The Miami Dolphins fell to 7-6 on the season last Sunday with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens, a loss that decimated their hopes for the postseason. While a run through their final three games, starting with their second meeting with the New England Patriots this upcoming Sunday, could keep them in the hunt for a spot in the Playoffs, Miami could simply be playing for respectability at this point. Will 'respectiability" be enough for owner Stephen Ross to keep head coach Joe Philbin running the Dolphins?
That question will circulate around the Dolphins for the next three weeks, and could be decided by the team's performances over that span. If Miami finishes the year 10-6, with a season sweep of the Patriots and Jets, but miss the Playoffs, a strong argument could be made to keep Philbin and see how the team grows next season. Even if the Dolphins drop the Patriots game, splitting the season series, then win their final two, giving the franchise their first winning season since 2008, there could be justification that Philbin and the Dolphins need one more year together. The Dolphins are progressing forward, even if they are incremental steps and not the leaps and cbounds we all want.
And, to be honest, progressing forward is a lot better than what the Dolphins have been doing over the past decade.
The wildcard in the future of Philbin's employment will be San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. Will Ross, who tried to land Harbaugh three years ago when Tony Sparano was Miami's head coach, make another run at his fellow Univeristy of Michigan product?
One thing is for sure, Ross will not make the mistake of pursing a coach with a coach under contract again. After the embarassment of having done that with Sparano, Ross will let Philbin go if he thinks he can get Harbaugh, rather than go through that scenario for a second time.
No one really knows what Harbaugh will do, or where he will be coaching next year. The only thing that seems guaranteed is that the 49ers and Harbaugh will part ways. Technically, the former Pro Bowl quarterback is under contract for one more season in San Francisco, a fact that the 49ers seem to want to turn into a head coach trade, where they will get some package of draft picks in return for Harbaugh's services. They do not have a lot of leverage, however, as it is widely known they will not bring him back next year. the 49ers will have to settle for less than the Jon Gruden trade from the Oakland Raiders to the Tampa Bay Buccnaeers in 2002. That deal sent Tampa Bay's first round picks in 2002 and 2003 to Oakland, along with the Buccaneers' 2002 and 2004 second round selections and $8 million in cash spread over three years.
There were reports this past offseason that the Cleveland Browns nearly pulled off a trade with San Francisco for Harbaugh. That deal would have sent multiple picks to the 49ers, though San Francisco and Harbaugh both denied the reports, while Cleveland did not comment on the story.
The rumors surrounding Harbaugh have centered on either a return to his alma mater, Michigan, or potentially landing with the Oakland Raiders. The Michigan idea seems to have run into a problem, though: Harbaugh wants to remain in the NFL.
That leaves the Raiders as the top spot, potentially, to land Harbaugh. Oakland does have an early lead on the rest of the potential suitors, having fired coach Dennis Allen back in September, after an 0-4 start including a blowout loss to the Dolphins in London. Tony Sparano, the former Dolphins head coach when Miami made the run at Harbaugh, has been serving as the interim head coach for the majority of the year, and just lead the Raiders to an upset victory over Harbaugh's 49ers. It is believed that Harbaugh likes Oakland rookie quarterback Derek Carr, and Harbaugh's wife is thought to want to remain in Northern California.
Which brings us back to the 7-6 Dolphins. Ross likes Harbaugh. Ross wants a coach who will make the Dolphins relevent. Ross is willing to spend the money to get that coach. Analysts seem to like Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is progressing in his third year in the league, more than they do Carr. Would all of that be enough to convince Harbaugh to leave Northern California for South Florida?
As Niners Nation explains, the steps for a "trade" for a head coach is not the same as trading for a player. In fact, the coach is not actually traded at all:
1. Harbaugh has to OK any trade
2. The 49ers would negotiate terms with a particularly club, likely after Jim Harbaugh has said he would be fine going to that team.
3. One trade terms are agreed to, the 49ers would release Harbaugh from his contract.
4. The new team would negotiate a new contract with Jim Harbaugh. If they could not come to terms, I believe he would revert back to the 49ers, although it is possible some other kind of settlement would be reached since that would be really awkward in 2015.
Ross was unable to swing Harbaugh to Miami his first time around. Will he take another chance? The rumors continue to pop up that Miami would consider making a run at Harbaugh, especially if the Dolphins falter down the stretch, just as they did last season. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora does so far as to describe the Ross and the Dolphins as "[Raiders owner Mark] Davis's primary competition for Harbaugh."
The Dolphins have been linked to Harbaugh for several years now, between the first attempt to land him while Sparano was under contract, to rumors that he could replace Philbin. Usually, where there is smoke, there is at least a flame. If Miami continues to struggle on defense and cannot find their way to at least 9-7, Philbin's return will be anything but a certainty. With Harbaugh in play, Ross may make the decision to change coaches a little quicker than he would otherwise.
Dolphins fans, who would love Harbaugh in Miami, have to ask themselves, though, if Harbaugh's wife does want to stay in Northern California, and Harbaugh acquiesces to that request, will they be able to find an upgrade to Philbin and the system that is stating to get miami moving in the right direction? Firing Philbin does not gurantee Harbaugh will come to Miami, but it does guarantee the Dolphins will be installing new systems in 2015, a year after installing a new offense. If Miami shoots for the stars, and misses, then what? Where will the team be then?
It's a question Ross has to ask himself, and it's a risk he will have to take if he really does want the coach who got away in 2011. Until something is finilized, though, the Harbaugh to Miami rumors will likely continue.