ORLANDO — The beginning of the end — that was the specter ESPN raised in January in an extensive piece suggesting that the New England Patriots’ dynasty could be crumbling because of tension among owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
Monday, Kraft didn’t look like an owner whose team was crumbling before his eyes. He didn’t come out and say that he, his coach and MVP sang Kumbaya when they met after the Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia, but he did confirm they met. And he made several references to organizational strength that will disappoint AFC East rivals Miami, Buffalo and the New York Jets.
In short: We’re not done yet, Kraft was saying.
“That word ‘tension … ’ ” Kraft said as he pondered how to respond to a question from a reporter. He then contrasted the situation today to when he believes there actually was tension in Foxborough.
“I think about tension,” said Kraft, a part-time Palm Beach resident. “I think about my first year as an owner, and I love Bill Parcells, but he as a coach — the players were walking on eggshells and maybe ownership did as we went down the learning curve with how to get along. And it was a great lesson for me to learn and train and understand how to be a good owner, and at the same time how to work with a very strong and powerful coach.”
As for the tension back then …
“The so-called tension gets greater when you lose,” Kraft said. “We were 10-6 our first year. The second year we were 5-11. We really had tension.”
He said it’s bound to occur in any successful business or marriage, the key being whether all sides can have “a meeting of the minds.”
That meeting did occur among the three most important people in the Pats’ organization.
“We have meetings all the time,” Kraft said. “And we’re not a big, bureaucratic organization. We’re a private company. … We met.”
It sounded like a gathering to share misery of coming up short against the Eagles.
“I think the residual of this loss was hard on everyone,” Kraft said. “But I sort of see that as a high-class problem because I sat in the stands when we never were in the playoffs at home for 20-odd years.”
Although the loss hit Brady hard, Kraft is looking forward to another shot next fall with his MVP.
“If someone had told you 10 years ago that Tom Brady would be quarterbacking a team that would go to seven straight conference championship games and when he’s 40 years old he’d be playing in a Super Bowl and be MVP of the league, how many people would have bought into it?” Kraft said.
“We have a guy quarterbacking our team and then we have players coming in who were 5 or 6 years old who watched him on TV and they’re starry-eyed. So how do you do that? How do you get the chemistry right so that they feel comfortable? So we’ll try to go with the flow and work things around.”
The Patriots have to go all the way back to February 2017 for the last time they hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy. That’s only one Super Bowl ago, except in Patriots years, it seems longer.
“The feeling of losing is worse than the feeling of winning,” Kraft said.
MIAMI GARDENS—When the Miami Open and Crandon Park arrived at an irreconcilable dispute over renovating the facility, it looked like the tennis tournament would be leaving after more than three decades as a premier sporting event in South Florida.
That was the genesis of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ dream, though. He’s always been intent on expanding Hard Rock Stadium into more than a football venue, and he hated the idea of the tournament relocating to another area. It didn’t take long for him to combine those two interests and pitch the Miami Open on moving to his property.
“I thought Steve was crazy,” Serena Williams said. “But Steve is a visionary.”
Ross, Williams and other key figures in the project were at the stadium this morning for a ground-breaking ceremony, and the tournament will debut on Hard Rock Stadium’s premises next March.
The main court will be a temporary structure on the football field, but the rest of the design is the real gem of the project. Everything Ross plans to build on what is currently parking space could make the stadium even more attractive as it bids for future Super Bowls and College Football Playoff games.
The Dolphins are already scheduled to host the Super Bowl in 2020 (Super Bowl LIV) and the National Championship Game in 2021 and will continue pursuing those events as often as possible.
The Super Bowl is of the utmost importance and almost certainly wouldn’t be returning to South Florida if not for the $500 million Ross put into stadium renovations. This will be the first one since 2010, when the Saints beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
“We’re working on it, yeah,” Dolphins president Tom Garfinkel said of chasing future hosting rights. “We want to get one every chance we get. It’s very competitive, and we’re going to work to get as many as we can. We hope that everybody has such a great experience in 2020 that they want to bring more back.”
The upcoming Super Bowl will be in Atlanta’s new stadium, and the game goes to Tampa in 2021 and Los Angeles the year after. The next Super Bowl open for bids is the February 2023 game.
The next opening to host the college title game is 2024.
From 1968 through 2010, the Super Bowl was in South Florida on average about every four years and the next one will give the area an NFL-high 11 times hosting the game. The current gap between Super Bowl XLIV and LIV is the longest since the ‘80s.
The Miami Open might help. The tournament’s move necessitates a 6,000-seat grandstand and 28 other permanent tennis courts being built on the south side of the property. There are also plans for a large promenade that connects to the stadium and can be used for a variety of purposes, including entertainment and dining.
