A different Joe Philbin
Five minutes into a talk with Miami coach Joe Philbin here at Dolphins camp Friday morning, I hadn’t noticed any nervous tics or 10-year-aging wrinkles from last year’s Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin/Ted Wells season. But this did pique my interest:
“This camp,” Philbin said, “I’m doing every bed check. Every night. I knock on every door.”
How many doors? Sixty. At 10:30 p.m. nightly, Philbin knocks—ranking vets have singles, younger players have roommates—and checks. Some players, like quarterback Ryan Tannehill, are zonked (“I’ve been asleep every time he’s come in the room”), but some, like defensive end Cameron Wake, engage Philbin in a daily Q&A about practice, or a current event. “You guys okay?” Philbin will ask, or “Ready for practice in the morning?” Or “Anything we need to discuss?”
“It’s very welcome,” Wake said.
“That,” said Tannehill, “was a big shock to a lot of guys.”
“I think I’ve been more vigilant,” Philbin told me in his office Friday before the team’s 8 a.m. practice. “I am trying to do a better job communicating with players and staff. Since [the start of the offseason program] April 21, I’ve probably had every player on the team sitting on that couch you’re sitting on right now, and we just talk. About everything. I’ll ask, ‘What do you love most about being a Dolphin?’ Or, ‘Tell me one thing we could do, anything, either on the field or off, that we can do to be better as a team or an organization?’ Or, ‘Tell me one way you think you’ll be a better player this year.’
“Maybe with the players I was a little—I don’t want to say aloof, but maybe not as approachable as I should have been. They looked at this office as the principal’s office. I want them to know they can talk to me anytime, about anything. I want the players to know I have an open-door mentality.”
Philbin’s been called Clueless Joe for not knowing what was going on in his locker room and, in some cases, on the practice field as guard Jonathan Martin was getting hazed into a near-breakdown by a Richie Incognito-led group of tormentors. But the owner, Stephen Ross, didn’t fire him after a disappointing 8-8 season. Disappointing for many reasons. The Incognito scandal, of course. But also the way the team finished. At 8-6 with a shot to earn a wild-card berth, Miami laid two straight eggs, losing by a combined 39-7 to the other Patriot-chasers in the AFC East, the Bills and Jets, to close the season. Philbin (15-17 in two seasons) stayed. His close friend and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was sacrificed to the football-firing gods, with Bill Lazor coming from Philadelphia to install a new downfield-passing offense that will be a challenge to master, particularly with an offensive line of total newbies.
Philbin told me a coach can’t be expected to know everything that goes on away from the facility. “Some of the smoking guns were way back in March, when the players were away,” he said. But he knows he won’t be the coach of this team for long if he doesn’t corral the locker room and build better relationships with players. That’s what this off-season was about, and what this camp is about too.
But say one thing for Philbin: If he was a terrible coach, with no control of his team, Miami wouldn’t have gone 5-2 in the first seven games after the Martin affair exploded and threatened to rip the team apart. “The general consensus in the media world is that it was much more of an issue, event or distraction than it was among us,” Wake said Friday. “We’re programmed to move on as football players, and that’s pretty much what we did. We played. It was funny kind of hearing months later about it, because it’s like, Oh, you’re still thinking about that? Because we moved on.”
I asked Wake what kind of coach Philbin was to play for and relate to. “He’s probably one of the most interested coaches I’ve had as far as what you think or how you feel about certain things. Some coaches are like, It’s a dictatorship—this is how we’re gonna do things. Take it or leave it. He’s like, Well, we’re thinking about doing this schedule. What do the vets think about it? What would make you feel more prepared for the game or for practice? Having the input from the players to kind of organize or get the logistics to a lot of different things—not only does it actually help us as far as recovery and translating to getting your plays down, it also gives you a different sense of ownership. This is our program. This is our team. All of us are working to keep it together, versus the general standing on top of the steps and barking out orders.”
Example: The players asked Philbin for music during practices, instead of the old white-noise crowd noise that most teams blast when trying to practice communicating in a loud environment. On Friday, the music—a rap/salsa/pop/oldies mixture—played for maybe 70 percent of practice.
