SI Vault
Jeffri Chadiha
September 01, 2003
An NFL coach on merit, or because he rode Jimmy Johnson's coattails? This season may be Dave Wannstedt's last chance to make his case
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 01, 2003

In Miami: The Hot Seat

An NFL coach on merit, or because he rode Jimmy Johnson's coattails? This season may be Dave Wannstedt's last chance to make his case

View CoverRead All Articles

They nibbled on grilled Kobe beef at trendy Tao in mid-town, crammed onto a crowded subway near Little Italy and laughed throughout much of Hairspray on Broadway. Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt and his wife, Jan, had never really explored New York City, so in early July they took to the streets. Wannstedt ambled around in his trademark Tommy Bahama shirts and linen shorts. He jogged in Central Park. He negotiated with street vendors and outhustled locals for cabs. � To hear that their father had suddenly become a laid-back tourist was news to Wannstedt's grown daughters, Jami and Keri, who see him as a restless busybody with a short attention span. Dad says the transition wasn't hard at all. "It was easy for me to relax, because I have been feeling really good about my team," he says. "I'm excited to see what we can accomplish." So, too, is all of South Florida—where this season the bright sun won't be the only source of heat on Wannstedt.

The Dolphins bring back the NFL rushing champion ( Ricky Williams) and seven Pro Bowl players on defense, including the league leader in sacks (end Jason Taylor). They traded for a future Hall of Famer (linebacker Junior Seau) and signed a pair of valuable free agents ( safety Sammy Knight and quarterback Brian Griese). This Miami team is deeper and more dangerous than the one that last year went 9-7 and missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. "They can control a game on offense and defense," says Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Al Saunders. "That's a scary thought."

But that's all been said before. "We've had high expectations and flopped," middle linebacker Zach Thomas bluntly states. "We have no excuses anymore. We have to win something, or some people won't be back." Wannstedt, in his fourth year as Miami's coach, is the name most often mentioned.

Though the Dolphins won 11 games in each of Wannstedt's first two years, they made early playoff exits, in the divisional round in 2000 and the wild-card round in '01. Worse, after starting 5-1 last season, Miami lost six of its last 10 games—the most brutal a 27-24 overtime defeat to the New England Patriots in the season finale. That loss, in which they blew an 11-point lead in the last five minutes, cost the Dolphins a playoff berth.

For the first time in three off-seasons Wannstedt did not receive a one-year extension from owner Wayne Huizenga. Wannstedt has two years left on his contract, and while Huizenga is saying all the right things publicly—"I think Dave is going to be around here for a long time," he says—the message was clear. "Look at all the additions we made," Huizenga said after practice one day last month. "Yeah, we lost a couple of guys. But we should have a heck of a team."

The players are well aware of the pressure on their coach. "We all like Dave, but he has a difficult job ahead," says wideout Oronde Gadsden. "He has to get us all on the same page, and that has to happen fast."

At the start of camp the 51-year-old Wannstedt, who was fired after six seasons with the Chicago Bears in his only other stint as an NFL head coach, seemed unfazed. "I worried about job security when I had to win at least six games my last season in Chicago," he said of 1998, when the Bears finished 4-12 and he was dismissed. "The expectation here is [winning] the Super Bowl. The goal is to find a way to be better than last year."

Always looking to improve himself as a coach, Wannstedt keeps a journal that dates to 1989 and his early days as an NFL assistant; he won't discuss the contents of the notebooks, which are stacked in a closet of his office. Looking for guidance after the team's collapse last year he visited with coaching friends like Jimmy Johnson, who encouraged him to stick to his philosophy; Larry Bird, who discussed the art of finishing off an opponent; and Pat Riley, who talked about team unity. Wannstedt also encouraged his staff to pick the brains of colleagues they encountered at the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine.

His best off-season move was addressing leadership. Too many of the Dolphins' best players are mild-mannered and good-natured, gifted athletes who don't take leadership roles and often stray from their assignments. "They play less as a team late in the year," says an AFC team executive. "They take risks that hurt them. Jason Taylor will abandon his responsibilities and chase the quarterback. Patrick Surtain will go after an interception instead of allowing a short catch. They say the past doesn't matter, but they play like they're aware of it."

Enter Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowl selection with the San Diego Chargers. Though he has lost some of his quickness, the 34-year-old Seau is the best weakside linebacker Miami has had in years. More important, he's a leader who insists that everybody around him play at full speed, whether at the start of the season or the end. Since 1996 Miami is an impressive 20-8 in the first four games of the season, but the Dolphins also haven't won more than two of their last four regular-season games since 1995. "We all have great credentials, but we have to leave those things behind when we hit the field," says Seau. "If we work as a unit, we can be pretty special."

Continue Story
1 2