In addition to those more involved projects outside the stadium, the Dolphins are still tweaking the inside of the building. There won’t be any hugely noticeable renovations for the upcoming season, but the team still has subtle upgrades on its to-do list.
“There’s a lot of little things that we’re doing to continue to improve on, so I wouldn’t call it one big thing to showcase, but as we go around, people will notice a lot of little improvements,” Garfinkel said. “We’re fine-tuning a lot of things.”
“Steve really wants—If you walk around the stadium and see things that still don’t look like they’re brand new, we want to make them look brand new. There might be a floor that didn’t get redone and still looks old. Certain things that still look old, we’re gonna enhance them.”
The construction of tennis-related features could be an inconvenience during the upcoming season for the Dolphins and Hurricanes, but the team expects to smooth all of that out by early next year. The overall plan also includes resurfacing and upgrading the outer parking lots and putting in pedestrian bridges and tunnels connecting them to the stadium block.
The promenade has the versatility to accommodate all kinds of advertiser and fan needs for big events, and the grandstand stadium can easily be reconfigured for concerts and other activities.
All of those amenities could be a selling point for the Dolphins when they present plans for Super Bowls, and they’ll get a chance to put all of it on display two years from now.
“For sure,” Garfinkel said. “If you look at the south plaza that’s being created with fountains and landscaping, the whole area, the actual competition court… There’s a way to use it for Super Bowl and other big events like that that enhances the whole experience pre-game.”
That’s the coalescence Ross imagined when bringing the Miami Open to Hard Rock Stadium first became a possibility.
“What we do here in Miami, I think, will set the tone for the future of great sports,” he said. “It’s really about how you treat the fans and giving the great experience that they’re looking for.
“My objective was really to make Miami the sports capital and bring great events to Miami. We have all this land, and I figured there had to be a way to do it. We got the designers involved, and I don’t think you can have a venue like this. It’s going to be like no other.”
The fourth-down touchdown pass to his quarterback or the fourth-down gamble with 9 1/2 minutes left on his own half of the field — take your pick as to which took the greatest courage from Eagles coach Doug Pederson.
Just brace yourself for more of it.
In a copycat league, there can be no greater incentive than that sterling silver Lombardi trophy or those solid gold rings, both of which belong to Philly because Pederson was bold enough to go snatch it.
“We just wanted to stay aggressive,” Pederson said after the Super Bowl. “My mentality coming into the game was to stay aggressive until the end and let playmakers make plays. I trust my instincts.”
At this point, if you’re sitting back and wondering why the Dolphins don’t play this way, brace yourself.
Or at least they try to.
Only the Eagles and Packers went for it on fourth down more than Miami’s 24 tries this season, so you can’t fault Adam Gase for playing it too close to the vest. You can, however, fault the players for not making the most of it, because the Dolphins converted just seven of those opportunities, a rate of 29 percent that ranked 29th in the league.
It signaled a huge change from Gase’s first season, when the Dolphins were last in the NFL in attempts (four) and successes (zero).
“What do we have to lose?” Gase said in October, after two second-half gambles were critical to the Dolphins breaking a team record by overcoming a 17-0 halftime deficit to win in Atlanta 20-17.
Damien Williams caught a 3-yard pass on a fourth-and-1 and Landry went airborne for a 9-yard catch to convert a fourth-and-2. The Dolphins parlayed them into 10 points.
That’s the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. Joe Philbin was roasted for admitting he felt “queasy” when he played it close to the vest and lost a 2014 game against the Packers, but in each of his final two seasons, the Dolphins had the third-most fourth-down attempts in the league. Now, one could argue that losing teams and teams that fall behind early are often put in position where they have to gamble. Both are classic characteristics of the Dolphins, but that only goes so far in explaining the numbers.
The exasperating part is how little those Dolphins rewarded Philbin’s trust, finishing in the bottom third in conversions. To find the last time the Dolphins were any good on fourth down, you have to go back to 2009 when they were 13 of 18, 72 percent. Only the Jets (75 percent) were better.
After the Super Bowl, the Eagles were complaining that Pederson should have been coach of the year. If votes were counted after the playoffs, he certainly would have been, but what’s the use in that, since it would just reaffirm whoever won the Super Bowl?
Trend-setter of the year, that’s Pederson, jettisoning his punter to no-man’s land while telling his offense to move the chains on fourth down 26 times this season. The Eagles succeeded 17 times times (65 percent), giving new meaning to the term Philly stakes. It’s the kind of take-what-we-want attitude of the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (remember that fake punt against the Dolphins?) and the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin (who never met a two-point conversion he didn’t like).
