How Will the Change in Leadership Affect the Miami Dolphins

Some of the off-season moves have brought a significant difference in the Miami Dolphin leadership and this change of the guard has flown under the radar of most fans and media. The Dolphins have not been near the top of the NFL since Dan Marino hung up his cleats but they may be closer now than at any point since. Tony Sparano did some soul searching this off-season and from that introspect he realized his team lacked explosion due to his conservative coaching; he also came to the conclusion his team leaders were not what he needed them to be.

Ricky and Ronnie may not inspire Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid like Czonka and Kick once did but Dan Henning’s offense was clearly centered around their talents. Channing Crowder never seemed to be in the right place at the right time to make big plays but he was the defensive play caller and the defense seemingly played better when he was in the game. Chad Pennington’s body never allowed him to play for consecutive seasons his entire NFL career, but his knowledge and presence loomed large on the sideline, in the locker room and in the meeting rooms.

Fans may notice of the absence of Henning, Williams, Brown, Crowder and Pennington because each had past moments of greatness but there will be no press conferences honoring their time in the Dolphin organization. There is probably a thought about where this is leading and the word “leading” would be the clue. What happens when a team has enigmatic leadership? What happens when a team has blasé leadership? What happens when a team has leadership that cannot stay healthy enough to remain on the field?

Dan Henning covers the enigmatic pretty well. He was a mysterious cantankerous dictator who was beyond reproach. If his offense was not performing it was not his system or his play calling, it was because the players were not good enough to make it work. How dare the media or even his boss insinuate he change something in his system, if ten offensive linemen cannot seem to make it work, bring in more. If Chad Henne’s strengths do not fall in line with this playbook, Chad Henne needs to be gone. Henning was an inflexible tyrant and that is exactly what a coach in the modern NFL cannot be. Many of the lowest paid players make more money than Henning but he could not see this polar shift from coach centric to player centric football. Removing this influence was pivotal for Sparano and it will show.

Ricky Williams never wanted to be a leader. Ricky Williams is a philosopher in a football player’s body. Thrust into the position of leadership under Dave Wannestedt, Ricky balked and worse, he quit. When a team deals two first round picks for a player there are bound to be expectations and if the player is not on board with those expectations, issues are soon to follow. Even though Ricky put that chapter behind him, the shadow of it lingered in the sense that Tony Sparano knew he could never place too much responsibility on Ricky’s shoulders. It is clear to see Ricky was not a leader but there was no way his presence and veteran wisdom could not be influential. Ricky was not a bad influence but he quit once and there was always the sense that if too much responsibility fell on Ricky’s shoulders he would just as soon live in a tent then get too caught up in leading a football team. On a veteran team Ricky would have been fine but on a young team Ricky’s presence drew players to him and he was not a person who would carry the banner into the fight.

Ronnie Brown is a prime example of why many NFL people view running backs as a dime a dozen. Ronnie was a good back who had moments of brilliance, but he was never worthy of the second pick in the draft. It is hard for players picked early in the draft to live up to their draft status. Being picked high is a guaranteed pocket full of jingle but the danger of the jingle is the incentive lost once the prize is won. One of the reasons Nick Saban thought Brown would be a good pick was because he had shared time in college with Cadillac Williams and did not have the wear on his body that a pure feature back would have had. It turned out not to matter as Brown spent as much time injured as he did on the field. Even when healthy Brown’s personality never was an inspiration to the players around him and hence he was never a leader. Being a veteran on the team Brown was looked up to by the younger players but his example was not one Sparano felt could provide the leadership his young team needed.

Dreadlocks, tattoos and his mouth moving a mile a minute are the lasting impressions Channing Crowder left on Dolphin fans. There are few who would argue the Miami defense played better when Crowder was on the field, but the oft injured Crowder exemplified a defense that never seemed to make big plays. Crowder was somewhat of an enigma, he could get his teammates properly lined up and had a good sense of what play the offense was about to run, but somehow he was never in position to make the play. Compared to a player like Zach Thomas who could line up the defense and fly to the ball, Crowder was missing half his game. Crowder was always willing to speak his mind and he was the center of attention in the locker room but big plays and nose for the football eluded him on the field. His off the field banter and on the field jawing were not backed up by big plays, which led to Crowder not being respected by his peers around the league. The leader of a team must not only be respected by his own team but by his opponents as well. Crowder was not and Sparano knew it was not going to change.

Whenever I think of Chad Pennington I think of Herdfan and it is hard to be too critical of a player who could bring such a great fan to the Miami Dolphin faithful. The truth is there is not much to be critical of; Pennington’s was a career of what could have been. He is one of the most accurate passers in NFL history. Every year he stayed healthy he led his team to the playoffs. Pennington was the consummate professional and a great leader, but he could not stay healthy. Pennington never completed back to back seasons without injury and because of that he could never guide an offense long enough to make it to the big show. He certainly had the tools and leadership to get there but his body would not allow it. If Pennington had a flaw during his final seasons in Miami it was the notion that he could be some form of a player-coach. Pennington wanted to play and being a leader in the locker room caused his teammates to follow him even though he could not take the field. Chad Henne could not take over the reins of leadership because of the respect everyone in the organization held for Pennington. If Pennington had remained healthy he would definitely be a part of this football team today, but he could not.

When Tony Sparano and Jeff Ireland got together after the tumultuous beginning of the off-season that saw Steven Ross courting an unproven college coach, they knew the veteran presence on the team had to change. For Henning it was his inflexibility to modernize his offense in accordance with the changes taking root in the NFL. For Williams it was his lack of buying in to the coaching staff and his willingness to voice his opinion in his own subtle way. For Brown it was his natural timidity, injuries and poor practice habits born of those injuries. For Crowder it was simply about putting his play where his mouth was and staying healthy. For Pennington it was a matter of health. The team was desperately in need of a change in leadership.

Sparano knew he had to change, he knew he had to become less conservative and more explosive. He also knew it was essential his coaching staff spoke with one voice and for those reasons he replaced Dan Henning with Brian Daboll. Daboll was fresh, his ideas were explosive and he was not a renegade. Drafting Daniel Thomas and picking up Reggie Bush brought in fresh running backs with something to prove. Why Larry Johnson, because Larry Johnson has a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. Channing Crowder worked out with one team before deciding to retire. That’s because there were not many teams beating down his door and that should say a mouthful about what the rest of the league thinks about Crowder. Aside from his injuries, letting Pennington go would allow Chad Henne to finally step up without constantly looking over his shoulder.

The issue of loyalty cannot be understated… Williams, Brown and Crowder were not their guys. Draft picks have a natural allegiance to the coaches who drafted them, but even free agents feel a breath of new life when a team seeks them out and pays them for their services. The number of players left from previous regimes should be a good indicator of how important this is to Sparano and Ireland. Pennington is the exception but in his case injuries were his undoing. It is clear, if Sparano and Ireland were going down they were going down with players of their own choosing. Everyone on this team is now under the same onus... Win or else. Don’t be surprised to see a team with a little more sense of urgency and a lot more will to win.

My question to you is, who will emerge as the new leadership core of the Dolphins?