Discipline. Organization. Defensive strategy. When the Dolphins hired Nick Saban as coach on Dec. 25, those were among the strengths he had demonstrated while building a résumé that included the revival of sleeping giants Michigan State and LSU. This was a man whose brain Patriots coach Bill Belichick had picked even after winning Super Bowls. "Belichick and Saban have so much in common," says Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. "It's going to be great for the NFL to see them compete twice a year in the same division."
Or maybe not, if Saban doesn't do a better job of evaluating talent than his predecessors did over the past 10 years. The utter failure of trading two first-round draft choices for running back Ricky Williams in March 2002 and this year's second-round pick for quarterback A.J. Feeley in March '04 are the most notable marks against the Miami personnel department, which Saban now oversees. But look also at how the franchise mostly misused its first draft choice since 1995: Billy Milner, Daryl Gardener, Yatil Green, John Avery, J.J. Johnson, Todd Wade, Jamar Fletcher, Seth McKinney, Eddie Moore and Vernon Carey. Only McKinney, a center, was a full-time starter for Miami last year.
What should give Saban a significant edge--and what helped Jimmy Johnson build the Cowboys into champions after he took the Dallas job in 1989--is the intimate knowledge he gleans before the draft from his good friends in the college coaching ranks. "I think it can be a huge advantage, and I told [Dolphins owner] Wayne Huizenga that when we spoke about Nick," says Johnson, who was a college head coach from 1979 through '88. "So many of those players I was scouting I either recruited or [coached] against, and we had great camaraderie with other college staffs. I'm sure Nick will be able to use that to his advantage."
At the NFL owners' meetings in Maui last week, Saban acknowledged that his college connections could be an asset, though he didn't want to go into detail to avoid tipping his hand. But with the second pick in the draft and a desperate need at running back, Saban undoubtedly has had more than one candid conversation with Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville about top prospects Ronnie Brown and Carnell (Cadillac) Williams. And when Michigan wideout Braylon Edwards had his workout on campus before about 75 scouts and coaches, Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr asked, "Is Nick Saban here?" When Saban raised his hand, Carr took him into his office for an extended discussion.
Saban approaches his first draft with only one pick among the first 69. That's why he hopes to acquire more early- to mid-round picks by trading some veterans. "Second- and third-round picks are as important as first-round picks," Saban says, "because you can pay them so much less and they can impact your team for just as long. The more success you have drafting, the less you have to extend yourself in free agency."
The top three teams in the draft--the 49ers, Dolphins and Browns--are interested in trading down. Says one G.M. with no desire to move up in a draft that is weak at the top: "Throw your normal expectations out the window if you want to trade down. Whereas most years you might get a second-round pick for moving down a few spots, now one of those top teams might get a fourth to move down 10 or 12 spots." Why would a team drafting high consider that? To avoid paying a $15 million signing bonus to a player who's no more of a sure thing than the 10th or 15th player selected.... The mystery of why the Eagles didn't run a hurry-up offense when they were down by 10 in the dying minutes of the Super Bowl is closer to being solved. Coach Andy Reid has all but admitted that the beating Donovan McNabb (above) took during the game slowed the offense in the final six minutes. "Donovan wasn't sick, he just got hit a couple times," Reid says. "You get hit--and hit pretty good--and that'll slow things down."