The Eagles calling a razzle-dazzle pass to quarterback Nick Foles in a Super Bowl — that was stunning enough. Then, when Pederson went for it on the negative side of the 50, when failure could have clinched defeat — that’s when we began to realize Pederson hadn’t lost his marbles, he was proving he had some, uh, serious stones. The previous Super Bowl had taught him what happens to Patriots opponents who play scared.
“In games like this against a great opponent, you have to make those tough decisions and keep yourself aggressive,” Pederson said.
As tight end Zach Ertz said to Sports Illustrated, “Doug balled. He called an unbelievable game.”
Believe it. And next season, get ready for a little more of it.
Garo Yepremian was only 70 when he died in 2015, but that was of cancer. Earl Morrall died three years ago, after suffering with the same debilitating brain diseases we’re now associating with old-time football players, but he was 79. Bill Stanfill, who died last year at 69, long suffered from dementia, but he did so privately.
Today, there are no “buts.”
Nick Buoniconti and Jim Kiick — and their families — are paying a price for playing football no one should have to pay. Buoniconti is 76, but a youthful 76, we thought by his public persona. Kiick is 70. They and their relatives stepped forward this week to share details of their struggles with brain disease, threatening the romanticism South Florida has clung to regarding 1972.
We did not think of these heroes wrestling with a telephone because they couldn’t remember how to hang up. We did not think of them needing help going to the bathroom — or sometimes not bothering to go to the bathroom before relieving themselves.
Sports Illustrated wasn’t responsible for peeling back the curtain on 1972 with its series this week on the downward spirals Buoniconti and Kiick face. Buoniconti came to SI, wanting his story to be told. Truth is, neither story could be responsibly reported by Scott Price without cooperation from the families — families who say they’re speaking out not just for their benefit, but on behalf of all other old-timers who may be suffering in silence and struggling for their piece of the $1 billion NFL concussion-settlement pie.
More? Oh, yes, there are more such Dolphins. We just don’t know how many. Former Dolphins tight end Marv Fleming, who helps organize reunions for the 1972ers, said he couldn’t estimate what percentage of his former teammates have issues beyond the norm for their age.
But one ’72 Dolphin, speaking on the condition of anonymity, pointed to two other teammates who clearly were in distress at their last reunion. One brought a caregiver but appeared to be in good spirits, the anonymous player said. The other player seemed out of it, he said.
If correct, of 45 members of that team, that would make six players unable to live out their golden years in golden fashion. Six that we know of.
“You don’t know … until you know,” the anonymous player said, referring to any who might be suffering in silence.
The Buoniconti story shocked me. Kiick’s didn’t.
It was only two years ago that I met with Buoniconti and son Marc at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis to discuss the 30 years since Marc was paralyzed while making a tackle for The Citadel. Wearing shorts, tanned and vibrant, Nick looked like a man who just stepped off the tennis court but was itching to go a few more sets. The very first minute of our interview, he made it seem he was as fit mentally as physically.
“In 30 years, we’ve gone from a 1,000-square-foot research center to a 135,000-square-foot research center with 200 scientists and technicians with an annual budget of $25 million, which we have to raise every year in order to keep our doors open … ,” he said.
You think about the advances The Miami Project and The Buoniconti Fund have made, you think about how vital Nick was in raising those millions and you think about where Nick is now. And you want to stop thinking before this gets even more depressing.
Several months before that interview, I was speaking with Kiick about a documentary NFL Network recorded on the 1972 backfield trio he formed with Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. Most of our conversation was a delight — a Jersey guy sharing hell-raising stories that always came back to them giving Don Shula gray hairs and Shula blaming Kiick for the mess du jour, whether Kiick deserved it or not. Kiick jokingly continued his decades-long pouting over why he had to block for the much-bigger Zonk rather than the other way around. He laughed about freezing his fanny during a trip to Alaska to fish with Csonka. He talked poignantly about how grateful he was to be a part of that historic team.
But I hung up feeling sadness. Late in the conversation, I casually asked how long of a trip it was to fly to Alaska to see Csonka. His answer was nonsensical, saying he had to first fly through Seattle or Denver but then flew and drove to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Davie en route to Alaska.
That’s when, to borrow from the anonymous player, I knew what I didn’t want to know.
Here’s something else to know: If you want the NFL to switch to an 18-game regular season, rethink that. In wondering why the Dolphins are suffering this way, I realized that over that three-year span starting with the 1971 season, they played more games than any other team.
More games, more hits.
