Predictably, reports have surfaced that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has contacted former Steelers coach Bill Cowher. Even more predictably, Ross denies that he has contacted Cowher.
“Not true,” Ross said Friday, via David Hyde of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “I’m not going to reach out to anyone while Tony [Sparano] is the coach. I hope he wins and stays the coach. Neither I nor anyone involved with me has contacted [Cowher], his agent or anyone around him.”
It’s hard to accept that one at face value, for several reasons. First, it’s hard to accept pretty much anything anyone connected to an NFL team says at face value. When it comes to on-field and off-field football tactics, the truth often is told only when it happens to mesh with the strategically prudent explanation. Second, Ross already has shown a willingness not only to contact “anyone” (cough — Jim Harbaugh — cough) while Sparano is the coach, but to fly across the country with the team’s General Manager to meet with said “anyone.” Third, in this bizarre separation dance between Ross and Sparano, where Ross possibly has decided to stay the course (at least for now) in the hopes of racking up enough losses to get Andrew Luck and where Sparano possibly sees that and wants to get fired, admitting to conduct that undermines Sparano could give Sparano enough ammunition to claim that he has been constructively discharged, which would allow him to quit — and also to pursue a buyout of his contract.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, what else was Ross going to say? “Yep, I contacted Cowher. And Gruden. And I tried Vince Lombardi but they keep saying the number is disconnected or no longer in service.”
Despite these obvious reasons for Ross to deny, Hyde chooses to knock down the reports from guys like Mike Freeman of CBSSports.com (who reported that contact had occurred through intermediaries) and Albert Breer of NFL Network (a league employee with an impeccable reputation for accuracy who reported that Ross has contacted Cowher’s agent). Hyde wonders why Ross would contact Cowher at this stage of the season, given that Ross isn’t competing with anyone for Cowher’s services — and given that contacting Cowher now could offend him. “Make[s] no sense on a lot of levels,” Hyde writes.
Actually, it makes sense on every level.
It’s called gauging interest. If Cowher, via his agent, says that he’s interested, Ross can put Cowher on the wish list and wait until Sparano is fired to make a move. If Cowher, via his agent, says that he’d never be interested, Ross can remove Cowher’s name from the list. If Cowher, via his agent, says that Cowher could be interested if X, Y, and/or Z were to happen, Ross can commence the process of deciding whether he can and will make X, Y, and/or Z happen.
Given the extremely clumsy manner in which the Dolphins pursued Harbaugh in January, it makes sense that the Dolphins would begin lining up potential candidates now, and that they would do so in a somewhat clumsy manner, allowing word of the courtship to make its way to the media.
Here’s what Ross should have done. He should have limited the information regarding any contact with Cowher’s agent to only a handful of people — ideally, only one person other than himself. And the message to Cowher’s agent (or whomever has been contacted) should have been clear and direct: If word of this gets out, we’ll deny it, and we’ll remove you from consideration.
But the Dolphins are both clumsy and desperate right now, so they won’t be doing things discreetly and they won’t be issuing the kinds of ultimatums that ensure complete discretion. As Ross essentially admitted when the Harbaugh fiasco blew up in the Fins’ faces, Ross isn’t schooled in these nuances of NFL teams.
And it shows. On every level.