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The facts are indisputable. There simply isn't anyone on the planet with a better football r�sum� than Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history and a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer. Last week, three years after his retirement as vice president and coach of the Dolphins, Shula, 68, was introduced as executive vice president of a group seeking to obtain the new Cleveland Browns franchise. Although numbers and facts make the hiring of Shula seem sound, it's a mistake.
Should the Dolan group, which includes Charles Dolan, the chairman of Cablevision Systems Corp., end up with the Browns, Shula would have input in football operations, including the selection of the general manager, the coach and assistant coaches. Although Shula would like to put Cleveland's front office together and then step back out of the spotlight without getting involved in things like player evaluations, on-field strategies or coaching decisions, there's no guarantee that's how things will work out.
That's what makes Shula's role with Dolan's group so dicey. The way Shula left the game after the '95 season suggests that the sport had passed him by. In his 22 years of coaching following his second Super Bowl win, in 1974, he was 9-12 in the playoffs and didn't win a playoff game on the road. A member of the Miami front office says the Dolphins are still hampered by the economic and talent fallout from the end of his regime. Shula sold out Miami's future trying to win one last Super Bowl. That left new coach Jimmy Johnson nearly $5 million over the salary cap.
Maybe it's hard to imagine a guy with eight grandchildren being on the cutting edge of offensive strategy in the NFL, but that's the case with Ernie Zampese, the 62-year-old offensive coordinator who will be entering his 23 rd season in the league, with the Patriots after he and the Cowboys parted ways. Known for the legendary aerial scoring machines he helped run in San Diego with Dan Fouts and in Dallas with Troy Aikman, Zampese has been given the task of retooling the New England offense, which, despite the presence of an accomplished quarterback in Drew Bledsoe, averaged one touchdown over its final four games of 1997.
"Ernie's offense is proven," says Aikman. "He's one of the alltime greats. He was good for me; I know he'll be good for Drew."
Zampese has focused on reducing Bledsoe's drop-back time and distance. The deep threat remains, but routes for talented wideouts Terry Glenn and Shawn Jefferson have also been shortened. Says Bledsoe, "Hopefully, this new system will allow us to be more successful and give us a chance to compete on the same level as the top teams—which has been our goal for five years."