There’s a tendency to hit the pause button and say that was in a 14-game era, not today’s 16, but look closer. The Dolphins played three postseason games each of those Super Bowl years, meaning 17 “real” games. There’s more. Teams routinely played six — six! — preseason games then, and the Dolphins compounded it by also playing the college all-stars in a 1973 preseason with a mind-numbing seven exhibitions.
Add that up and you’ve got 70 games in three years, or 23.3 per. All in an era of no mercy on defenseless receivers, quarterbacks or brains.
They knew what they were getting into? Like hell.
“Obviously, if you take a pounding all those years, or even a few years, you’re not going to be the same as you were,” said Pro Bowl guard Bob Kuechenberg, among the toughest Dolphins ever. “We used to say, ‘Boy, I really rang his bell that time.’ That means you also got a concussion. But we all knew what we were getting into in terms of that.
“We didn’t know the part about the brain damage.”
There’s a lot we know today.
Whether it’s what we want to know is another story.
The Dolphins finally made the playoffs, have finally jumped off the coaching merry go round and have guys willing to take less money to stick around.
But one thing they haven’t done is move the needle much when it comes to their odds of winning the Super Bowl.
Offshore gambling site Bovada.lv released its odds to win the Super Bowl on Thursday and the Dolphins are at 50-1, barely better than the 66-1 they were a year ago and exactly where they were in February 2016. That’s despite retaining Kenny Stills and Andre Branch and adding Lawrence Timmons, William Hayes and Julius Thomas, among other moves via free agency and trades.
If it makes you feel any better, experts calculated Miami’s chances of making the playoffs at only 22 percent in mid-November — and that was a huge climb from their chances in October.
In a complete shocker, the Patriots are favored at 4-1. They’re followed by the Cowboys/Packers/Seahawks (all 10-1) and and Falcons (12-1).
In another complete shocker, you’ll be glad if you’re not a fan of the Browns, who retained permanent residence in the basement with odds listed at “don’t throw away your money.” (OK, they’re actually 200-1. But don’t waste your money.)
Dolphins fans will be gleeful to know the two teams just above Cleveland are the Rams and J-E-T-S at 150-1.
Rounding out the AFC are the Bills at 100-1, meaning if the oddsmakers are right, the only team with much of a prayer of unseating the Patriots for the division title is Miami.
Here is Bovada’s full list of odds for next year’s Super Bowl:
With a future calendar that includes a U2 concert, Barcelona vs. Real Madrid and the 2020 Super Bowl, you might ask what more could logically be expected for Hard Rock Stadium?
Another Super Bowl, that’s what.
Rodney Barreto, chairman of the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee, confirmed Tuesday that his group has taken the first step in the process to land a second future Super Bowl for South Florida.
After the Super Bowl in Miami Gardens, the title game will shift to the Rams’ new stadium in Inglewood, Calif., in 2021. But after that, it’s fair game.
The NFL sent a letter to various cities asking if they would be interested in participating in the bidding process for the next batch of Super Bowls. For Barreto, who half-jokingly wonders why every Super Bowl isn’t played in South Florida, it didn’t take long to draft a letter with a definite yes.
NFL owners voted last summer to bring the game back to South Florida following a 10-year hiatus thanks in large part to the half-billion dollar renovation by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, capped by a presentation by Dolphins Hall of Famer Larry Csonka.
“We’re back, baby, is the way I look at it,” Barreto said. “Look at that stadium. It’s incredible. Geographical location, South Florida — you know what I mean? It doesn’t get any better than this. Look at what’s going on in the Northeast right now.”
In recent years, the NFL has shown a willingness to bring the game to non-traditional areas such as Indianapolis, Minneapolis and New York/New Jersey. Cities with new or greatly improved stadiums, such as Miami and Atlanta, also have been rewarded. Put it together and what does that mean for South Florida?
“I’m hoping at least every four years, right?” Barreto said. “I think the NFL had some real experiences at some other cities.”
Although he was impressed by Houston’s job hosting the most recent Super Bowl, Barreto said he thought the 2016 game in the San Francisco Bay Area was too vanilla for a 50th anniversary Super Bowl.
“I wasn’t totally impressed,” Barreto said. “And the stadium was an hour, hour and a half outside San Francisco. I don’t know, I’m biased. Ideally we’d love to have it here on some kind of rotation basis. I’m not sure that’s in the cards yet. A lot of these teams want to have the Super Bowl. They realized what we’ve known all along: Super Bowls are great for your community.”
