For years the Miami Dolphins have been kept behind a shroud of mystery. Nick Saban gave nothing away including his intentions to bail on the team after his second season as head coach. In the short time that Cam Cameron was here his idiosyncrasies made him more of a laughable punching bag than someone fans and players could look up to. Of course that was followed by the darkest black in team history.
Bill Parcells gave away nothing. No press conferences announcing a signing, no farewell presser to a long time veteran, the media was in a basic blackout unless it was mandated by the NFL. Jeff Ireland who initially spoke freely to the media was quickly engulfed by the cloud of secrecy and it stayed that way. The front man was then HC Tony Sparano and he didn’t say much either.
Now comes Joe Philbin and since his arrival the cloud around the Dolphins has lifted. Sure there will remain some quiet moments but that is business and that is gamesmanship. Philbin however isn’t afraid to talk to the press. He isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind, and he isn’t afraid to pick up the phone and call a reporter to correct them. Just ask Brian Biggane of the Palm Beach Post.
Earlier this week, Biggane basically called Philbin a liar for reporting Brian Hartline’s absence as a “personal matter” when in fact he was recovering from an appendectomy. Philbin took issue with the statement, called him and informed him that a surgical issue is a private matter for the player and that Biggane should concentrate on criticizing his coaching. Something he said Biggane would have plenty of time to do.
Over the years I have stated that a team is a reflection of their coach. You don’t have to look to far to see that the players on the New England Patriot roster emulate the coaching styles of Bill Belichick. Bill Cowher’s hard nose defensive approach was scene on both sides of the ball in Pittsburgh. The same can be said about the Dolphins in Miami. Once a team that was disciplined to the point of being “Don Shula” the Dolphins became more college like under Jimmy Johnson, then quirky and somewhat unsettled under Dave Wannstedt. Saban was a demanding disciplinarian and the team played like they were on the egg-shells they walked on at the facility. Even Cam Cameron’s one year of buffoonery was evident in the haphazard play on the field and the careless manner in which the team played as though they didn’t care.
Then came Tony Sparano and the ‘play like your coach’ was never more evident.
Sparano never threw his players under the bus. Not even after he left Miami. Yet Sparano ruled with an iron fist and his team played tight as a reflection. Offensively, Sparano’s teams performed soft and meticulous just like their coach performed his job. Every play was calculated and it showed. It was acceptable to blow a third and short and then kick a field goal on 4th down just as it was acceptable under the days of Wannstedt to punt.
Sparano never inspired his players to play fast. He never inspired his players to play hungry or with any degree of drive to put a game completely out of reach for the opposition. They simply played not to lose. Tony Sparano coached the team in the same manner and even his demeanor off the field carried over to the players in the locker room. No outbursts, no personal opinion, just the company line. Brandon Marshall who likely would have become the biggest distraction actually was kept somewhat in check. It was a carry over from the days of Bill Parcells. Which makes sense as Sparano is a Parcells disciple.
Now it’s Joe Philbin’s turn. On the surface he already is showing more personality on the outside. He speaks with to the point ease and comes across educated and eloquent in his manner. He is matter of fact without sounding short. To the point without coming across as careless or indifferent. Philbin was hired by the Dolphins shortly after losing, unexpectedly, his oldest son and in front of the news crews at his introduction, he handled himself professionally and came across as a man who could handle the mix of emotion and drive to succeed at the same time.
So the question will become, how will his personality translate to the field of play for his team? It’s difficult to say so early in his coaching tenure but you don’t have to look to the field to see how Philbin impresses upon others to get an idea of where this may be heading. Look to the management of Jeff Ireland. Ireland has already come out of the Bill Parcells shadow to some degree. Since the arrival of Joe Philbin, Ireland has been available to the media more often and isn’t 100 percent shrouded behind a cloud of smoke.
On the field is where it matters and truth be told if Philbin’s team fails there, fans won’t care one way or the other if he is a “nice guy”. Dolphins fans have no motivation right now. Ticket sales are down and I personally know at least a couple of season ticket holders who finally phoned it in. Winning will change that, not a head coach. Perhaps a guy like Jeff Fisher might have sold tickets, or a Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. Popularity however would wane quickly if the team didn’t show up on the field.
Joe Philbin comes across as a very smart head coach and for the first time perhaps since Nick Saban or further back to Jimmy Johnson he seems to be a coach who has a defined plan to get success back on the field. Philbin’s biggest task however isn’t creating a winning football team, it’s creating a winning mentality. It’s creating a winning atmosphere and instilling confidence in a team who is being battered and bruised in the public eye.
This August the Dolphins will be the focal point of HBO’s Hard Knocks. We are told that it was Joe Philbin’s idea to invite the cameras in to camp. We may never know definitively if that is true or not but his approach will be the same. According to Philbin, he trusts his team enough to stand in front of the camera and show who they are. It’s a first step in changing that mental make-up.
Dolphins fans can’t expect a turnaround like the 2007 11-5 season in Sparano’s first year. Perhaps we can’t expect more than last years 6-10 season. What we do need to look at though is the same thing we looked for in Sparano’s seasons but never found. Progress. We need to see that mental change. In Miami, it seems that losing these days has become somewhat accepted on the field. No more. We need to see a team inspired to win and to play and that comes from their head coach.
Can Miami’s Joe Philbin change the franchise? It’s difficult to say but he is the next one in line to try. How he earns the respect of the players he coaches and how he creates that air of ability in their minds will go a long way to deciding that outcome. For now, we should just relish the fact that the team is no longer a dark mass of clouds where you can’t see in and no one is trying to see out.