Things are proceeding exactly as the Miami Dolphins' organization has foreseen.
You see, the Dolphins knew this year was going to be a bad one — even by their standards. And that was mainly by design. Miami is wrapping up the decade and currently sitting with a 68-89 record since 2010 with three games left to play. These Dolphins have been painfully mediocre for quite some time.
It is worth noting having Tom Brady and the New England Patriots dynasty in the AFC East hasn't helped matters; but at the end of the day, this organization, no matter how hard it has tried, cannot seem to escape mediocrity. The Dolphins have seen just three winning seasons in the last 15 years, consistently finishing with a record right where their average for the decade would indicate: 7-9.
Miami's mediocrity extends well beyond just wins and losses too. The team has seen just one offense finish a season with a top-10 ranking in either yardage or points since 1995. To say life has been hard as a Dolphins fan for the last 20 years would be a gross understatement.
Which is exactly why Miami’s 2019 season is unfolding the way it is. This organization, to its credit, knew things needed to change. Owner Stephen Ross took control of this team in 2009 and has seen his investment constantly chasing its own tail, making little to no progress in the pursuit of becoming a winning program.
But why have the Dolphins been so mired in mediocrity? Who is most to blame for seeing the team fail to live up to nearly 30 years of serving as a gold standard under the direction of former head coach and Hall of Fame inductee Don Shula? That's a complicated question. In the case of the 2019 version of the Dolphins, many of the biggest culprits have already been flushed out of the system.
It is important to look back on the past mistakes of the organization, however, as those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Owner Stephen Ross
When Ross bought the team its football operations were headed up by Bill Parcells. Although their overlap lasted just one season before Parcells hit the ejection button on his contract, the latter admitted years later that the "neophyte" owner played a part in his departure. In the decade that has passed, the organization's structure under Ross could best be described as "messy."
The Dolphins have had to deal with constant fighting in-house among power figures. There was a divide between former general manager Jeff Ireland and the late Tony Sparano, who the Dolphins retained despite making a pass at a potential head coaching change to hire Jim Harbaugh in the 2011 offseason. Miami didn't land Harbaugh and Sparano remained at head coach for that season before he was ultimately fired after 13 games and a 4-9 record.
Ross soon had another feud on his hands when new head coach Joe Philbin and executive Dawn Aponte lashed out against the incumbent GM Ireland, who was subsequently fired after the 2013 season.
Miami's succeeding general manager search was hindered by Ross' insistence on the new executive stepping into Miami's current infrastructure and work alongside Philbin, who would be the team's coach for just another 20 games before being fired four games into the 2015 season.
The root cause of these conflicts was centered around Ross' emphasis on having all parties directly report to him instead of installing a linear organizational chain of command. When the team didn't perform, each and every involved individual had the opportunity to air their grievances with Ross, throwing the other decision-makers under the bus and cultivating an organization structure embroiled in distrust.
Ross has made significant progress on this front in recent years, although his decision to install Mike Tannenbaum, former vice president of football operations, atop the organization as the team's football czar in January 2015 may have been his biggest gaffe of all. After four years under his direction, Ross reassigned Tannenbaum — effectively relieving him of his duties without the formal embarrassment of a firing. In his place, Ross elevated a well-respected talent evaluator (and Tannenbaum's subordinate), Chris Grier and subsequently gave him total control of the Dolphins, finally adopting the linear chain of command that eluded the team for the first decade of Ross' ownership.
Former VP of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum
Tannenbaum's four-year run as the head honcho in Miami will be looked back on as nothing but detrimental to overall progress. At the time of his hiring, Tannenbaum's claim to fame was burning up every available asset to the New York Jets during a seven-year period as their GM. By the time the Jets parted ways with Tannenbaum in December 2012, New York had regressed, missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons and was pressed against the salary cap.
Fast forward to January 2019 and Tannenbaum was relieved of his duties in Miami with the team having regressed, missing the playoffs in two consecutive seasons and pressed firmly up against the salary cap.
Tannenbaum's reputation for making splashy moves in New York followed him to Miami. The team signed star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a record-setting contract, only to see the Dolphins restructure the contract after just one of the six seasons Suh signed on for. The end result? Miami's deferred guarantees on the Suh deal made his contract an impossible pill to swallow and he was cut ahead of the 2018 season.
That will go down as Tannenbaum's legacy in Miami: restructuring deals to manufacture faux cap room. Miami, under Tannenbaum's direction, did the same to safety Reshad Jones and quarterback Ryan Tannehill in 2018 to boost efforts to free up extra space to sign veteran stop gaps and avoid a dreaded rebuild.
It didn't work.
When it was all said and done, Grier took control from Tannenbaum at the beginning of this season and was forced to purge the roster of as many bad contracts as possible — doing so eventually netted the Dolphins an incredible $64 million in dead cap space this year, by-products of Tannenbaum’s contract extensions and subsequent restructures. Of that $64 million the Dolphins are responsible for this season, nearly $18.5 million of it is attributed to the restructured contract of Tannehill, an additional $13 million is credited to Suh's restructured deal (remember, Suh hasn't been on the team since March of 2018) and another $4.5M million to the contract of safety T.J. McDonald, who Tannenbaum extended in September of 2017 despite McDonald not playing a single snap for the Dolphins at the time of the signing.
Tannenbaum's restructure of Jones' contract was so egregious the Dolphins were completely handcuffed by it and unable to part ways with the safety. Cutting Jones this summer would have netted a $25 million cap penalty due to deferred guaranteed money and trading him would have forced another team to take on a bloated annual salary. So, the Dolphins kept Jones despite not having a clear role for the veteran.
