The calm, boring routine of my work on Sunday was upended by a chance meeting with former Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears head coach Dave Wannstedt. The former coach, who exited the team after a painful 1-8 start in 2004, was making a charitable donation this day in Southwest Florida where he still has a home.
I recognized him right away, though I probably hadn't seen him since his departure. It was a pleasant surprise actually, though perhaps some Dolphins fans would not agree. Back in the days he was calling the shots, Dolphins fans were a little spoiled by so many years of good teams, despite our Super Bowl drought. I know that I personally had gotten used to my favorite team winning often.
Though I should not have been surprised, when I mentioned his time as the Dolphins skipper, the first sentence out of his mouth included a name we all remember well; Rickey Williams. In essence, he iterated something to the effect of how Rickey really screwed things up for the team that year. I like Rickey personally, but I have to say I couldn't agree more.
My response to him was there are 32 teams fighting for one spot and most are not going to win it (I know.......a real Einstein answer), but the point was that there are a lot of good, even great coaches in the league that lose with less problems than he had to deal with. Coaches get a lot of criticism from fans, even if they have to try and win with inferior talent. There were some very good players on the Dolphins in 2004, but success is not the product of "some very good players." Football is a team sport where glaring weakness in parts of the team become a virtual apocalypse for the hopes and dreams of fans and players alike. Also coaches.
The fact that Rickey was the first thing out of his mouth said a couple of things to me. First, that season and the way his tenure with the Dolphins ended still bothered him. The timing of that whole saga was very bad as we all remember and that left no real options for fixing the problem like there would have been if Rickey had "Left" before the draft or near the start of free agency. While some fans may not have been a fan of Wannstedt and his coaching style, Miami had done pretty well with him. In fact, I think I could safely say we did better under Wannstedt than we have under anyone who succeeded him..........so far anyway.
At the time, a thought came to me. I wondered maybe if there were any fans out there who could reflect back and say, "Maybe he wasn't so bad as we acted like he was." After all, all of our replacement coaches have yet to post winning seasons back-to-back to date. Wannstedt never had a losing season with Miami until the 1-8 Rickey debacle. He had four straight winning seasons in fact (41-23).
It was a good, if brief, chat with Wannstedt. He will be working as a coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season and I wished him much luck in Tampa (unless they're playing the Dolphins, of course). It's no cake-walk being a coach in any capacity in the NFL. Fans and even expert analysts, who have never coached a game at any level mind you, can be very cruel in their judgments of people. But, the NFL is full of GOOD coaches and most of them will not lead a champion this season or, for that matter, any season................ever.
So, reflecting back on the coach, and the man, I honestly felt sorry for him. It was obvious to me that winning WITH the Miami Dolphins had meant a lot to him personally. It was also obvious that not being able to take that next step with the team still bothered him.........almost a decade later. The worst kind of feeling like that is the one where you know the situation was beyond your control to remedy.
As I carried his donation in for him, I got a cool little present that I as a fan could truly appreciate. A slip of paper fell out of the things I was carrying. It was part of his personal notes from a 2001 pre-season game between the Dolphins and San Diego Chargers. It was an interesting piece of history. On that day, he had noted five penalties and 18 mental errors, marked by the jersey number of the player that committed them. There were a number of things that gave me a look into the mind of the former coach. All of which brought me back to my original thoughts.
Wannstedt is a good man and was not a bad coach. A great coach he may never have been, but there is also a reason not many head coaches get to the big game or get there a second time. The NFL is a tough business that eats good coaches for breakfast. Maybe we should all take a step back, once in a while, and give our armchair criticism a break. Coaches have a lot of pressure without abuse from fans (and he took his share). Imagine if you had to take that kind of commentary at your job every day......................I for one wish him well in Tampa and will remember his days as head coach as pretty enjoyable. What I wouldn't give for those four straight years of winning football once again.
How about you? Have at me in the comments................