Jeff Ireland: The Once and Future GM

If the Dolphins can become contenders this year, you can thank this guy. - USA TODAY Sports

Great players in the NFL didn't become great overnight. They needed time to develop. The same could be said for GMs too. Has Jeff Ireland developed into a good GM?

A TIME TO REFLECT

The Miami Dolphins have been a team lacking an identity for over a decade. The Dolphins have been an ‘also-ran' in the NFL since Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino retired. Fans have suffered through various coaches, quarterbacks, and failed draft picks until they have about had it. Then in 2008, Miami hired former coach Bill Parcells to rebuild this team in his image and finally give this franchise an identity. And it worked for a season. Miami signed former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington that offseason to be a stopgap/mentor to rookie second round selection Chad Henne. Pennington had a renaissance of sorts where he played very well, earning a second place vote in the MVP race and leading the Dolphins to a division title and the playoffs. Things were looking up... until they weren't. Pennington couldn't stay healthy, Henne couldn't remain consistent, Parcells ducked out of his contract early, and new owner Stephen Ross and his GM Jeff Ireland were left holding the check.

All Dolphins fans are familiar with this narrative and frankly, it can be depressing to rehash it. However, there is one spin-off narrative that fans may be witnessing before their very eyes. Jeff Ireland is one of the most, if not THE most, polarizing figures in the Miami sports community. His presence has caused fans to picket and fly banners over the stadium wanting him to be fired. Fans have approached him in the stadium and told him he should fire himself (you stay classy fan). Fans on this site have expressed their feelings regarding Ireland more times than can be counted (at this point, it would not surprise me if they dug up an ancient scroll in an earthen jar somewhere in the middle of the Sahara desert and it said #Fireland in hieroglyphics).

However, I wanted to bring a new perspective to the discussion. In a recent NFL.com article, former Miami Herald writer Jeff Darlington wrote an article about the new look Dolphins. There was one line that caught my attention:

New, bold moves that suggest even general manager Jeff Ireland is enduring a maturation process that has him making decisions in a way that could lead to something more than the boring, wasted seasons of old.

I read that line about three times and it dawned on me that general managers, much like young players, need to develop. There is a myth going around that if a player doesn't become an immediate star, then he is a bust or a wasted draft pick. The fact is that while some players develop faster than others, all players need to develop. The same principle applies to general managers. Some GMs start out fast, but others may need more time. Some never get it, but then others might. Unlike players though, GMs rarely get that second chance. Becoming a GM is usually a one-time shot - you either win or you don't. If you don't, your chances of getting another shot are slim to none. Jeff Ireland is one of the rare GMs who got a second chance. And from appearances, it looks like he is finally developing into a good GM.

OUT WITH THE OLD

Part of the discussion regarding Jeff Ireland amongst fans is the involvement of Bill Parcells. It's a prickly subject to those who dislike Ireland because they feel it is an excuse; a crutch to let Ireland of the hook for bad moves. Those who are more supportive are Ireland stick to that argument believing that Parcells and his notorious need for control was the main driving force behind those bad moves. That discussion is not pertinent to this post. I do not want to discuss or debate whether or not the past moves are because of Parcells and how much control he had in the decisions. For the sake of this post (and sanity), we are going to assume that Ireland AND Parcells were in joint control of all of it. In fact, including Ireland in that regard will help deliver the point of this post.

Now that I've said that, we can look at the philosophy behind how 'The Trifecta' began to build this team. It is somewhat understood that GMs and coaches work together to shape a roster. Coaches have schemes and plans that they like to use and they want certain types of players to run those schemes. The GM goes out and finds the best players available that the coach wants to use. For example, if a coach plans to utilize a read-option attack in his offense, the GM is probably not going to acquire a quarterback like Ryan Mallett or Mike Glennon. That's not a hard and fast rule (Calvin Johnson is not an ideal WCO receiver, but if you are in a position to draft a player like that, you do it anyway). However, for the most part, that philosophy works.

