It’s easy to come up with explanations for why things happen. Adolf Hitler is to blame for World War II. Sugar is responsible for hyperactive children. Greed caused the current recession. Bill Parcells is the reason the Miami Dolphins went from 1-15 to 11-5.
Occasionally, the easy explanation is dead wrong, as with the sugar-hyperactivity connection. (You can look it up. There’s no connection.) Usually, they’re oversimplifications, but there’s truth to them and they’re easy to remember. Almost never are they 100 percent right — life isn’t nearly as simple our perception of it.
The Dolphins’ season truly was a wonder of nature, one of those things that comes along once or twice in a lifetime, like discovering the image of Elvis on a Pop Tart. You might think you can explain it by a single personnel move, but it’s really a perfect storm of planning, luck and coincidence. It was one of those rare moments in sports when Murphy’s Law is turned inside out: If anything can go right, it does.
Go ahead and lard the credit on Parcells if you must. Owner Wayne Huizenga’s decision to hire Parcells to run football operations is the one move that made everything else possible. And Parcells has to get credit for all the decisions he made that turned out right.
Parcells, after all, is the guy who hired the coach, Tony Sparano, who got the team to believe in itself and found ways to get more out of the players than anyone thought they had to give. The Tuna is also the man who signed Chad Pennington after the Jets kicked him off the bus to make room for Brett Favre. Parcells is also the guy who drafted offensive tackle Jake Long and had the nerve to trade Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas.
Every one of these moves was a big part of the Dolphins’ turnaround. Sparano worked under Parcells in Dallas and finished behind Wade Phillips in Jerry Jones’ Replace-the-Tuna sweepstakes. He turned out this year to be a better coach than Phillips. Sparano not only figured out that Ronnie Brown could take direct snaps in the "The Wildcat" formation and make things happen, he also realized Anthony Fasano could catch passes as well as block and made a 5-foot-10, 190-pound drink of water named Davone Bess into a competent wide receiver. Most of all, Sparano started using "The Wildcat" after the team lost its first two games, and he made an average lineup believe in itself enough to win nine of its final 10 games.
And Pennington was simply magic at the helm, starting every game and putting up the best year of his career, throwing for 3,653 yards, 19 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Long anchored a newly competent line and the defense never missed Taylor and Thomas.
But the Dolphins also started the season with a built-in advantage. As the worst team in the league in 2007, they were awarded an easy schedule that did not include the Titans or Steelers. It did include the Ravens, and that’s one of the games Miami lost (and also the team the Dolphins will host this weekend in the wild card round of the playoffs).
The schedule was hardly their only stroke of good fortune. Another stroke of luck was that Sparano turned out to be a coach who could motivate a team as well as build an offense around a quarterback who can’t throw the ball hard enough to splash water.
You can say that Parcells knows from coaches — his descendants are all over the league, led by Bill Belichick. But Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel are also Parcells acolytes. Not even the Tuna could know that Sparano was going to be able to work such magic.
So Parcells won the coaching crap shoot. But even with Sparano in place, the Dolphins don’t go anywhere without Pennington at quarterback. And they went into training camp with no reason to expect they could get him.
And here the Dolphins and Parcells got lucky again. The Packers finally decided to trade Favre, who had become a huge distraction as training camp got underway. The Jets leaped at the opportunity, traded for Favre and cut Pennington at the end of the first week of August, exactly one month before the season began.
Let’s face it. No Pennington, no playoffs for the Dolphins. But just having him guaranteed nothing. The Dolphins also had to hope he would make it through the season, and the oft-injured Pennington had played all 16 games just once before in his previous eight seasons.
He chose 2008 as the second year to start every game. That’s another huge piece of luck, one the Dolphins had no reason to expect would fall in their lap.
Finally, Miami got through the season with just 13 turnovers in 16 games. Some of that is discipline and coaching — the best teams tend to take care of the ball better than the worst teams. But 13 turnovers are an NFL record, one fewer than the previous mark. That goes beyond coaching and into luck.
When the Colts went from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 the following year, they had Peyton Manning at the helm in his second full season and Marvin Harrison catching the ball. The Dolphins had Chad Pennington and a collection of guys you never heard of before.
So give everyone credit. Start with Huizenga, who was smart enough to hire Parcells. Even if Parcells runs away to chase another challenge — and a bigger paycheck — next year, he made the moves and hired the people who made the turnaround possible. Then give Parcells the credit he’s due. Lay another dose of credit at Sparano’s doorstep. Congratulate Chad Pennington for staying healthy all the way through the season against all odds. Give a big round of applause to a gallant band of anonymous players who refused to accept that they weren’t supposed to be any good.
Just don’t think there’s a template here that anyone else can follow to success. Teams hire top executives every year and hire coaches all the time, and no one knows which of them will be geniuses and which will be failures. Teams also grasp desperately at anyone who might represent an upgrade at quarterback, but not many of them perform like Pennington. Everybody tries to hold onto the football, but nobody has ever done it as well as the Dolphins did.
Parcells made decisions that worked out, and so did Sparano. But what really happened is that the Dolphins caught a perfect storm and rode it into history.