The Hot Seat IN MIAMI 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

Sept. 01, 2003
Sept. 01, 2003

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Sept. 1, 2003

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The Hot Seat IN MIAMI 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

They nibbled on grilled Kobe beef at trendy Tao in midtown,
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.

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue

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."

But ultimately the burden rests on Wannstedt. His critics
perceive him as a coaching retread who has benefited from his
friendship with the man he succeeded in Miami, Johnson. "Dave's
career record speaks for itself," the AFC executive says of
Wannstedt's 71-73 mark. The connection to Johnson dates to 1977,
when the two were assistants at Pitt. Two years later Johnson
hired Wannstedt as an assistant at Oklahoma State. The two also
worked together when Johnson was in charge at the University of
Miami, but it was with the Dallas Cowboys that Wannstedt made a
name for himself--as defensive coordinator for Johnson's 1992
Super Bowl champs. Wannstedt then went to Chicago, and after
being fired he wasn't out of work long. Johnson brought him to
the Dolphins as assistant head coach in '99, and when Johnson
retired after that season, he recommended his friend for the job.

Wannstedt doesn't have Don Shula's aura or Johnson's
ruthlessness; he's a humble man who remains true to his western
Pennsylvanian roots. He's industrious like his grandfather, a
coal miner, and his father, a mill worker. He's a devout Catholic
and a devoted family man. If Wannstedt has a difficult day, he'll
read Scripture or jog a few miles to clear his mind. "It's not
that pressure doesn't bother Dave, he just doesn't lose his
perspective," says Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Matt
Cavanaugh, who held the same post under Wannstedt in Chicago and
played at Pitt when Wannstedt was an assistant there. "He
maintains his confidence."

Wannstedt is far more poised and relaxed than he ever was in
Chicago, where he was so obsessed with micromanaging that he
didn't build a relationship with his players. "I had guys like
[All-Pros] Shaun Gayle, Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, and I
should've spent more time with them," he says. "People need to
have a clear picture of what you're after because when you
communicate that, you get better results. But I thought I could
build a Super Bowl team in four years. We did it in Dallas, and I
thought it would be easy."

As Cavanaugh recalls, "Dave wanted all the control when he got to
Chicago, and he found out that can be pretty demanding. He
learned that he can't do everything and that he had to trust
people. That's the big change I've seen in him in Miami: He's
focused on motivating people and getting them ready to play, and
he relies on other people to do their jobs."

Wannstedt had to make tough decisions when he took over in Miami,
most notably pushing Dan Marino out the door. He started
quarterback Jay Fiedler and running back Lamar Smith when nobody
believed in them, and in his first year he accomplished something
that Johnson never did--win the AFC East. He also evolved into
more of a player's coach. Now Wannstedt talks so frequently with
his veterans that, Thomas says, "sometimes I think he listens to
us too much."

Injuries were partly to blame for last season's collapse--the
passing game fizzled when Fiedler was sidelined for six weeks in
October and November with a broken right thumb--but the Dolphins
also didn't make enough clutch plays. Missing the playoffs was
devastating for Wannstedt. He couldn't watch postseason games. He
couldn't enjoy a January trip to the Bahamas, wandering off one
afternoon, so deep in thought that he got lost on a trail. After
he made his way to a road, he flagged a passing truck and got a
ride back to his hotel.

It wasn't until Miami's first minicamp, in early May, that
Wannstedt was able to put last season behind him. Being around
the players helped, as did seeing the squad's reaction to the
off-season acquisitions. "We sent a message," he says. "They
could see that things were flying."

In a meeting room off his office hangs a banner that reads, WHY
DIFFERENCE? Every day Wannstedt searches for new answers.
"Sometimes you have to deal with adversity to achieve greatness,"
he says. "It will be interesting to talk about this team five
months from now, because I want to see if our pain and
disappointment has been channeled in the right direction. I truly
believe that energy will be a powerful thing."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER LESSON LEARNED Wannstedt says his experience in Chicago taught him the value of communicating and delegating more.COLOR PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER NEW CREW In the off-season Wannstedt brought in Knight (left), Seau (55) and Griese to help him get back to the playoffs.

"We all like Dave, but he has a difficult job ahead," says
Gadsden. "He has to get us all on the same page, and that HAS TO