So when the Trifecta got started, the men who acquired the players went out and got players that fit the philosophy of the coach. Coach Sparano was hand picked by Parcells to be the head coach and he was groomed under Parcells' tutelage in Dallas. It only makes since that the coach would have similar philosophies, which is that of a power run, ‘three yards and a cloud of dust' offense and big 3-4 defense. Their first draft reflected that philosophy when they took offensive tackle Jake Long first overall, eschewing filling the need for a quarterback until the second round. That move right there set the tone for the Trifecta regime.

Up until last season, if only seemed reasonable that Ireland (and Parcells before he left) would acquire players that fit the philosophy of the team. Ireland acquired bigger players; bigger receivers, bigger linemen, bigger defenders. The team lacked speed, which was sacrificed for size, but that was fine under the philosophy. It wasn't about speed, it was about power. If you look back over the course of the Sparano regime, you can clearly see that philosophy. But there were two little problems with it.

LIKE IT OR NOT, IT'S CHAD HENNE'S FAULT

I have said this many times on this site in the comment section and now I'm writing it in a post: regimes succeed or fail with the quarterback. It is pretty much that simple. If a GM finds a franchise quarterback, everything else falls into place. Even if a team has glaring weaknesses and/or lack of talent at other positions, a top-tier quarterback can make up for that. If the Dolphins had somehow acquired Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers in 2010, that team makes the playoffs. Why? Because those quarterbacks are so good, they make everyone around them better (Tom Brady went to the AFC Championship game in 2006 with a 35 year old Troy Brown, Jabar Gaffney, and Reche Caldwell as his top receiving options. You don't think he could have done serious damage with Brandon Marshall, Davone Bess, and Brian Hartline in 2010?)

On the flip side, if a GM cannot find a franchise quarterback, then those glaring weaknesses become magnified. When teams have to rely on other players making their quarterback better, they typically fail. Despite bringing in sufficient talent around Chad Henne, he was never able to take that step into becoming a franchise quarterback. Only excuses and questions ensue at that point. People question if the player needs a better coach or better receivers or better this and that (I still remember all the Henne debates on The Phinsider. I don't miss them). In reality, what is truly needed is just a better quarterback. The GM may be able to skirt by if he can acquire enough talent to stay afloat a la Mike Tannenbaum and the Jets. However, unless that GM can find another quarterback fast, he is usually put out to pasture and the team goes back to the depths of rebuilding, a la Mike Tannebaum and the Jets.

In summary, if Chad Henne had become the next franchise quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, no one would be discussing Jeff Ireland, or at least the volume of discussions would drop.

SHADES OF YESTERYEAR

To paraphrase the movie Anchorman, "Bob Dylan once wrote ‘times, they are a-changin'. Tony Sparano (and Bill Parcells) had never heard that song." Once upon a time, power rushing football was the name of the game. Teams built offenses around a powerful offensive line and premier running backs. All NFL teams still want a strong offensive line and dominant running game, but now they want a dynamic passing attack more. While quarterbacks have always been important, their role has increased with offenses and rules favoring the passing game. To illustrate this point, let's compare the rookie stats for Troy Aikman, HoF QB and first overall pick in the 1989 draft to that of Ryan Tannehill's rookie season of 2012. Aikman's rookie season: 155 completions, 293 attempts, 9 TDs, 18 INTs, 1749 yards (his highest yardage total in ANY season was 3445). Tannehill's rookie season: 282 completions, 484 attempts, 12 TDs ( plus 2 rushing TDs), 13 INTs, 3294 yards. As you can see, teams like to pass more these days.

To that effect, the offensive philosophy that Sparano tried to implement is an outdated philosophy. No, teams aren't abandoning the running game, but neither are they making that the primary focus either. Teams now want offenses that can score points quickly and at will. Sparano's offense was about clock and game management and winning close. If the offense put up 30 plus points via the running game, then that's great. But Sparano was content to win a 10-7 game too. Unfortunately, the rest of the NFL doesn't feel that way. So when a high powered offense came to town, it didn't usually work out for the Dolphins in the win column.

