Miami Dolphins: A look back at past head coaches’ first seasons

Brian Flores was hired to be the tenth head coach in Miami Dolphins history. How will he compare to the first nine in their first seasons?

The Miami Dolphins are hoping for a bright future with Brian Flores as the new head coach. After spending the past 14 seasons with the New England Patriots, the Bill Belichick disciple has his first head coaching job of his career, on any level.

This will be the Dolphins 53rd season, and Flores will be the team’s 10th head coach. The previous nine head coaches have gone a combined 70-70 in their first seasons with four playoff births. The average win/loss record for these coaches is 8-8. Let’s take a look back at how those coaches each faired in their first season as head coach.

George Wilson | 1966 | 3 wins & 11 losses

George Wilson was the first head coach in Dolphins history, hired by founder Joe Robbie. His first season wasn’t much of a success as the team won just three games. Arguably the most memorable moment from the team’s inaugural season was the very first play of the year. Oakland Raider Gene Mingo kicked deep to Dolphins running back and return man Joe Auer who took the opening kickoff in franchise history 95 yards for a touchdown. Wilson coached for a total of four seasons and finished with a 15-39-2 record in Miami.

Don Shula | 1970 | 10 wins & 4 losses

Robbie decided it was time to go in a different direction with his team following the 1969 season. He went out and signed Don Shula away from the Baltimore Colts to become the team’s second head coach. However, the signing came with tampering charges against Miami which cost them their first-round pick in the 1971 draft.

I’d say the fine was well worth it. The Colts selected North Carolina running back Don McCauley while Miami was rewarded with the winningest coach in NFL history. In his first season with Miami, Shula’s team won a then-franchise record, ten games and made it to the playoffs. Shula went on to coach Miami for 24 seasons, winning the only two Super Bowls in team history. He finished his Dolphins tenure with a 257-133 and a 17-14 playoff record.

Jimmy Johnson | 1996 | 8 wins & 8 losses

In 1996 the Dolphins made former Dallas Cowboys and University of Miami head coach Jimmy Johnson the team’s third head coach. Previously, Johnson had a winning track record in two stops as a head coach and owner Wayne Huizenga figured that success would follow him to the Dolphins. Unfortunately for Dolphins fans, Johnson wasn’t able to replicate his past successes. Although he made the playoffs in three of his four seasons in Miami, none of his teams ever won the division or made it past the divisional round in the playoffs.

Dave Wannstedt | 2000 | 11 wins & 5 losses

Dave Wannstedt was the Dolphins defensive coordinator in Johnson’s final year in Miami. Johnson announced his retirement in January following a 62-7 massacre by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the playoffs. Following the announcement, Johnson’s longtime assistant, Dave Wannstedt, secured his second head coaching opportunity. Wannstedt coached the Dolphins for 4.5 years before resigning after starting the season 1-9. Wannstedt made the playoffs in his first two seasons as head coach but failed to make it again despite decent regular season records.

Nick Saban | 2005 | 9 wins & 7 losses

Following the resignation of Wannstedt, the Dolphins were in need of another head coach. This time though, the team went in a different direction looking to the college ranks. Huizenga chose LSU head coach and 2003 Sugar Bowl Champion Nick Saban to be the team’s fifth head coach.

Saban coached only two seasons in Miami, going 9-7 in his first season and 6-10 in his second season. In addition, Saban also takes the blame from Dolphins fans for choosing Daunte Culpepper over Drew Brees in the 2006 offseason, even though Brees wanted to be in Miami. Saban’s tenure in Miami ended ugly when he famously announced that he wouldn’t be the Alabama coach, then two days later he informed his staff that he was leaving to become the head coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Cam Cameron | 2007 | 1 win & 15 losses

Cam Cameron is credited with the worst season in Dolphins history and for drafting Ted Ginn Jr. and his family. He coached 1 season in Miami, going 1-15, with a -170 points differential, the second-worst in team history. What stings most about the Cameron era, is the fact that Huizenga chose him over Mike Tomlinson, who went to the Pittsburgh Steelers and won the Super Bowl in his second year.

Tony Sparano | 2008 | 11 wins & 5 losses

The late Tony Sparano came to Miami in 2008 after the dumpster fire in 2007. Miami signed former New York Jets quarterback Chad Pennington and had the best turnaround in franchise history. The Dolphins won 11 games and earned a trip to the playoffs before being beat by the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card round. Additionally, this was also the year that brought us the iconic “Wildcat” formation that had future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick completely lost on the sideline. Unfortunately for Sparano and the Dolphins, the magic didn’t last long, he was fired after 3.5 seasons in Miami and never made it back to the playoffs.

Joe Philbin | 2012 | 7 wins & 9 losses

Joe Philbin was the first head coach hired by current team owner Stephen Ross. Philbin was the offensive coordinator in Green Bay and worked with Aaron Rodgers during some of his best years. Many believed that Philbin played a big role in the development of Rodgers and expected him to do the same with whoever was playing QB in Miami. That wasn’t the case.

Miami drafted Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill in Philbin’s first season but he was never able to even come close to performing like Rodgers. Miami finished the season 7-9. Philbin’s teams were always considered to be a “soft” team that got pushed around by opposing teams. Along with poor production on the field, the Philbin era brought us “Bullygate”. Philbin was never able to lead Miami to the playoffs or get Tannehill to play like a franchise QB. He lasted only 3.5 years with the Dolphins.

Adam Gase | 2016 | 10 wins & 6 losses

Adam Gase and Philbin are complete opposites. Following the 2015 season, change was needed. Gase was the hot name in 2016 for potential new coaches and Miami was able to land him. He rewarded the team with a ten win season and its first trip to the playoffs in eight years. To go along with the playoff birth, Gase had Tannehill playing the best football of his career before tearing his ACL in week 13 against the Arizona Cardinals.

Unfortunately for Miami fans, things began to unravel in 2017 after the team went 6-10 behind QB Jay Cutler who was brought in by Gase. Gase clashed with big personalities, no matter how talented they were. Any player who pushed back against Gase’s philosophies got shipped out.

Gase is currently the head coach of the Jets and has been tied to controversy (first reported by PFN) that ended with general manager Mike Maccagnan being fired.

Brian Flores | 2019 | TBD

How will Brian Flores’ first season as Miami’s head coach pan out? Will it be comparable to Sparano’s or Gase’s and see Miami in the playoffs? Or will it be like Philbin’s or (God forbid) Cameron’s and end the same as it has for much of the last two decades?

We don’t know yet, but the Dolphins are in a good position for their future. Whether Josh Rosen is the future at quarterback or if the team will be forced to look to the 2020 draft for that answer, Miami will have options.

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