Armando Salguero: Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is loyal to a fault

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross looks on during the season finale against the New York Jets on Dec. 29, 2013.
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross looks on during the season finale against the New York Jets on Dec. 29, 2013.
Jim Rassol / MCT

Give this to Stephen Ross: He is loyal.

Fans have criticized the Dolphins owner in recent weeks for his handling of the general manager job search that netted Dennis Hickey on Sunday. And that criticism sounds oddly similar to the disapproval Ross heard in January 2012 when his search for a new head coach netted Joe Philbin.

There’s a reason for that similarity:

Ross did in this search precisely what he did in that search. He remained loyal — perhaps blindly and mistakenly so — to his people.

When the Dolphins owner went searching for a coach two years ago, he wanted to hire Jeff Fisher. But because Fisher wanted to have final say over personnel over then-GM Jeff Ireland, Ross could not and would not hire the proven coach.

Well, during this general manager search to replace Ireland, Ross and his committee of advisors honed in on New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio and then Tennessee Titans vice president Lake Dawson.

Caserio was, Dolphins sources agree, a consensus choice for the job. Remember that name because he will be an NFL general manager some day. But that day isn’t coming in Miami because when the Dolphins offered him the job he made firing Philbin and remaking the entire organization a condition of his employment.

Ross wasn’t ready to do that, and he chose to remain loyal to Philbin rather than hire Caserio.

Dawson, who was offered the job after Caserio, didn’t want to blow up the Dolphins like Caserio did. But he did want his hands on the plunger in case the Dolphins failed to meet his expectations in 2014. Dawson wanted say in making changes, including getting rid of Philbin, if the coming season got sideways.

And that put Dawson’s candidacy sideways.

Ross isn’t prepared to give anyone that kind of say over his head coach. The owner will surely evaluate Philbin after the ’14 season, same as other employees will be evaluated.

But Ross insisted that would be an issue “addressed when the time comes,” a club source said. And it will be Ross himself making that call.

Hickey came with no preconceived demands for his employment. He was willing to accept and collaborate with Philbin going forward. He was willing to stay in his lane and help the Dolphins win as much as he could.

And that’s one reason he’s the new GM now.

Hickey’s lane, by the way, is quite wide. He gets full authority over the 53-man roster. The man with the most experience in the evaluation of college talent of any candidate interviewed will also have final say over the Dolphins draft.

If Hickey and Philbin disagree on a player in the draft or free agency or for the 53-man roster, the coach and general manager would be well advised to find common ground. But if they cannot, Hickey gets that call, just as Philbin gets the final call on who plays on Sunday.

Hickey also will give vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte her marching orders on the salary cap, the Dolphins tell me.

So you want to know about the organizational structure that turned off multiple candidates during this GM search? Philbin answers to Ross and Hickey answers to Ross. And both better find a way to work with each other because while both have contracts and Ross’s loyalty, losing or dysfunction can change everything next January.

The question I suppose everyone has on his or her lips now is why Ross felt such loyalty to Philbin? The same question was asked when he stuck with Ireland.

It’s a fair question.

Philbin is not an inspirational giant.

Philbin has not gotten his team to finish strong.

Philbin’s career record is 15-17 — which is neither a question mark nor an exclamation point. Philbin is just kind of there.

He’s a shrug.

In that regard, Philbin is so far the coaching equivalent to Ireland — the GM who couldn’t get the Dolphins over .500 mark since 2010 when he took full control of personnel.

Maybe Ross has a blind spot for people like this because, on the surface, Hickey kind of fits that mold also. He may turn into the next Ozzie Newsome or Bobby Beathard or Ron Wolf …

(Let’s hope).

… But the truth is the Buccaneers for whom Hickey worked 18 seasons had a general manager vacancy this month. And the team that knows Hickey best did not interview him for that vacancy.

What’s more, a source close to new Bucs GM Jason Licht said Sunday Licht was eventually going to fire Hickey. And while that does not cast an aspersion on Hickey — because everyone in the NFL eventually gets fired —it obviously doesn’t suggest certain future greatness.

That future is obviously unknown. What is known is that Ross, embarking on his sixth season as the keeper of South Florida’s most historic and most frustrating franchise, has shown his colors in the two major personnel searches he’s authored.

Ross has not closed with any of the men he himself made his top targets in those searches. And his inarguable but also questionable loyalty to his people is the reason.

Read more Armando Salguero stories from the Miami Herald

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