Who’s to say what could have, would have and should have happened? Who’s to say that if things had panned out, maybe it would be the Miami Dolphins facing the Atlanta Falcons in Sunday’s Super Bowl? Who’s to say if people might be talking about the Miami Dolphins’ dynasty, rather than the New England Patriots’?
Because as the Patriots were beginning their courtship of Belichick, so was one other franchise: the Dolphins.
The year was 1996. Jimmy Johnson had just signed to succeed Don Shula as Dolphins coach and was assembling a staff. Though neither Johnson nor anyone high up in Miami’s front office had obvioius ties to Belichick, who had just been let go as head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Johnson was intrigued about the possibility of adding Belichick to his defensive staff.
“We talked and he considered it,” Johnson told The Post via e-mail Monday.
Of course, those talks went nowhere.
Blame Bill Parcells.
Although Parcells would eventually run football operations for the Dolphins, at the time he was head coach of the Patriots and lobbied owner Robert Kraft to bring Belichick to New England as secondary coach. Parcells later brought Belichick with him as assistant head coach of the New York Jets for three years starting in 1997. But when Kraft was in the market for a head coach in 2000, he remembered the success Belichick had with New England’s secondary in 1996 and shrugged off warnings, rehiring Belichick.
The Dolphins and Jimmy Johnson? Minus Belichick in ’96, they promoted longtime linebackers coach George Hill to defensive coordinator, which may have been the role Johnson envisioned for Belichick. Mel Phillips, another veteran Dolphins assistant, was the secondary coach.
The Dolphins ranked 17th defensively in 1996 and 26th the next season before five consecutive seasons finishing in the top six. Like the Patriots, the Dolphins needed a new head coach starting in 2000, but their pipeline steered them not back to Belichick but to Dave Wannstedt, a Johnson protege who’d joined the Miami staff in 1999 as assistant head coach.
“I asked the defensive backs, ‘What has Bill (Belichick) brought?’ And they said he always put them in the right position to make plays.’ When Parcells left after the Super Bowl, we decided to clean house, and I met with Bill. Now, we had just started this era of the salary cap a couple years earlier, and to understand the salary cap was to understand value. The one thing he said to me when he left was, ‘You should sign Troy Brown. Great value there.’ I remembered that. Here was a guy on the other side of the ball, and Bill knew how important he was. And he turned out to be right.”
Belichick actually had agreed to become head coach the Jets in 2000 but abruptly shocked New York by quitting. Although Kraft and Parcells hadn’t been on speaking terms, Parcells phoned Kraft. Compensation was worked out between Parcells’ Jets and Kraft’s Patriots, and Belichick instead was headed to New England.
Although the hire today seems like a no-brainer, remember that Belichick had just one winning season in five years in Cleveland (which actually is more than most Browns coaches could say).
Furthermore, Kraft told King he was “getting killed” for considering Belichick, that people were saying “I was crazy for wanting Bill.” Even Kraft cringed when he looked at videos of Belichick’s news conferences in Cleveland, which offered the same warmth as those rendezvouses today.
Until then, the Patriots had largely been punching bags. All that followed in 17 seasons of Kraft-Belichick were 14 playoff appearances, 10 trips to the AFC title game, seven Super Bowl appearances (including this season) and four Vince Lombardi trophies.
Naturally, no one could say all that would have happened had Johnson succeeded in bringing Belichick southward. The NFL is filled with what-ifs — what if 26 teams had come to their senses in the 1983 draft and taken that quarterback from Pittsburgh before Miami was on the clock?
But it’s an interesting scenario since Kraft saw that Bill Belichick offered more potential when examined first hand than anything he could see from afar.
“I always felt we had a little bit of simpatico,” Kraft said. “It’s like a woman. A spouse. What’s right for me might not be right for some other man.”
You win five games in a row, you get some respect from oddsmakers.
The offshore betting site Bovada.lv came out with its latest Super Bowl odds on Wednesday afternoon, and the Dolphins (are you ready?) are down to 66-1.
A little perspective: In mid-October, before beating the Steelers 30-15 to start their current five-game streak, the Dolphins were at 500-1. Last week, Miami was 75-1.
The favorites are New England (9-4), Dallas (9-2), Seattle (11-2) and Oakland (12-1).
In odds to win the AFC championship, the Dolphins are 28-1 (down from 40-1 a week ago). New England is still the favorite at 1-1, followed by Oakland (6-1).
The Patriots still are big favorites to win another divisional crown. They’re at a highway-sounding 1-75 to win the AFC East, with Miami second at 20-1, followed by Buffalo (28-1) and the Jets (off the board).
MVP favorites are Tom Brady (11-4), Russell Wilson (4-1) and Ezekiel Elliott (9-2).