Philbin also relaxed the dress code for walkthrough practices, and he’s thinking about doing a more player-friendly practice schedule, according to Wake.
We’ll see if it works—or if it even matters. As with so many teams in this league, it comes down to the quarterback. The Dolphins need Tannehill to digest the offense and make it work behind a bunch of offensive linemen who’ve known each other for about 15 minutes. Left to right, the five starters will be new faces on opening day. “Huge changes on offense, and I love it,” Tannehill said. “We’re going to be pushing the ball downfield, spreading the ball and spreading the field, sideline to sideline, playing fast.”
Speaking of fast, Tannehill said the learning curve “has to be fast for the line. We haven’t found the five that it’s going to be at this point.”
On Saturday, the Dolphins picked up their former center, smallish Samson Satele, off the street, trying to find depth for the interior line, which has struggled in even the basics. The centers in camp have been adventurous, let’s just say, with something as simple as the shotgun snap. One flew over Tannehill’s head in practice Friday.
So there are other problems here. If Philbin can solve them and win more than he loses, he’ll deserve an extension. If he doesn’t, and Miami has its sixth straight non-winning season, Philbin’s job will be very much in danger. Oh, and Miami plays 2013 playoff teams New England, Kansas City and San Diego in the first five weeks. Study hard, Mr. Tannehill.
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Flowery Branch, Ga.
I can’t believe what I am seeing.
Every year when I go on my training-camp trip, there are things I see and players in different uniforms and coaches in odd places that I just didn’t expect. In my first 12 stops I was stopped in my tracks only once: when I saw Devin Hester wearing a strange number, 17, and the red jersey of the Atlanta Falcons.
I always figured that Hester, who played eight years for the Chicago Bears, would one day join Butkus, Luckman, Halas, Sayers and so many legendary Monsters of the Midway, guys who played or coached their entire careers in Chicago and went to Canton with the full-throated support of rabid Bears fans. Now, I am not automatically putting Hester in. He’s 31, and he is tied with Deion for most return touchdowns (19) in NFL history. But I’ve learned never to assume anything in Hall voting. Hester’s an electric ball of fire. But that guarantees nothing. I would just say that if a returner from this era gets in, it’s got to be Hester.
He may well end up in Canton as the best kick-and-punt returner in history (he’s not there yet, but he’s close), but now he’ll have to have a second act to ensure that. He’ll have to do it in Atlanta, where the return game has stunk and where he has signed a three-year, $9-million contract contract to rejuvenate Falcons special teams (he had a 14.2-yard punt-return average last year, and a 27.6-yard kick-return average, both very good), and to be a field-stretcher as a fourth or fifth receiver for Matt Ryan.
“Are you shocked it came to this?” I asked Hester after practice the other day.
“I am,” he said. “It’s shocking. I still think about it. But I wanted to go somewhere I was wanted. I knew that I was not finished, and Atlanta really wanted me. So even though it feels strange, I’m really happy to be in a place that wants me and that is going to use me.”
It’s understandable that the nine-year vet, a speed player, would be seen as a guy who doesn’t have much left. But if you can stomach paying decent money for a guy who may be only an impact player in the return game, there’s a good chance you’ll get your money’s worth in five or six big plays this year.
“The thing that people don’t understand,” said wide receiver Julio Jones, “is that for us, he’s not just going to be a returner. We’ve seen it out here. He can help us as a receiver, and he is helping us.”
Added the other top Atlanta wideout, Roddy White: “What Devin is going to do for us is exercise the field.” Exercise the field? “Make the defense cover every corner of the field,” White explained.
Hester knows that his role primarily is to be the kick- and punt-returner, and whatever happens in the passing game happens. I was more interested in his future.
“If you don’t play another snap, are you a Hall of Famer?” I asked him.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think I am. I think I’ve done enough. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done stat-wise. I think I’ve done things that have never been done. I think I’m the best returner who has ever played the game of football. But if I don’t get [into the Hall of Fame], it wouldn’t be disappointing to me. I know, the guys I played against know. The rest is out of my hands.”
I’m a voter. I think Hester, in this era of football, has been a singular returner. In an era of such great athletes who have played this game, I think Hester has a superb case.