Saban to Miami could take time
The Dolphins want Nick Saban, but it could take a little longer than expected.
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.
Jim Mora of the Atlanta Falcons is not only the winningest first-year coach in franchise history but is also the 11th rookie coach in the league over the last 25 years to secure a division title in his inaugural campaign. Here are the other 10 men who won division crowns in their first season as an NFL head coach:
Coach -- Team -- Season
Bill Callahan -- Raiders -- 2002
Jim Haslett -- Saints -- 2000
Chan Gailey -- Cowboys -- 1998
Jim Fassel -- Giants -- 1997
Steve Mariucci -- 49ers -- 1997
Barry Switzer -- Cowboys -- 1994
Bill Cowher -- Steelers -- 1992
Dennis Green -- Vikings -- 1992
Bobby Ross -- Chargers -- 1992
George Seifert -- 49ers -- 1989
Stat of the Week
Stat of the Weak
The Cleveland Browns registered just 17 yards against the Buffalo Bills defense last Sunday, the fifth-worst total in NFL history. There were 101 individual offensive plays in the 16 NFL games last week that were longer than the Browns' total yardage. In fact, the Browns even had one of them, an 18-yard catch by Antonio Bryant in the third quarter.
The Last Word
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
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.
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.
"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.
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.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .