How do you fix uninteresting?
The Dolphins have been asking themselves this question for a decade, everywhere from an ever-changing huddle to an ever-changing front office. Worse than merely bad, the Dolphins have been boring for a very long time, and the tired, hot and previously loyal fan base has corroded like so many other things left out in the withering South Florida sun for years.
A decade of mismanagement has finally caught up to the business model. It is a testament to the overwhelming popularity of football that the Dolphins didn’t hemorrhage customers earlier than this. Enter HBO.
The Dolphins, arrogant as an organization for so long, have been humbled, and first-year coach Joe Philbin is paying publicly for the sins of all the false-prophet saviors who came before him. Every week on HBO, Philbin’s entire organization might as well spend an hour on bent knee with its hand out, begging for your attention. Next to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, the information guide on your television should just have a photo of Philbin on a street corner holding up a cardboard sign that reads, “Will Work For Fans.”
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This voyeuristic Hard Knocks glimpse into the Dolphins is riveting — well done if you are merely a fan of good television, hypnotizing if you are a fan of football — but it is proctology invasive: Good for your business’s overall health long-term, maybe, but close-your-eyes uncomfortable if it is your own rear end on the slab. How would you like to be the coach who has to regain the trust of receiver Roberto Wallace after mocking him with the nickname “Ankle Weights” Wallace to chuckling coaches in a “private” meeting seen by nearly 1 million viewers?
Football coaches are forever railing against “distractions.” The Dolphins are not only welcoming them but they are literally producing them with the help of HBO. Rest assured, a first-year head coach, stumbling and learning how to break up, doesn’t want to be filmed as he has to fire a wide receiver, all of us getting to judge if this very nice man is firm enough to lead. But people want to see that, which is why the Chad-Johnson-gets-fired Hard Knocks episode was the second-most viewed ever in the history of the series and is also why no one else in the secretive world of football save for equally desperate and uninteresting Jacksonville wanted to have anything to do with this show this season. It can make your organization look, for all the world to see, like that hazed Dolphins rookie in the last episode, like you have a penis shaved into your head.
But the Dolphins, in a bad economy with a bland roster, fighting in a poor city for the sports dollar with the champion Heat, are trying to be interesting. That’s at least partially why local product Chad Johnson was here in the first place, right? To produce some personality? It might also be because, as general manager Jeff Ireland said in an honest moment he would have preferred not be on television, the Dolphins have a lot of fourth, fifth and sixth receivers but not any ones, twos or threes.
The downside on that transaction: The desperate Dolphins brought in a clown for attention. The clown behaved like a clown. And the HBO viewer is left to be discerning enough to either separate Johnson from the rest of the surrounding professionals or just see the Dolphins as the circus that harbors clowns.
It has to be maddening to Dolphins fans. Johnson goes to New England, the move is lauded, he behaves and he somehow fails quietly all season while the team keeps winning and his failure isn’t an indictment of anyone but himself. Here, he produces more drops than catches in a preseason game, and more controversies than drops before being terminated, this marriage barely lasting longer than his real one, and it looks like the Dolphins don’t know what they are doing. Watch Brandon Marshall behave, stay out of handcuffs and somehow take the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl, just to mock you.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross isn’t really going to lose money, mind you. Very few things appreciate the way football teams do. The salary cap protects the owners from themselves, making the business model moron-proof, which is why the Cleveland Browns can sell for more than $1 billion. There aren’t a lot of businesses in the real world that can do what the Dolphins and Browns have the past decade and stay in business, never mind grow in value. But you can lose and be interesting, as the Carolina Panthers of Cam Newton did last year while going a 6-10 that felt more hopeful than Miami’s, or you can do it the Ross way and try to drape the losing in some sparkle.
Faking their way
The Johnson fiasco is what desperation looks like, at receiver and in reality. There is a dirty transaction at the heart of the Reality Television Generation, dignity traded for dollars, the shortcut to fame going around the usual addresses where you actually have to earn it. But the Dolphins aren’t in a position to lock the voyeurs out, so they Kardashian their way to the eyeballs this preseason because the biggest move of the offseason, if you are paying attention to the business, wasn’t bringing in David Garrard or trading Marshall.
It was lowering the number of seats that have to be sold on Sundays (51,128 now instead of 60,000) to keep the games on television. That wasn’t altruism. The Dolphins are bleeding customers. They have to keep the games on free TV, even if it means selling a slice of their soul and selling out their first-year coach on paid TV, because fans are looking for exits and the next exit ramp right after “uninteresting” is marked “irrelevant.”