Stephen Ross knows real estate. He knows construction. He’s a multi-multi-billionaire who has developed major chunks of Manhattan and Miami.
What he doesn’t know is how to run a successful football team. He has been the Dolphins owner since 2009, and has learned shockingly little about how to create success in the NFL over 13 seasons.
The Dolphins are 24th in the NFL in win percentage since Ross took over (.459). He has gone through four head coaches, five Week 1 starting quarterbacks, and has one playoff appearance and zero playoff wins to show for it.
Ross’s latest head-scratcher came Monday when he fired Brian Flores after three seasons as head coach. Flores compiled just a 24-25 record, and didn’t make the playoffs. Ross told reporters that “an organization can only function if it’s collaborative and it works well together,” which implies that with Flores, it wasn’t collaborative nor working well together. Notably, the Dolphins are retaining general manager Chris Grier, which speaks to who won the power struggle.
Flores got fired despite accomplishing something rare for a Dolphins coach in the 21st century: He actually won games.
In 2019, he took a team that was clearly tanking and won five games toward the end of the season that it had no business winning. The win over the Patriots in Week 17, which cost New England a first-round bye, was one of the signature moments of the season.
In 2020, Flores went 10-6, and in 2021, he went 9-8, narrowly missing the playoffs both times. Flores even had the Patriots’ number, winning four of six games against his old team. And he did it with a quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, who has been average at best, and seemed to be forced upon Flores.
Flores was Don Shula compared with his predecessors. Adam Gase went 23-25. Joe Philbin went 24-28. Tony Sparano went 18-27 after Ross took over in 2009.
Yet Flores still earned a pink slip. The general manager who chose Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert gets to stay. The coach who went 19-14 the last two years gets the ax.
“Wow,” Dolphins cornerback Jason McCourty tweeted. He wasn’t alone among Dolphins players expressing shock.
WOW!!!! (Jmac)— Devin&Jason McCourty (@McCourtyTwins) January 10, 2022
I can’t speak to what happened behind the scenes. It wouldn’t be shocking to learn that Flores, who spent 15 years in Foxborough before getting the Dolphins job, didn’t manage relationships well or learn how to keep the bosses happy.
But firing Flores wasn’t part of some big master plan. Ross shot down rumors that he would try to hire Jim Harbaugh, currently the Michigan coach. In 2011, Ross flew to California to try to woo Harbaugh to Miami — while still employing Sparano. That was one of Ross’s first major blunders as owner. But Ross, whose name is on the business school at Michigan, said, “I’m not going to be the person that takes Jim Harbaugh from the University of Michigan.”
This firing is about only that — removing Flores from the equation. Ross said he’s going to start from square one with a coaching search, and the new coach will decide what will happen at quarterback — whether Tagovailoa gets one more chance or the Dolphins make a run at someone like Deshaun Watson.
But it seems painfully obvious by now that the problems haven’t necessarily stemmed from hiring the wrong coaches. It’s from Ross’s remarkable lack of patience and lack of a coherent plan.
It’s why the Dolphins are stuck spinning their wheels year after year. Since their last playoff win in December 2000 — a win that is now old enough to legally drink — the Dolphins have had seven coaches (not counting interims): Dave Wannstedt, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, Sparano, Philbin, Gase, and Flores. They also have had six general managers: Wannstedt, Rick Spielman, Randy Mueller, Jeff Ireland, Dennis Hickey, and Grier. That doesn’t include Bill Parcells, who oversaw the operation in 2008-09.
The Patriots, meanwhile, have had one coach and one general manager: Bill Belichick. The Patriots have had consistency. They have a system and a culture in place. They have institutional knowledge. They develop their coaches and promote from within. The top organizations — the Patriots, Chiefs, Seahawks, Saints, Steelers — have consistency at the most important positions.
The Dolphins just rip up their plan every three years and start over again.
Flores didn’t stabilize matters in Miami. In his three seasons, he had four offensive coordinators, two defensive coordinators, and three quarterback coaches. That’s an impossible way to build a culture.
But at 19-14 the last two seasons, he wasn’t far off from making the Dolphins contenders. It’s only a couple of bounces that separate teams from 10-7 and 7-10. Flores built an elite defense in multiple seasons. Give him a competent quarterback, and the Dolphins would have been in the playoffs. Give him time to build a program, instead of these artificial three-year windows, and the Dolphins could have become consistent winners again.
Instead, he gets shown a quick exit, like so many other coaches in Miami over the last 13 years.
Flores, 40, will be fine. He could end up back in Foxborough, but more likely will branch out on his own. He can have any defensive coordinator job in the NFL, and probably will get another opportunity as a head coach, either this year or within the next few.
Ross, though, won’t be fine. Not until he realizes that you can’t keep firing your coach every three years and expect to have success.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.