
Strange but true: The coordinators for the league's three top-rated defenses through 14 weeks of the season all worked for the Buffalo Bills in 2003. Dick LeBeau, who oversees the top-rated Pittsburgh defense, was a senior assistant in Buffalo in '03. Greg Williams, who coordinates the No. 2-rated Washington defense, was, of course, the head coach of the Bills. And the Bills current coordinator, Jerry Gray, who has the third-rated unit in the league, held the same position in Buffalo last year and was retained by rookie head coach Mike Mularkey.
Punts: At the aforementioned league meeting this week, the Jets took another shot at completing a contract extension for nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in the spring. But assistant general manager Mike Tannenbaum and agent Jimmy Sexton couldn't bridge the negotiating gap, and it now appears that Ferguson will go onto the open market. ... In 61 games with Paul Hackett as offensive coordinator, the Jets have scored 30 or more points just a dozen times. ... Eagles special teams coach John Harbaugh, one of the best in the business, has interest in the University of Pittsburgh head coaching spot, but Panthers officials haven't called him yet. ... Disregard the rumors that Cleveland owner Randy Lerner is prepared to give Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome a few percentage points of ownership to get him to the Browns in the same capacity. ... Pete Garcia, the first lieutenant to deposed Browns coach Butch Davis, has several nibbles at the pro and college levels. Garcia, who remained with the club after Davis' exit, is much respected and will land on his feet. ... Bills coaches are thrilled with the performance of right offensive tackle Mike Williams, previously thought to be a first-round underachiever, in the past month. ... Tennessee officials are taking seriously now the retirement talk from quarterback Steve McNair. Apparently the Titans star has told key officials that his pronouncements were more than just empty rhetoric and frustration.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.