The Dolphins need a coach. An experienced, steady presence to lead them through the wilderness of rebuilding and deliver them in the distant land of relevancy.
This year’s assembly of hot coordinators are presenting cases why they should be the thirteenth would-be savior to lead the Miami Dolphins back to the promised land. Almost as an afterthought, in-house special team’s coordinator Darren Rizzi is also being considered.
Shortly after Rizzi’s name surfaced as a candidate, current and former players stepped forward to testify on his behalf. Spencer Paysinger, Brian Hartline, Kenyan Drake, Jakeem Grant, Michael Thomas, and Jason Taylor have all professed their belief in Rizzi’s readiness to become a head coach.
Special teams coordinators are not often considered for head coaching vacancies, but is this a mistake?
“They’re overlooked,” Former Raiders and Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think it has to do with some of the (media) hype. Nobody on the staff is as prepared to lead the team as the special teams coordinator.”
Special teams coordinators may be better prepared to become head coaches than coordinators as they coach and evaluate both offensive and defensive players. Special teams’ duties better mimic head coaching responsibilities because they span across the whole team.
Iconic coach Marv Levy credits his experience as a special team’s coordinator with helping prepare him for the duties of being a head coach. “You got to work in every aspect coaching and evaluating offensive and defensive players,” Levy said. “I got to work with just about every position…”
Former Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is another who thinks special teams coordinators are among the most qualified assistants to become head coaches.
“When you talk about the special teams guy, he’s in front of the entire team,” Arians said. “He’s not like a quarterback coach or coordinator who only has half the team. He’s got the entire team, and in a very big setting…They’re probably as adept at addressing a football team as anybody.”
Dick Vermeil openly admits he probably wouldn’t have been successful as a head coach with his special teams background. “The reason it really helped me was it put me in front of the entire squad every day. I wasn’t just coaching the running backs like I did for Chuck Knox or the quarterbacks like I did for Prothro. I was coaching everybody.”
Despite this, general managers overlook special teams coaches in favor of ‘well rounded’ coaches. John Harbaugh is the most recent example in someone who specialized primarily in special teams, and like Rizzi, he was a special teams coach for nine seasons. To present himself as a more well-rounded coach, Harbaugh moved to defensive backs coach for one season before being named head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Mike Ditka is another example, serving as a special teams coach and also tight ends coach with the Cowboys from 1973 to 1981 before becoming head coach of the Chicago Bears.
Legendary coaches Marv Levy, Dick Vermeil, Bill Cowher, and Bill Belichick all cut their teeth on extensive special teams duties before moving up the ranks to becoming head coaches.
So why don’t more special teams coordinators get considered for head coaching positions? Ariens answers, “I think owners are looking for sexy names.”
History would suggest that going with the sexy new name may not be the wisest strategy for choosing a head coach. Of the 64 coordinators to be named as head coaches from 2005 to 2015, the vast majority who had four years or less experience at their duties failed as head coaches.
Steven Ross and Chris Grier would do well to consider that some the coordinators lined up to interview with the hottest names like Bieniemy and Flores, have no more than one season as coordinator and have star players on their squads who contribute to the success of their units. The Dolphins must resist the temptation of falling under the spell of the latest hot coordinator, only to end up hiring the next Adam Gase.
Miami will want to make sure that they select a steady coach with a proven track record of delivering steady, consistent results over time with different players. Darren Rizzi checks that box.
Rizzi’s units have consistently ranked above, or near the top half of the league in each of the eight seasons Rizzi has served as special teams coordinator.
As soon as Rizzi took over special teams in week five of the 2011 season following an ugly 41-14 prime time loss to the Patriots in which John Bonamego’s special teams unit gave up 21 points, Rizzi’s special teams unit improved in almost every major statistical category: punt average, punt and kick return average, average drive start, and opponents punt average. Rizzi’s unit showed the biggest improvement in the NFL from 2010 to 2011, going from 24th to 2nd.
In 2014, Rizzi’s unit set a franchise record with three blocked punts in a season. They also blocked two field goals for a total of five blocked kicks- most blocked kicks in a season since the 1977 Dolphins blocked seven kicks.
In 2017, a season when it seemed nothing could go right, Rizzi’s unit was second in the NFL in blocked punts, converted four onside kicks (most in the NFL since 1997) and their kickoff coverage was best in the NFL, forcing opponents to start at an average of their own 23-yard line. Michael Thomas was named PFF’s Special Teams Player of the Year.
In the last decade of mediocre results and turnover at head coach, the one steady bright spot has been Rizzi’s special teams units. Rizzi’s units are always well prepared and ready to play, and his consistent results have endured while head coaches Tony Sparano, Todd Bowles, Joe Philbin, Dan Campbell, and Adam Gase have fallen by the wayside.
In addition to special teams duties, Rizzi has also served as associate head coach the last two seasons, and has been heavily relied on by head coaches Dan Cambell and Adam Gase to handle game day clock management and challenges.
Rizzi has been a head coach in the college ranks, leading the New Haven Chargers to a 15-14 record from 1999 through 2001; and the Rhode Island Rams in 2008 to a 3-9 record for an overall record of 18-23. Rizzi also served as a defensive coordinator, linebackers’ coach, running back assistant, special teams coach, assistant head coach, and head coach at Rhode Island, Rutgers, and Northeastern universities.
Rizzi is a former college football player, playing tight end for the Rhode Island Rams from 1988 to 1991, gaining 2,426 yards on 160 catches and 15 touchdowns.
Players respond to Rizzi’s approach. Running back and special teams returner Damien Williams credits Rizzi for his success as an NFL player. “This man is the reason I play the way I play,” Williams tweeted. “I’ve always had an edge but Riz makes you dig deeper than that. I know for a fact he has full control over the team…”
“Coach Rizzi has a way about him that when he steps in the room, he demands respect and players listen,” safety TJ McDonald said. “To me he has a great balance of authority, but still being able to relate with the players.” Mike Hull added, “He’s very thorough. He makes great adjustments. He’s intense. He demands a lot of his players.”
One of the most respected players in franchise history, Hall of Fame defensive end Jason Taylor, thinks it may be time to seriously consider Rizzi. “It’s about time someone recognized how good Darren Rizzi is,” Taylor tweeted. “Glad to see he’s getting a look. Played for him and have known him for years. Great coach, leader, pro and teacher. Demands accountability and respect.”
John Harbaugh was a special teams coordinator in Philadelphia for nine years before moving up to become head coach of the Ravens and leading them to a Superbowl victory. Darren Rizzi has been coaching special teams in Miami for nine years. Is it his time?
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