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The big issue on a coach: Who is an upgrade?

Last week I reported that if Dolphins coach Joe Philbin did not make the playoffs, owner Stephen Ross would consider making a change at coach.

I reported that the No. 1 target for Ross, who believes the Dolphins should be better than 7-7 at this stage, would be current San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh if he becomes available. Harbaugh's availability, by the way, seems likely.

But, as I also reported, there is no slam dunk on Harbaugh because, among other things, he may not wish to come east because of family concerns.

And then I reported this: It is quite possible that if he fails to land Harbaugh, Ross could survey the landscape of available candidates and basically decide none would be an upgrade over Joe Philbin. Keep that in mind. This could be a Harbaugh or bust exercise for Ross.

Again: It is possible Ross keeps Philbin if he cannot land Harbaugh. Keep this in mind amid reports that Philbin is definitely out or likely out. No decision on that matter has been made at this point.

This all assumes the Dolphins do not collapse the final two weeks of the season. They collapse and there is no saving Philbin.

But if they go 9-7 the waters get murky. Look, in my opinion Philbin has failed multiple times in getting his team to win games that mattered in the playoff chase. He failed with the playoffs on the line last year against Buffalo, and then against the New York Jets. He failed with playoff position on the line again this year against Baltimore and then got blown out by New England.

So on the big stage with a door to the playoffs wide open, Philbin's teams walked into a stone wall instead. That is a deal-breaker for me.

But Philbin's team can still salvage a 9-7 season. There is still failure in that -- winning meaningless games after losing meaningful games. But, hey, 9-7 is improvement and the coach can argue that to the owner when all is said and done.

That argument would ring hollow for Ross if Harbaugh signals (yes, it would be done through back channels) that he would come to Miami.

But the same argument may win over Ross if he cannot get Harbaugh and he cannot identify a clear and obvious upgrade to Philbin. That is the giant elephant caveat in the room.

And you know what else? If Ross cannot convince Harbaugh to come and doesn't think anyone else is better and keeps Philbin ... that would not be unprecedented.

After the 2003 season, then-owner Wayne Huizenga wanted to get rid of Dave Wannstedt. But he looked around and decided there were no obvious better choices on the market. So instead he kept Wannstedt while demoting him in that he took away his authority to make the final call on talent. Ironically, Huizenga gave final say power to Rick Spielman, who is now a pretty good GM for the same Minnesota Vikings the Dolphins play on Sunday.

Also interesting: Huizenga hired Dan Marino at the same time.

(Yes, I have seen this movie before, folks).

But I digress. So who is available assuming Harbaugh shuns Miami?

Well, Jon Gruden is out. He is a Ross favorite but he just signed a contract extension with Monday Night Football. It also doesn't seem as if Bill Cowher will be answering phone calls from the Dolphins.

Alex Marvez at FoxSports1 on Tuesday did a primer of available assistants that will be "hot" starting on Black Monday -- one day after the regular-season ends and coach firings begin.

Marvez mentioned Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Yeah, only if he can bring Peyton Manning. He mentioned Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, on whose defense the Dolphins scored 36 points. He mentioned Tony Sparano. Don't think that would work since he and Ross HATE each other.

He mentioned Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Well, if the Dolphins have a vacancy and it is not filled by Harbaugh, keep on eye on Jackson getting an interview because he is a client of Dolphins "consultant" Mike Tannenbaum and as a minority he would help the Dolphins meet the requirement of the NFL Rooney Rule.

[Update: Jackson was represented, in part, by Tannenbaum last year but this year is exclusively represented by Octagon's John Thornton -- famously a rookie of the year with the Titans Super Bowl team and a former Bengals captain.]

Quinn is a Tannenbaum client. The problem for Quinn is he has no head coaching experience. Why would Ross want another on-the-job-training situation?

Fans have been tweeting at me (@ArmandoSalguero) about Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. I remind you Bowles was the Dolphins' interim coach in 2011 and got a head coach interview with Ross. He did not get the job.

And while it is not unprecedented for Ross to double back from a previous search -- he hired Tom Garfinkel in 2013 after interviewing him during his 2009 CEO search, when circumstances led Garfinkel to the San Diego Padres -- Bowles would be another on-the-job-training candidate.

Honestly, must the Dolphins be a training ground?

Anyway, some guys with previous coaching experience include Gary Kubiak, the offensive coordinator in Baltimore and former Houston Texans coach. Solid. Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator and former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz is out there. He strikes me as a fine coordinator, if you get my drift. And Patriots offensive coordinator and former Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels is out there.

(I wonder what Ross's feelings are about possibly getting used by a Patriots employee again after the Nick Casserio experience last year during the GM search).

Current New York Jets coach Rex Ryan will likely be out there but I've been told and reported last week that's not in the cards for the Dolphins. Atlanta coach Mike Smith might be out there. I have no opinion on him other than the past two years have not been very good.

Me? I think out of the box. I like Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. He has head coaching experience. He has won everywhere he's coached. He admittedly has no NFL experience but he wrote a book titled Hurry Up No Huddle -- An Offensive Philosophy, the principles of which multiple NFL offensive coaches have incorporated.


Heck, yeah. But bold.

Alas, Ross isn't asking my opinion. He does ask and get the counsel of a litany of advisors. Dan Marino, Carl Peterson, Garfinkel, Tannenbaum, Matt Higgins, Bill Polian, Tony Dungy, Paul Tagiliabue, former Michigan AD Dave Brandon. Some are employed by the team. Some are not. Some have more sway lately than in the past, as it varies. The Dolphins insist Ross is making all the calls -- sad they feel the need to insist this since he's the owner and that should be wholly understood -- but Ross absolutely listens to the varying opinions of his people. There is zero doubt about that.

Anyway, someone familiar with Ross's thinking texted me Tuesday, "Somewhere out there is the next Mike Tomlin."

Yeah, but I don't know if Ross can find that guy. I don't know if by making a change, Ross absolutely, positively finds an upgrade, either.

That's the issue. What coach could take the Dolphins to the next level?

Ross believes Harbaugh could.

But failing that, who else?

Perhaps no one -- and that, amazingly, might lead to Joe Philbin 4.0.