Miami, meet your worst nightmare: Tennessee football. On Saturday, Knoxville’s Volunteers snapped the Hurricanes’ 26-game home winning streak, handing them a 10-6 defeat in the Orange Bowl. Yesterday it was the Dolphins who faced the pigskin wrath of the Volunteer State, falling 31-7 to Nashville’s Titans for their first road loss of the season. Suffice it to say, the residents of South Florida will not be singing “Rocky Top” any time soon.
But while the Hurricanes’ head coach, Larry Coker, has a national championship ring to keep his seat cool, Dolphins’ mentor Dave Wannstedt has no such bejeweled assurances. Instead, he holds the reins of a faltering 5-4 squad and sits gingerly on perhaps the hottest seat in the NFL.
Oh, Wannstedt has a ring of his own. But it’s from 1992, when he served as the defensive coordinator for Jimmy Johnson’s Super Bowl champion Cowboys. Since then he’s been riding on Johnson’s coat-tails to get head coaching jobs. He served as the head coach of the Bears from 1993-98, before being run out of town with a 40-56 record over six seasons. Then he rejoined Johnson in Miami, serving as defensive coordinator in ’99 before conveniently stepping in as head coach when Jimmy left town. In his first two years as the main man in Miami, Wannstedt boasted a 22-10 record, completing the transformation of the Dolphins from a pass-happy team to run-oriented squad that had begun under Johnson. He also built one of the league’s best defenses. Things were looking up for Wanny in South Florida.
Last year, the Dolphins were a popular Super Bowl pick because of the addition of Ricky Williams. But the team collapsed after a 5-1 start, missing the playoffs at 9-7. This season the wheels have fallen off. Instead of dominating within the humid confines of Pro Player nee Joe Robbie Stadium, as they usually do in the early season, the Fins have stumbled to a 1-3 home record, including a loss to the second-year Houston Texans in week one. And while Ricky has run rough-shod over opponents to the tune of 660 yards, he is averaging a mere 3.4 yards per carry, his longest run just 28 yards. The dominating defense? Fifteenth in the league, despite the addition of Pro Bowlers Junior Seau and Sammy Knight.
Were Wannstedt coaching in Cincinnati, or even Chicago for that matter, 5-4 might not be so bad. But in Miami, where memories of the 1972 Dolphins’ 17-0 season are still vivid, being 5-4 is simply unacceptable. Those memories are especially sharp on account of the Dolphins’ offseason acquisition of Brian Griese, son of Bob Griese, the bespectacled baller who led Miami during that undefeated championship season. But the struggles that Griese brought with him from Denver have continued in his three starts this season. And many Dol-Fans look no farther than Wannstedt when assigning blame for his, and the team’s, struggles.
Sunday’s loss to Tennessee will certainly add to the anti-Wannstedt fervor, not only because it drops the Dolphins two games back of the AFC East leading Patriots, but because of the embarrassing way in which Miami fell. The Titans had their way with the Dolphins defense, easily marching downfield thanks to the trusty arm of Steve McNair. What’s worse, the Miami offense was utterly stagnant, as Ricky Williams gained just 37 yards and the Tennessee blitz forced Griese to fumble twice and throw three interceptions. The seven points the Dolphins did score came after he was pulled for backup Sage Rosenfels.
With Baltimore, Dallas, New England and Philadelphia still left on the schedule, it will be a very tough task for the Dolphins to catch the Patriots. If they cannot, the Wildcard is in reach, but to earn it they will most likely need to go 5-2 to end the season. Should they fail in that pursuit, Wannstedt will doubtless be calling Fox:
“James Brown? Dave Wannstedt here. I was wondering, do you have a back-up analyst for Jimmy Johnson? No? You know, you should look into that. I recommend someone with a strong defensive background … “