Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Tuesday, November 9, 2004
Updated: November 12, 3:53 PM ET
Bates faces difficult situation

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Good man, Jim Bates, who we got to know very well when he was defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in 1994.

Not good enough, though, to rescue this Titanic of a season for the Miami Dolphins. But then again, owner Wayne Huizenga could have summoned the ghosts of Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Tom Landry on Monday evening, after Dave Wannstedt had put himself out of his misery by resigning, and it wouldn't make any difference for 2004.

In fact, nothing, not even Bates working 18-hour days (which he probably will), can clean up this mess. Huizenga, who made his fortune in waste disposal and understands a thing or two about scrap heaps and landfills and the stench of wretched refuse, certainly knows there is nothing to be salvaged from this train wreck of a season.

Our guess is that none of that will matter to Bates, whose basic pragmatism is likely to be overshadowed by his own pride, and the belief he might be able to at least get the ship pointed in the right direction for whatever big-name coach inherits the dawdling Dolphins in 2005.

It is, of course, a thankless role into which Bates has stepped. But then Bates isn't one of those guys who needs a slap on the back or a hearty attaboy to motivate him. He will put his head down and forge ahead, make whatever personnel and schematic changes he deems reasonable and try to straighten up the mess as much as possible, so that his successor doesn't walk into a completely unkempt and untenable situation.

Our guess is, too, that Bates will be somewhat flexible in listening to ideas, not only from his assistants but also his players. How do we know that? Because we have watched Jim Bates mature from an intractable coach, one who was dead certain that the unusual 5-2 scheme he installed with the Falcons in 1994 would work, to a guy who underwent a metamorphosis of sorts when the college-style defense failed miserably.

A decade later, that 5-2 scheme is barely an entry in the Bates memory banks. There are some detractors who strongly suggest that Bates, a 4-3 guy now, has played things a bit too safe during his Miami tenure. That the "shell" secondary coverages to which the club often resorts, even in those seasons when the Dolphins openly declared they had the best single-coverage cornerbacks in the league, lack creativity. That the results have not quite risen to the talent level on-hand.

Some of those criticisms might be justifiable. But at the end of this season, when he takes his leave of the Dolphins, the bet here is that no one will criticize Bates for not trying to tidy up the organization for the next full-time head coach. Even that task, league history indicates, won't be easy.

In becoming the first interim coach in the NFL since Wade Phillips replaced Dan Reeves for the final three games with the Falcons in 2003, Bates is the 11th in-season replacement in the past decade. He is also the 55th in-season replacement since the 1970 merger, and the track record is reflective of just what a thankless role he has accepted.

Just 10 of the replacement coaches carved out winning records, and that includes four who coached in three games or less. Of the 26 who inherited a team with at least seven games remaining in a season, just five finished with winning marks. The cumulative record for the 54 replacement coaches is 110-242-1, a microscopic winning mark of .313.

None of those numbers will matter, of course, to Bates. A head coach again for the first time since he ran the San Antonio Gunslingers of the USFL in 1984-85, he will do what all coaches do, and that is to try to win the next game on the schedule. Hopefully, Bates can notch a victory or two before the year runs out. And, if he does, hopefully some folks will be paying attention.

Last time we checked, the folks at the University of Florida were looking for a new head coach, and Bates has some Gators ties, having once served as defensive coordinator there. The whispers from people I talk to in Gainesville are that the Bates name doesn't have the kind of cache the school needs. But if Bates wins some games with the rag-tag outfit over which he suddenly presides, athletic director Jeremy Foley could do much worse than to consider him a candidate.

A good guy thrown into such a morass of a situation, Bates isn't likely to want anyone to feel sorry for him, but he will need a job in a couple of months.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.