Behind the scenes, Parcells pulls Dolphins' strings

December, 31, 2008
12/31/08
3:15
PM ET
 
 Doug Murray/Icon SMI
 Under the Parcells regime, the Dolphins became the first team ever to go from winning a single game one year to being playoff-bound the next.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

DAVIE, Fla. -- The process began two days after Christmas 2007. A cataclysmic event took place at the Miami Dolphins facility. An observer arrived. He might as well have worn a black cloak and had a sickle in his grip.

He stood there, arms folded mostly, and watched from the sideline, taking mental notes that would decide the fate of dozens and alter the course of a franchise hurtling into NFL oblivion.

"I think the air in the practice field got a little thin," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said.

Bill Parcells had arrived to straighten out a team headed toward 1-15. He didn't say much on the field that day. He exchanged quick pleasantries with head coach Cam Cameron, spoke to a couple of trainers.

But the process had begun -- quietly, icily.

"Guys were nervous out there," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said.

Several Dolphins confessed they barked out their calls louder, ran faster and tackled harder under Parcells' surveillance.

A few veterans scoffed at the difference, claiming that if their teammates were playing harder just because Parcells was there, then they must not have been giving their all before.

Yet that, in fact, was the case, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Parcells' mere presence, forged by Super Bowls and high-profile turnarounds, whacked the Dolphins in their earholes.

He has remained virtually silent while overseeing the greatest single-season upgrade in NFL history.

On Sunday, one year and one day after Parcells first emerged onto the Dolphins practice field, they defeated the New York Jets at the Meadowlands to claim the AFC East championship.

As unfathomable as it seemed when Parcells agreed to renovate the dilapidated franchise, the Dolphins will host a playoff game next Sunday when they meet the Baltimore Ravens.

Amid the recent revelations that Parcells has a walkout option in his contract if the Dolphins are sold -- real estate mogul Stephen Ross is buying 95 percent of the team and Dolphin Stadium from owner Wayne Huizenga -- it's interesting to reflect on the impact that Miracle Bill has had in just a year.

The Dolphins probably would not be in these playoffs had former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington signed elsewhere. But if Parcells weren't here, then Pennington wouldn't have considered the Dolphins worth his services.

While it doesn't take much effort to do it on a keyboard, moving a dash one place to the right in an NFL record is herculean, unprecedented until the Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5.

No team in league history had won a single game one year and gone to the playoffs the next, much less taken its division. Their 10-game improvement tied the 1999 Indianapolis Colts, who went from three victories to 13.

Dolphins owner Huizenga, desperate to revitalize his team even though he was about to sell it, reached out to Parcells to run his faltering front office.

Huizenga is a fan's dream. He recognizes when the organization isn't working, doesn't hesitate to spend whatever it takes and readily admits he doesn't know enough about football to meddle. Buffalo Bills fans who scanned that sentence just had pangs of wanderlust.

Huizenga, before selling off a large stake in his beloved Dolphins and their stadium, made what could be remembered as the greatest decision of his tenure when he convinced Parcells to come out of retirement. Huizenga gave Parcells a four-year, $12 million contract and carte blanche over football operations.

"It cost us $27 million to fire all the coaches," Huizenga noted after Sunday's victory at the Meadowlands.

The owner, who will retain only five percent of the Dolphins once the sale is finalized, had endured Dave Wannstedt, Jim Bates, Nick Saban and Cameron since Jimmy Johnson left in 1999.

The smile and bewildered expression on Huizenga's face indicated Sunday's accomplishment was worth the cost.

"I thought if we did 8-8 this year, we would have done well," Huizenga said. "I was trying to be realistic. This is unbelievable."

Parcells, who won two Super Bowls as head coach of the New York Giants, was the architect. As he had done in coaching stints with the New England Patriots, the Jets and the Dallas Cowboys, he pulled off a stunning reversal. As soon as the 2007 Dolphins' debacle was over, he decisively began to execute his plan -- but this time as an executive.

The reaper's sickle swung in the form of phone calls to agents and thanks-for-trying handshakes. Fired. Waived. Contract terminated. Traded. See you later.

General manager Randy Mueller, gone. Cameron, gone. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Dom Capers, gone. The strength coaches, you better believe they were gone.

Parcells hired Jeff Ireland away from the Cowboys' scouting department to be his general manager. They named Cowboys offensive line assistant Tony Sparano the Dolphins' next head coach. Both were in their roles for the first time, beholden to Parcells.

Although Parcells has declined interview requests and insists he's a more passive adviser than superintendent, executives around the NFL insist Parcells is directing the operation.

A culture evolution was galvanized. An emphasis was placed on hard-core football fundamentals, the type of building blocks some buzz-cut drill sergeant with a whistle around his neck would yell about in the 1950s.

Power. Size. Commitment. Dedication. Consistency.

Nothing sexy about those attributes. Blocking, tackling and resourcefulness took precedence. Suffice to say the Dolphins' current regime would not have selected twinkle-toes receiver and return specialist Ted Ginn with the ninth overall draft pick in 2007.

Offseason conditioning was stressed, especially in the weight room, where Parcells would show up unannounced and prowl about. For those who don't know football, there was nothing formidable about the paunch, flabby chest or shorts hiked up over his bellybutton.

But his unspoken message intimidated the players: I'm watching you, and I won't hesitate to send you packing i
f you don't follow orders. Dolphins marveled at how difficult the program was. Many claimed it was the most difficult they'd been exposed to.

There was no room for excuses, whiners or prima donnas.

Injuries became unacceptable. Sparano, a true Parcells acolyte, rode any player who turned up in the trainer's room on a regular basis. A team that finished last season with 15 players on injured reserve suddenly didn't have many sprains or strains to report.

The captains were jettisoned. Quarterback Trent Green's contract was terminated. The outspoken Jay Feely was cut in training camp because the Dolphins' front office believes a kicker should be seen and not heard. Defensive and Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas were granted trades because they didn't want to go through a rebuilding process.

None of them reached the playoffs with their new teams.

The culture change also manifested itself in constant roster retooling. Even as they were winning, the Dolphins weren't afraid to work the bottom of their 53-man roster as ardently as they would the top. They have made 161 roster moves this year, not counting the practice squad.

Last year's Dolphins made 150 roster moves, 15 of which were necessary because of players landing on injured reserve. This year's team has only seven players on injured reserve, making the discrepancy in transactions even more remarkable.

Under Parcells' watch, the Dolphins aren't satisfied even when they're winning. Before he arrived, the Dolphins seemed less inclined to look for help when they were losing.

Ross, a New York real estate developer, will take over as majority owner within days of the Dolphins' last game, whenever that might be.

Parcells has a clause in his contract that would allow him to walk, with his remaining salary guaranteed, if there's an ownership change.

If Parcells were a mere adviser, there would be nothing to fear about his departure. After all, the GM and head coach are in place.

But the Dolphins know better. Huizenga hopes Parcells stays. Ross can't afford to let him get away.

As nervous as they were about Parcells arriving, the Dolphins would be every bit as worried about their future without him.

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