Fresh off the failures of hiring Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, and Jeff Fisher—the Fins only dug themselves deeper into the hole with hiring an offensive coordinator from the Packers who never called plays.
Then a few weeks later, the Dolphins lost out on both top coups of the NFL free agent market quarterbacks: Peyton Manning to the Broncos and Matt Flynn to the Seahawks. The latter being a former player for their new head coach.
And to top it all off—they trade their only receiving threat for two third round picks.
Then they go and draft a converted wide receiver to be the next man to take his shot at replacing Dan Marino.
The Dolphins were a joke. Fan morale was at an all time low and a once diehard football town had caught NBA fever.
Then came the biggest blow.
The Dolphins were basically plan R for HBO but they somehow found themselves on “Hard Knocks”.
No one knew Comedy Central bought out HBO.
However, it was “Hard Knocks” that served as an infomercial to not just the world but the entire NFL that there was a new beat drumming out of Miami.
The show had it’s rocky start—with the signing and cutting of Chad Ochocinco and that legal mess. The Dolphins were left from a washed up former number 1 wide receiver to a “who the hell is that guy” at wideout. There was also the holdout by top pick, Ryan Tannehill that seemed to virtually put any hope of him starting this season out the window.
The Dolphins talent-wise appeared to be the worst team in the league or in the bottom three at best.
But training camp is where the foundation for this offseason was lain. “Hard Knocks” being the billboard.
The NFL players first got to see a confident, quiet, well-respected coach who came in with a plan and vision of his own. Joe Philbin was not a graduate of Mike McCarthy Vocational School for Coaching. Philbin was his own man who had a stop in Green Bay on his journey into coaching.
Philbin saw a fractured franchise that needed the touch of military drill-master mixed in with a father figure. If one man knows about fatherhood then it is Philbin who has seven children and was known nationally for the tragic drowning of his oldest son on the eve of Green Bay’s postseason tilt with the Giants.
Players and fans got to see Philbin deliver the news of his being cut from the team to a tearful Chad Ochocinco the day after his arrest. As Ocho pleaded for his reinstatement—Philbin firmly but lovingly encouraged Chad to find work elsewhere and promised him a positive review for coaches who were interested.
We also saw Philbin make an example of Chad in his efforts to change the culture in Miami. During a press conference where Ochocinco dropped many F bombs and joked about doing porn to a laughing gala of members of media—Philbin watched in dismay and privately told Chad that if he does it again to pack his bags. Ocho pointed out that Philbin uses that language on occasion and the coach firmly reiterated that he was the coach and you are the player.
Names mean nothing with Joe Philbin.
Unlike his predecessor, Tony Sparano, Philbin allowed players to come into his office and discuss issues they felt bother the locker room. Stars Reggie Bush and Karlos Dansby were concerned with how Philbin treated the Ochocinco incident and after his explanation to the players, they reached out to him about a players leadership council to meet weekly and discuss any issues with the coach. Philbin’s face glowed at the idea as he firmly said,” I would love that.”
A coach with an open door policy that encourages his players to take ownership of their team.
Let’s face it—players coaches are the rage in today’s NFL and the Bill Parcells’s and Mike Ditka’s don’t succeed anymore. However, just like children football players crave discipline and coaching. Philbin’s ability to lead, make tough decisions, and open door for his players impressed NFL vets who watched the mini-series.
Players love freedom but let’s give them credit—an NFL player knows a good locker room when they see one and know what characteristics are in a good locker room. It’s why teams like San Francisco, Baltimore, New England, and Atlanta have no problem with signing the free agents they target. Not only do they win but they have fun doing it.
When the Patriots traded Richard Seymour to Oakland, the former pro bowler was so distraught to go from the golden franchise to the Jersey Shore of franchises that he refused to report to his new team for almost two weeks. The depression kept him at home.
Team environment matters.
Another hurdle that was partially cleared was the image of embattled GM, Jeff Ireland.
Ireland’s claim to fame is his pre- draft interview with Dez Bryant where he asked if his mother was a prostitute. The parameters around the questioning have never been confirmed; however, Ireland’s reputation has been on a steady downhill slide since that fateful day.
Viewed as an arrogant, cheap, and pompous curmudgeon—Ireland’s human side was shown during the release of Ochocinco and the news he had traded troubled cornerback Vontae Davis to Indianapolis.
When you heard Ireland’s address to Vontae as the young man’s eyes watered from the news, you could hear the genuine care and concern he had for his well-being and feelings. “I want you to go to Indianapolis and have a Hall of Fame career”, the embattled GM said. As Vontae began to stir in shock, all he could mutter is, “I want to call my grandma.” Ireland immediately slid his phone over and offered him his privacy in this intimate moment in the young man’s life.
Did he totally rehab his image in one night? That’s still an ongoing process; however, Ireland won over a few players with his mixture of professionalism and genuine care for his player.
After training camp broke, the Dolphins regular season saw a team that exceeded preseason expectations. The Fins finished at 7-9, competed for a postseason berth until week 16, and saw the development of a potential franchise quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.
This offseason has been billed as a Miami makeover. The re-branding of a franchise that has lived off it’s past for far too long.
It all started with “Hard Knocks”.