Tannenbaum's tenure bogged down the Dolphins in salary cap hell, which they are only now able to emerge on the other side of because of Grier's roster purge.
General Manager Chris Grier
Grier was elevated to the role of general manager under Tannenbaum in 2016, and in the years that have passed Grier has done well finding talent via the draft. Miami's 2016 class netted the team standouts at left tackle (Laremy Tunsil) and cornerback (Xavien Howard) while also adding notable contributors such as running back Kenyan Drake and receiver/kick returner Jakeem Grant. Grier's 2017 class is highlighted by a first-round bust in defensive end Charles Harris, but Grier hit big on second-round linebacker Raekwon McMillan and on Day 3 with defensive tackle Davon Godchaux.
The 2018 draft brought safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, tight end Mike Gesicki and linebacker Jerome Baker — the latter two are emerging as prominent contributors for the Dolphins this season.
Of course, these draft classes need to be earmarked for the departures of Tunsil, Drake and Fitzpatrick — all of whom were traded by Grier at some point in his first season of total control over the organization.
Could that be considered a fault of Grier's? Perhaps — until you consider what Miami managed to land for each player. The Dolphins invested a 2016 first-round (13th overall), 2016 third- and 2018 first-round (11th overall) in these three talents and brought back three first-round picks, a second-round pick and a conditional Day-3 selection.
If Grier had picked poorly, Miami wouldn't have been able to cash out the way it did during the team's organizational reset this season.
Former Head Coach Adam Gase
Gase's role in the deconstruction of the Dolphins falls somewhat back into the lap of Ross. For it was the disorganized organizational structure that allowed Gase to do his damage to the team. When Gase was hired in 2016, he was given control over Miami's 53-man roster — a stunning decision despite having a general manager (Grier) and VP of football operations (Tannenbaum) "above" him.
Gase's three-year stretch with the Dolphins will forever be marred by the players he excused who have gone on to find success elsewhere. Offensive guard Billy Turner was cut after just one month of playing time in Gase's first year, and in the three seasons since Turner found himself a starter for the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was a 2015 second-round selection that Gase could never seem to reach. He ultimately cut Phillips only to see him transition to the Buffalo Bills and play the best football of his career. But the biggest casualty of the Dolphins roster under Gase is undoubtedly wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who was traded to the Cleveland Browns in the name of "locker room chemistry." Although the move was also done to free up salary-cap space, which Miami lacked thanks to Tannenbaum — a truly vicious cycle. Landry has since gone on to average three additional yards per reception in two years with the Browns, including a career-best 14.4 yards per catch in 2019.
Further complicating Miami's efforts to fix the on the field product was Gase's inability to get performance out of the players left in Miami.
Tannehill is playing the best football of his career in his first season away from Gase since 2015, although it comes with the Tennessee Titans, not the Dolphins. Wideout DeVante Parker, a 2015 first-round pick, has set career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns this season under first-year head coach Brian Flores — Parker, along with his agent, had a well-documented spat with Gase last season after he refused to play the receiver as a healthy scratch.
Gase's unwillingness to connect with his players and inability to field a disciplined, well-coached team dug the hole so deep there was no choice but to start fresh, prompting the hard reset Miami committed to under the direction from Grier.
The New England Patriots
The Dolphins' divisional rivals have made life difficult for everyone in the AFC East. To Miami's credit, it at least gives New England something resembling a fight from time to time. Brady owns a career winning percentage of 0.802 against the AFC East in his Hall of Fame career. With 85 wins and 21 losses, Brady's dominance over the division puts extra pressure on everyone else to find the winning formula in order to compete with the Patriots’ dynasty. The Bills own three wins over Brady in 20 years. The Jets? 7. The Dolphins, however, have defeated Brady more than any other team in his NFL career, handing the "GOAT" 11 losses. Brady is 8-10 all-time in Miami — an impressive feat for a team that has won just one divisional title since 2001.
But even with the success Miami has managed to find against Brady, the urgency and pressure to catch New England has undoubtedly had a hand to play in Miami's recent struggles.
At the first sign of trouble, the initial reaction is to change things up because anything else isn't going to catch the Patriots.
The Final Verdict
Each of the Dolphins’ biggest culprits have been outlined, but who owns the greatest claim of credit for Miami's forced reset for the 2019 season? In order of most to least blame:
- At the end of the day, Ross' disorganized organizational structure led to years of counterproductive team building. On top of that, his questionable hiring of Tannenbaum and enabling of roster control for former head coach Gase put the Dolphins in a toxic situation of shedding talent and kicking their financial obligations to the point of no return. The good news for Miami? Ross seems to have learned from his previous mistakes and now has the team positioned for a successful rebuild thanks to a new chain of command and new installments.
- Tannenbaum's affinity for the "big" signing burned the Dolphins over and over again, and the haphazard salary cap tendencies boxed Miami into a corner that made stripping down the roster a necessary evil for hitting the reset button.
- Gase spent two seasons stripping away players that didn't fit "his" locker room, only to lose the locker room by the end of his third and final season on account of poor coaching and player relations.
- The Patriots are constantly atop the AFC East gives every team in the division 1.5 losses to start the year. The pressure of playing for second-place or potentially catching New England further played into Miami's perceived need to "win now.”
- Grier has drafted well despite some missteps along the way, namely the Charles Harris selection in 2017. Should this Dolphins rebuild fail, Grier will be public enemy No. 1, but the executive is only now getting his chance to form this team in his vision, not someone else's.
How do the Dolphins proceed from here? Be sure to check back tomorrow, as TDN analysts Kyle Crabbs, Joe Marino and Benjamin Solak outline a plan to fix this team.