by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist
Randy Mueller is a busy man.
As the Dolphins new General Manager, his days are spent figuring out how to return the Dolphins to the top of the NFL strata while ensuring that the team is competitive in the here and now.
The trick is finding the right rate of change. Go too fast and you sacrifice today for tomorrow. Go too slow and the talent you have today is lost for tomorrow.
Currently, about half of the players on the 53 man roster are new to the team in 2005. This presents a daunting challenge to the coaches in terms of teaching and integrating into the current system.
Sometimes Head Coach Nick Saban wonders if he and Mueller have been too aggressive in their desire to remake the team, recently asking Mueller if they have “changed too much”.
From Mueller’s perspective, based on his experience as GM for the New Orleans Saints, the rate of change is correct.
“It has to happen that way because we’ve got to find the kind of player(s) that Coach wants to fit into the system. This is a league of change nowadays, where you can forecast that 30% of roster will change year to year.”
Mueller appreciates that the coaches have been “willing to teach, will to coach, willing to change…not afraid to coach new guys”, something that he feels is uncommon in today’s NFL. It also speaks volumes for Saban in terms of the level of buy-in that the organization has in him and his philosophy in building a winner.
It is somewhat ironic that, one year after being rejected by team owner H. Wayne Huizenga in favor of the now-departed Rick Spielman, it is Mueller who helps with the reconstruction of the roster. In Mueller’s view, this is something that he “wouldn’t have bet a lot of money on happening” before Saban started pitching him.
Mueller had been working as an ESPN analyst, a job he held for 2½ years before agreeing to join the Dolphins.
Mueller cites Saban’s determination and doggedness as keys in his decision to accept the job. At one point, Saban called Mueller “ten days in a row” to sell Mueller on coming to Miami. Finally, he “had to listen”.
“No disrespect to the other franchises, but this is a big time organization”, reflected Mueller. “I really feel like I made the right decision to come here. It’s a classy organization. They have first class people here. I’m very happy to a part of that.”
While Mueller maintains a much lower profile in Miami than he did with the Saints, he seems quite satisfied with his role. And though Saban makes the final calls on personnel, it is Mueller’s insight that may be the most influential of all.
That influence extends beyond football operations and into the front office. Working with Executive Vice President/COO Bryan Wiedmeier and Staff Counsel Matt Thomas, Mueller has put a priority on addressing the team’s salary cap situation. While Wiedmeier and Thomas have done solid work in keeping the team relatively healthy in this regard, Mueller sees the need to create even greater flexibility to add the type of players that fit Saban’s philosophy.
A recent article by Jason Cole of The Miami Herald suggested that the Dolphins could create up to $25 million in space if they desired. Mueller doesn’t see the need to go that far.
“If we were to have $25 million in cap room, I couldn’t spend it. I hope that we can kind of stair-step it a little bit. When I got to New Orleans in 2000, we had $17 million available in cap room. We parlayed that into a pretty good group of players. If we could position ourselves to be in $12-15 million range, I’d be really happy with that.”
Will the Dolphins use any of that expected room to sign a proven, franchise-caliber quarterback? Mueller doesn’t think they’ll have the opportunity to do so.
“You won’t find a top free notch agent quarterback that makes it to the street. You’re going to have to manufacture a quarterback somehow, someway. I don’t think you have to spend $10 million a year to find that guy.”
“Coach Saban and I talk 3-4 times per week about finding that right guy if indeed the guys we have don’t turn out to be the answer.”
“Finding that right guy” for the future, according to Mueller, will include bringing in some new faces. In his view, the Dolphins will be looking to draft a quarterback every year, in addition to signing free agents with upside.
To get an idea of what Mueller hopes to achieve, look no further than his work in New Orleans. At one point Mueller had Jake Delhomme, Jeff Blake, Aaron Brooks, and Marc Bulger on the Saints roster.
For now, Gus Frerotte is the starter at QB. But Mueller looks at Frerotte’s situation from a non-committal, prove-it-to-me perspective beyond 2005.
“He’s 30-something (34) and really has not proven he can hold onto the job for a long period of time. We like him, he likes our system, he knows our system good, so that’s good for him. We’ll just have to see.”
We’ll also have to see what happens with A.J. Feeley, Spielman’s marquee acquisition that appears to have since gone bust. Acquired from Philadelphia for a second round pick, Feeley has gone from starter to third stringer.
Publicly, Mueller is reluctant to criticize the trade while noting that the change in offensive philosophy under Scott Linehan may be playing a factor in Feeley’s current status. Still, he does feel that the deal was a “desperate” one.
As Saban often says, “it is what it is”. To that end, Feeley and the Dolphins are trying to make the best of the current situation. Mueller believes Feeley “has bought in, trying to learn a whole new system. He’s been in a West Coast all his time in college and in (Philadelphia). That is not our system. We’re more a vertical passing system, so it’s a different deal altogether.”
If Mueller is true to his word, the roster you see today will change significantly before the team kicks off the 2006 season. For now, the Dolphins appear to have struck the right balance with a surprising 2-1 record, a complete stock of high draft picks, and an expected windfall of room under the cap for 2006.
It’s what Mueller calls “a good start”.