Another somewhat outdated philosophy that was employed was the idea to draft bigger players in lieu of faster players. In the era when Parcells reigned as a coach, size was more important than speed. You wanted big, nasty players because that's what won games. The desire to find big players hasn't really changed much. Teams still want big, nasty players, but now they want speed and athleticism too (which would explain much of Lane Johnson's meteoric rise from second round prospect to fourth overall pick). It's no longer cool just to be the biggest kid on the block. Now, you have to be the fastest and most athletic kid on the block as well (which would explain why a 5'9", 175 lbs slot receiver went eighth overall in the draft). Speed is the key now and Sparano didn't keep up. The outdated model the Dolphins used left them behind the times. Their roster may have been big and tough, but was literally and figuratively too slow to keep up.

WINDS OF CHANGE

It was thought that Jeff Ireland would be gone along with Sparano. However, Ireland was given that rare second chance to build a winning team. The Dolphins hired former Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to be the head coach in the hopes he would bring the Dolphins into the modern era with a high powered passing offense. Along with Ireland, the two would work together to shape the roster under Philbin's vision. The growing pains were tough - struggling with a limited offense with a rookie quarterback at the helm and moving two mercurial, but talented players at key positions, leaving the team devoid of that talent. However, Philbin and Tannehill took the Dolphins farther than anyone thought; resulting in a 7-9 record when most thought 4 wins would be all the Dolphins could muster. Though some careful planning, Jeff Ireland staged an offseason to remember with high profile free agent signings galore and what appears to be a great draft. Now, the expectations for the Dolphins are that of a wild-card playoff contender and a team on the rise.

Of course, all of this is perception. Miami may not be as improved as people think. The free agent haul may not work out as expected and the draft picks may all be busts. Fans will continue to debate about the state of the Dolphins until they can actually see the product on the field. But that's not what's important right now, at least in terms of this post. What IS important is the growth and development of Jeff Ireland as a GM. The perception is that Miami's arrow is pointing up and included in that is the perception that Jeff Ireland has finally developed into not just a competent GM, but a good one. There will be those - writers, fans, hatters - who will not let anyone else forget about the previous blunders of Jeff Ireland. But as I have pointed out, there are at least plausible reasons for why he (and/or Parcells) made the choices he made and acquired the players he did (everyone misses). But as the old adage goes: to err is human, to forgive, divine.

COMPARISONS

Forgiveness for the past is exactly what Ireland would deserve should he build a winner. And of course, it all depends on Tannehill (see Henne section above). However, I think that it is apropos to look at how Ireland has developed from the Parcellsian days of 2008 into a more modern look in 2013. Ireland's first acquisitions were intrinsically tied to Parcells. He (they) acquired guys like Jake Long, Ernest Wilford, Karlos Dansby, Brandon Marshall, John Jerry, Daniel Thomas, Justin Smiley, and Koa Misi. Those players fit under the old archetype: big, strong, less emphasis on speed. Since Ireland has been completely on his own, he has veered away from that mode and into the modern realm of speed. His first draft pick by himself was still an offensive lineman, but probably one of the most athletic lineman in the league (it's fun to watch Pouncey pull and destroy on running plays). Within that draft, Ireland acquired the fastest player in the class in Clyde Gates. Gates never developed into a good player, but again, everyone is going to miss picks. The point is that Ireland made a move with an emphasis on speed not size and we're looking at philosophy here. Ireland did trade up for Daniel Thomas, who has been an underwhelming, but not a completely terrible pick. Limited by injuries, Thomas did flash in 2012 as he made some plays, ran with some power, and scored 4 TDs. While Thomas was not a checkmark on the speed acquisition chart, Ireland later made the move to steal acquire Reggie Bush from the Saints. Bush added the speed dimension, while Thomas was supposed to add the power dimension. He signed Matt Moore to backup Henne and we all know how that turned out. All in all, the 2011 draft was average to weak for Ireland. He scored a win by drafting Pouncey and the jury is still out on whether Thomas, Clay, and Wilson will be anything aside from backups. But remember, this was Ireland's first solo draft and it was still for Tony Sparano. He did well in free agency with the Bush, Moore, and Kevin Burnett signings and only really missed on Marc Colombo. This is where the arc of the learning curve starts moving up.

