With the NFL’s 100th season underway, many football fans are reminiscing about their favorite memories from all NFL teams. But, throughout the history of this league, there have also been controversies, bad management decisions, and acts of cheating. In this series, we will take a look at some of the many questions fans think about their favorite team. The second team to be questioned is… the MIAMI DOLPHINS!
Question #2: Jimmy Johnson vs. Don Shula (Miami’s Coaching Dilemma)
Over the last 20 years, many Miami Dolphins fans have been desperate for a great head coach and a franchise quarterback to lead their team back to success. However, following the 1995 NFL season, the Dolphins management forced their Hall of Fame head coach, Don Shula, to step down and hired two-time Super Bowl champion head coach Jimmy Johnson to replace him. But, after Johnson’s limited success in his four years in Miami, some fans started to question owner Wayne Huizenga’s decision to hire Johnson over keeping Shula as their head coach.
After four straight losing seasons in the American Football League from 1966-1969, Joe Robbie, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, replaced head coach George Wilson with former Baltimore Colts head coach Don Shula to turn his team around. Before coming to Miami, Shula began his NFL career as a defensive back under Hall of Fame head coaches Paul Brown and Weeb Ewbank before becoming Wilson’s defensive coordinator with the Lions from 1961-1963.
Despite losing two championships in Baltimore (1964 NFL Championship and Super Bowl III), Shula’s experience helped the Dolphins transform from a struggling organization into a title contender as Miami made the playoffs 12 times from 1970-1985 and appeared in five Super Bowls (won two Super Bowl titles in 1972 as well as 1973).
At the same time Shula was developing the Dolphins into a consistent postseason contender, Jimmy Johnson was beginning his coaching career in the college football ranks. After working as a defensive assistant/coordinator under Hall of Fame head coaches Joe Aillet at Louisiana Tech and Frank Broyles at the University of Arkansas, Johnson was offered a head coaching position at Oklahoma State in 1979 and led the Cowboys to three winning seasons in five years. But, five months after winning the 1983 Bluebonnet Bowl, Johnson was hired by the University of Miami to be their new head coach after Howard Schnellenberger left for the United States Football League despite leading the Hurricanes to a national championship in 1983.
Over the next couple of years, Don Shula’s and Jimmy Johnson’s careers started to differentiate as the Dolphins struggled to reach the playoffs from 1986-1989 while the Hurricanes had five straight winning seasons and back-to-back Orange Bowl victories in 1987 as well as 1988 (won another national championship title in 1987). But, in 1989, Jimmy Johnson was approached by his former college teammate at Arkansas, Jerry Jones (the new owner of the Dallas Cowboys), to be the head coach of the Cowboys after Jones dismissed Tom Landry during the offseason.
From 1990-1993, Jimmy Johnson and Don Shula changed the culture of their teams as the Cowboys became “America’s Team” again with back-to-back Super Bowl championships in 1992 as well as 1993 while the Dolphins made two postseason appearances and fell just short of meeting the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII after losing to the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 AFC Championship.
But, after a surprising breakup with Jerry Jones following Super Bowl XXVIII, Johnson left the NFL and Shula’s success in Miami started to fade after a painful 2nd half collapse during the 1993 NFL season and finished with a 9-7 record (started the year 9-2). Before the 1994 season, Tim Robbie, the son of Joe Robbie, allowed part-owner Wayne Huizenga to purchase the Dolphins for $115 million after Tim struggled to finance the team after his father’s death prior to the start of the 1990 NFL season.
Despite leading Miami to the playoffs in 1994 and 1995, Don Shula started to face heavy criticism from the local media after a disappointing 9-7 season in 1995. Six days after a tough loss to the Bills in the AFC Wild Card, Shula stepped down as head coach and rumors began to circulate about Jimmy Johnson coming to the Dolphins. Two weeks later, Huizenga hired Johnson as the Dolphins new head coach to replace their legendary Hall of Fame head coach.
After leading Miami to an 8-8 record in his first season, Johnson led the Dolphins to three consecutive wild card playoff berths from 1997-1999, but was unable to reach another AFC Championship Game with Dan Marino as his quarterback. However, Johnson only won two playoff games in his four years in Miami and was blown out in back-to-back AFC Divisional games against Denver as well as Jacksonville leading some fans to question Huizenga. Despite his efforts, Huizenga’s decision to hire Johnson over keeping Shula as Miami’s head coach still remains as the most controversial management decision in Dolphins history.
Al’s Top 3 Takes: There have been many rumors about how this coaching controversy was handled, but here are my top three takes on the biggest controversy in Dolphins history.
New ownership. When Wayne Huizenga became part owner of the Dolphins before the 1990 NFL season, Miami had missed the playoffs in the last four years under Don Shula and had only one winning season (went 8-7 in the NFLPA strike season in 1987). But, in the four years before purchasing full control of the team prior to the start of the 1994 NFL season, the Dolphins reached the playoffs twice and just missed playing in their sixth Super Bowl under Shula after losing to the Bills in the 1992 AFC Championship.
I think when Huizenga decided to move on from Shula after the 1995 NFL season, he wanted Jimmy Johnson to be his long-time coach like Don Shula was to Joe Robbie when he was hired before the 1970 NFL season. Even though Shula reached the playoffs in 1994 and 1995, Huizenga felt confident when he hired a recent two-time Super Bowl champion to be his new head coach.
Johnson’s recent success vs. Shula’s recent struggles. When Don Shula stepped down as the Dolphins head coach following the 1995 NFL season, the Dolphins had not appeared in a Super Bowl in 12 years and had not won a Lombardi trophy since 1973. Shula also struggled to upgrade his defense since Dan Marino came into the league in 1983 (Miami’s defense only finished in the top 10 in 1983 and 1990) and the Dolphins didn’t have a single 1,000+ yard rusher from 1983-1995!
Jimmy Johnson was proposed as a great hire for Miami due to his balanced offensive attack he ran in Dallas with the Hall of Fame “triplets” (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin) that won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1992 as well as 1993. Johnson also had developed one of the league’s best defenses in the early 1990’s and he also was a disciplined head coach that seemed to be a great replacement after Shula stepped down.
Dan Marino’s relationship (Shula vs. Johnson). When Dan Marino came to Miami in 1983, Don Shula changed his offensive philosophy from a run-first approach to a pass-first approach that led Marino to an MVP season in 1984. In his 13 years with Shula, Marino had total control of the Dolphins offense and was allowed to change plays in the huddle or at the line of scrimmage.
But, when Jimmy Johnson took over as head coach, the Dolphins started to run the ball more effectively as Karim Abdul-Jabbar averaged 989 rushing yards from 1996-1998 and scored 32 rushing touchdowns in 43 starts (played in 47 regular season games). Due to Johnson’s new offensive philosophy, Marino was restricted into running the original play called from the sidelines and only had a few designed plays to audible/change instead of the whole playbook.
COMING UP NEXT… THE NEW YORK JETS!