There has been a lot of discussion in the two weeks since the 2014 NFL regular season ended about the Miami Dolphins first deciding to retain head coach Joe Philbin, then reportedly offering him a two-year contract extension. Why are the Dolphins rewarding mediocrity? Why give a coach whose best season record is 8-8 two additional years of employment, rather than just let him work through the final year of his contract?
A lot has been made of the idea of a free agent not wanting to sign with Miami if the coaching position does not seem stable. According to some, the "lame-duck" status of a coach in the last year of his contract will make players only worry about their future, not the coach who they believe will not be around the next year. Again, it's a stability issue. A two-year contract, giving Philbin a deal that would run through the 2017 season, seems to provide that stability, though everyone knows Dolphins owner Stephen Ross will fire someone despite a contract extension (see: Tony Sparano, Jeff Ireland).
Ross is not afraid to pay off the contracts in full for someone if/when he decides to make a change. The billionaire owner of the team believes in stability as a key to building a successful franchise, and would rather stick with someone who is continuing to develop as a coach (or executive) than gamble on someone he does not know. When he does make a decision to make a change, however, it is a quick move, with Ross having paid both Sparano and Ireland the remaining salary owed according to their contract extensions.
If everyone knows Philbin is likely to be fired if the team does not live up to expectations in 2015, and that Ross would simply be bleeding money if he were to fire the coach, money he does not really need to offer Philbin at this point, why even discuss the extension?
Two words: Jason Garrett.
The one time Dolphins backup quarterback and subsequent quarterbacks coach has been the Dallas Cowboys' head coach since 2011. Rumors have circulated repeatedly that the axe was closing in on Garrett, yet team owner Jerry Jones continued to support him. Garrett was 5-3 as the interim head coach in 2010, then took over the helm full time starting in the 2011 season. Three straight 8-8 records did not instill much confidence in Garrett's performance, and he was allowed to enter the final year of his contract without a new deal in place.
This past season, Garrett broke out of the .500-record mold and won the NFC East with a 12-4 record, then one the Wildcard playoff game the team hosted before losing to the Green Bay Packers in Green Bay during the Divisional round. That success landed Garrett a new contract from the Cowboys, a 5-year, $30 million deal.
Garrett's deal may be exactly why the Dolphins want to extend Philbin.
One good year, and the Cowboys are locked into a coach for five years at $6 million per season. What happens in 2015, if the Cowboys fall back to Earth? What a return to .500 for two straight years? Would Jerry Jones fire Garrett so quickly after making the playoffs? Would the playoffs be a fluke similar to the 11-5 season of the Dolphins in 2008 before the team buried itself back into the middle-of-the-pack franchises?
Looking around the coaching landscape, the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton tops the NFL coaching salary list, making $8 million a year. The New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Kansas City Chiefs' Andy Reid are second at $7.5 million per year. The Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll, the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh, and the St. Louis Rams' Jeff Fisher each make $7 million a season, followed by Tom Coughlin ($6.67 million per year) and the Philadelphia Eagles' Chip Kelly ($6.5 million). Then comes Garrett's $6 million per season deal.
That is high up on the list for a coach who has only had one winning-season.
The Dolphins are hoping Philbin will have the same kind of turn-around success as he enters his fourth year as a head coach. He currently makes around $3.5 million per season. If the going rate for a coach with one winning season is $6 million, but if the Dolphins can sign Philbin to a two-year extension in the $4 million per year range, they are protecting themselves from the huge pay inccrease.
Let's assume Miami goes 11-5 next year and makes the playoffs. With the extension, nothing changes and the team comes back in 2016 looking to continue to move forward. They are now paying Philbin $4 million for the season, and will be expecting more results. If they do not come, they can fire Philbin with somewhere around $4 million on the hook.
If they let him play out his contract this year, the Dolphins go 11-5 and make the playoffs, then the contract for 2016 and on becomes more expensive. Using Garrett's contract as the guide, say Philbin signs a new, five-year deal for $5.5 million per year. Then, the Dolphins completely fall apart in 2016. Now, if Ross were to fire Philbin, the contract would still have $22 million on it.
A contract extension for Philbin does not really do anything, other than give him a bigger severance check if the team fires him after the 2015 season - something that will absolutely happen if they are not able to break out of the mediocrity mold in which they find themselves. All it really does is protect the Dolphins from (a) over-reacting to success in 2015 and (b) keep them from over-paying for a coach based on one year's worth of success.
In the end, the potential contract extension for Joe Philbin really is the result of Jason Garrett's situation in Dallas.