Going into 2012, Ireland lacked the cap space to be overly aggressive in free agency. He picked up a few free agents like Richard Marshall, but no one else of note. The biggest news was that the Dolphins traded Brandon Marshall to the Bears. Everyone questioned the move because its rare teams give up talent. However, the prevailing opinion is that Marshall did not mesh with Philbin's personality and vision for the team and that's fine. Philbin has the right to want the type of team and players he wants. The issue was about not replacing Marshall's production. But where Ireland really showed growth was in the draft. He admittedly went against his (Parcellsian) principles and drafted the aforementioned Ryan Tannehill (Tannehill did not fit Parcells' model due to lack of college starts). Tannehill already looks like a keeper and will solidify that standing with a good sophomore season. Ireland picked up what appears to be Jake Long's replacement in the second round with Jonathan Martin (a metaphorical washing of his hands of the 2008 draft). He picked up some players with good potential in other rounds, including the probable starting running back Lamar Miller in the fourth round. It's too early to declare this draft a success or failure, but Ireland's philosophy has shown dramatic change since 2008. This draft may his intentions clear: we are finding a quarterback and building around the quarterback and the passing game.

The team struggled in 2012, but Ireland's planning and vision left the team with plenty of cap space and thanks to trades, a bevy of draft picks. The 2013 offseason has been covered very well on this site, but it only shows how Ireland has developed. Instead of going for the Ernest Wilfords of the world, Ireland signs a top tier player renowned for his speed. Instead of resigning Fasano (a move I wanted), Ireland signs Dustin Keller. He's a receiving tight end, not a slow blocking tight end that fans are accustomed to seeing on the team. He lets Smith go and signs a potential upgrade in Grimes; with injury questions and not talent being the issue. Did you notice how it was only AFTER the draft that Ireland signed a key offensive lineman (Lance Louis is not a KEY acquisition). Ireland traded away Davone Bess, a reliable but slow slot receiver. When you look at the signings, the common theme is speed. Then Ireland attacked the draft, making bold moves to get Dion Jordan. He drafted players like Jamar Taylor, Dallas Thomas, Mike Gillislee, Jelani Jenkins and Will Davis who are fast and athletic at their respective positions. Again, the common theme is speed and athleticism.

Looking back over all of Ireland's six drafts, you can see a philosophical change; evident in his first round picks selections: offensive tackle, cornerback, defensive tackle, center, quarterback, pass rusher. Doesn't that appear that Ireland is changing and developing a better understanding of how the modern NFL works? Are Dustin Keller, Mike Wallace, Ryan Tannehill, and Mike Gillislee the types of players Ireland would have tried to acquire in 2008? My guess is no. Those players would have been outside of Ireland's principles in 2008. Today, they are all Miami Dolphins.

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Jeff Ireland has shown me that he is willing to adapt to a changing NFL landscape. Instead of holding fast to outdated principles, he is willing to do what it takes to build a competitive team based on today's philosophy of speed and athleticism. Ireland has shown growth and development as a GM much like NFL players can show growth and development. He is showing us his development by sweeping away the remnants of the old line of thinking and trying to usher the Dolphins into a modern, athletic, fast, dynamic NFL. I will say that Jeff Ireland will never be perfect and he will continue to make mistakes as a GM, just like everyone else. But when the Dolphins begin to win and contend, as Tannehill becomes a franchise quarterback, those mistakes will be less striking and easier to forgive. So the next time you discuss Ireland on The Phinsider, try to view him through the eyes of his development and not strictly on his past. Sure, there are still questions that need to be answered and ultimately Ireland's legacy will depend on Ryan Tannehill. It's totally fair to have those questions because Miami has not been a great team and Jeff Ireland is a big part of that. But Ireland has also shown that he is changing and learning from those mistakes too. With cautious optimism, I believe that Jeff Ireland is becoming a good GM right in front of us. I believe he is changing for the better, showing that development as a GM to have the ability to build and maintain a quality team that can perennially contend. If so, let us forgive him of the past and look forward to a brighter future for the team we love. Perhaps the time is not far away when we laugh at our doubts we had about Ireland. What would we talk about then? Oh yeah... victory!

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