Maybe the silliest question regarding the Dolphins over the past few months was whether free agents would want to sign with Miami, post-Bullygate. Would they be turned off by the controversy and upheaval here? Would they be concerned about the workplace environment and “culture?”
Please. There is a magic cure-all that works with any NFL free agent. It is called money. It is a potent and mesmerizing elixir. Sure, attracting free agents by being able to show shoppers a winning team, star coach or big-time general manager is nice. But other teams’ advantages almost always may be trumped by the right contract offer.
Money is why the Dolphins were able to re-sign their own top free agent-to-be, cornerback Brent Grimes, before he hit the open market starting Tuesday at 4 p.m.
Money is why, on Monday, the Dolphins agreed to terms with free agent safety Louis Delmas, a veteran upgrade over Chris Clemons.
And money is why the Dolphins are now expected to land former Chiefs left tackle Branden Albert, a major free-agent prize who’d be a huge salvo in the fast reconstruction of a decimated offensive line.
Heck, money — should they have wished to part with enough of it — is why the Dolphins perhaps could have even signed Bills Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd if they hadn’t chosen a much-less expensive alternative in Delmas.
(Speaking of money, good for owner Stephen Ross for agreeing Monday to spend about $400 million of his own to renovate his stadium, after being rebuffed for tax-subsidy help. This is a goodwill gesture that will help in repair the public image of a franchise in dire need of that.).
Teams must pretend it isn’t about money first, of course.
“I think a free agent will be attracted to who we are,” new Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey said. “We have an excellent coaching staff. We live in Miami. We have a committed owner ”
All well and good. But free agents will mainly want to come here because, in the Dolphins’ case right now, “who we are” is a team with roughly $35 million to spend in free agency, which makes Miami as enticing a destination for football free agents as South Beach is for tourists.
Money makes Miami a free agent player right now, not workplace, “culture,” Super Bowl odds or anything else. No image-smear by Richie Incognito and Bullygate will keep players away if the price is right.
And that foists the onus squarely on Hickey, the guy with all the Monopoly money. So many options confront him as he begins making his imprint on this team and roster and, in turn, begins to make beleaguered Dolfans forget about the mistake-laden, wheels-spinning regime of his predecessor, Jeff Ireland.
Hickey was not Miami’s first or second or third choice for GM. He is here because other preferred candidates were scared off by doubts about the club’s power structure, or by objections to having to inherit coach Joe Philbin. GMs are self-preservationists who need to know first who has the power to fire them and whom they have the power to fire. To them, power trumps dollars.
It’s simpler with players. Show them the money.
Hickey is off to a good start, with Grimes in the bank, Delmas in the fold and reports that Albert is all but a done deal.
The new GM’s job is to not only spend wisely and smartly in free agency but to dovetail areas best addressed now with areas better addressed in the May draft. Hickey is a 20-year NFL lifer who has waited his whole career for a challenge like these next few months. Now he has a chance to show everybody the NFL kept him waiting too long, and prove that Miami, by dumb luck, got the right guy.
So many options.
Hickey (with collaborative input from Philbin) already has displayed his priority in targeting the offensive line and secondary, but where he aims next is why we watch.
Miami could intensify efforts to keep Paul Soliai (which seems smart) or troll the market for a replacement defensive tackle.
Surely at least one blocker in addition to Albert and probably a couple of more will be signed. Jets’ tackle Austin Howard, perhaps? Chiefs guard Jon Asamoah?
I have heard (and had) crazier ideas than pursuing the return of Ted Ginn Jr. in a kickoff- and punt-return role.
Running back is another position of free agency intrigue for Miami, at least by my eye, with the incumbent tandem of Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas both young and unproven.
Available LeGarrette Blount, 27, would seem an upgrade at the right price. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry for the Patriots last season, and Hickey knows him from his time with Tampa Bay.
Maurice Jones-Drew is an intriguing option at a bargain number — if healthy. He turns 29 on March 23 but could have a couple of big seasons left providing a receiving threat out of the backfield. (Darren Sproles has similar dual-threat utility value.)
Oh, almost forgot. Texans running back Ben Tate is out there, too, dangling as somebody’s prize.
More certain than who else the Dolphins might end up getting is that they’d better get it right.
Most NFL teams are trying to fill holes right now.
Miami is trying to fill a steaming crater (the offensive line), mend smaller holes, earn back the lost faith of beyond-frustrated fans and also repair the battered image and brand of an entire franchise.
The Dolphins earning back that trust and getting past the stink of Bullygate won’t be a matter of investigations or task-force recommendations. Not even a refurbished stadium can do that.
This franchise healing itself will be a matter of a sustained run of really smart personnel decisions that lead to consistent and prolonged winning.
That starts with Dennis Hickey and $35 million.
And it starts now.