TAMPA — The corridor leading back to the visitors’ locker room at Raymond James Stadium on Monday night was like a lot of things surrounding the Dolphins right now: uncomfortable and under heavy watch.
While thousands of Buccaneers fans lingered in their seats, boogying to “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang, Dolphins players and coaches filed through silently. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill stared blankly straight ahead. Cornerback Brent Grimes didn’t look up. Nate Garner, who filled in for Miami’s suspended left guard, didn’t take off his helmet and kept shaking his head side to side.
They did so in full view of the of the media, of head coach Joe Philbin’s wife and their youngest child, and of Curtis Martin and Jason Taylor, the retired NFL greats who have been named to one of the committees that owner Stephen Ross created in response to the alleged locker-room bullying that has cast a pall on his team.
Since their Thursday night win over the Bengals on Oct. 31, the Dolphins had spent 11 days dealing with a messy situation that has already cost them two starting offensive linemen and could take down their coach and/or general manager, Jeff Ireland. Their game against the Buccaneers was a chance, if only for one night, to project harmony and to be in full control. They blew it.
“We wanted to win to kind of calm down what’s been going on,” said Bryant McKinnie, a veteran tackle who was traded to the Dolphins last month. “We felt like a win could help cure some of that.”
Most of McKinnie’s teammates refused to make the same admission. It was just like any week, any game, any loss, they said. Really?
The Dolphins’ 22-19 loss to the previously winless Buccaneers, on national television no less, probably fits too neatly into the team’s overwhelming crisis narrative. But Miami sure looked the part when center Mike Pouncey took a swing at the head of Tampa Bay defensive tackle Akeem Spence on the Dolphins’ first possession, drawing a 15-yard foul not long before they fell into a 15-0 hole.
The Dolphins just don’t have a good enough offensive line without tackle Jonathan Martin, who left the team amid accusations of workplace harassment, and Pro Bowl left guard Richie Incognito, the alleged harasser who has been suspended pending league and team investigations. Miami netted just two yards rushing; their ineffectiveness even allowed linebacker Lavonte David to tackle running back Daniel Thomas a few yards deep in the end zone for a safety in the second quarter.
The starting lineup of LT McKinnie, LG Nate Garner, C Mike Pouncey, RG John Jerry and RT Tyson Clabo was the Dolphins’ fourth offensive line combination in the past four games. Garner, the newest piece, mentioned to McKinnie before the game that this would be his 14th start since entering the NFL in 2008, more starts than he’d made in his entire college career at Arkansas. McKinnie, 34, was taken aback. “Why did you just tell me that?” he asked.
The playbook is still new to McKinnie, who has played just three games with the Dolphins, but as the veteran on the line’s left side he felt a responsibility to take care of Garner. After Tannehill gave every play call in the huddle, McKinnie would state aloud his and Garner’s responsibilities, and any possible adjustments they might have to make, as they walked up to the line of scrimmage.
More than any other unit in football, the offensive line must work in total unison for a play to succeed. It’s also the unit that only lands in the spotlight when something goes wrong. In that sense, the Dolphins are losing on two fronts right now.
On the safety, David charged through the ‘A’ gap between the center and the left guard, unnoticed and untouched by Garner. If it looked like the Buccaneers had a jump off the ball early in the game, well, the Dolphins players felt that, too. “I’m pretty sure they game-planned the snap count,” Garner said.
Late in the fourth quarter, with a chance to drive for the win, the line failed yet again. Just after the two-minute warning, Tannehill dropped back at his own 33-yard line, trailing by a field goal. He was swarmed by four Bucs defenders for an eight-yard sack. On second down, there was a breakdown on the right side of the line, yielding a 10-yard sack. All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis intercepted Tannehill’s last-chance heave on fourth-and-28.
The Dolphins are now 4-5, one game behind the Jets in the AFC Wild Card picture, a point that Philbin emphasized to his players after the game. He’s trying to keep their focus there—rather than the pending NFL investigation, or Ross’ planned face-to-face meeting with Martin on Wednesday, or the owner’s public show of support for Philbin but noticeable silence regarding Ireland. But that’s easier said than done when fans behind the Dolphins bench hold signs like “Free Richie” and chanted “In-cog-ni-to” when the team took the field.
In the terribly quiet post-game corridor, Philbin’s wife, Diane, made sure her youngest child, Colleen, found Joe and gave him a hug. “Say hi to your dad,” Diane said, gently steering her in his direction.
“OK, sweetie. Doing alright?” he asked. He then walked over to his press conference, declaring the events of the past week “not at all” a factor in the final score.
A few minutes later, dozens of media members created a logjam at the door to the Dolphins’ locker room. Five or six players were stuffed to the side with their luggage, forced to wait until the crowd cleared. In the eye of a storm, there is no such thing as just another week, another game, or another loss. And right now, it’s not clear when or how or even if the storm will come to pass.
“We’ll see what this week will be like,” McKinnie said with a shrug. “It depends on what else they release. It seems like they’re releasing something every other day that’s in the public eye. Shoot, I don’t know.”
In Case You Missed It …
The Incognito-Martin story has put the spotlight squarely on the infrastructure of the Miami Dolphins organization. Who knew what and when? With the amount of support staff watching the players, everything is noticed :: By Andrew Brandt
The ugliness in Miami brought to the forefront the serious and complex issue of what’s accepted and what’s not in the locker room and beyond, and when a real leader must step up :: By Robert Klemko
Former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Lydon Murtha pulls back the curtain on what he saw and what he’s heard of the relationship between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, from the locker room dynamic to that now-famous O-line trip to Vegas :: By Lydon Murtha