The gate opened at exactly 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and in they charged, onto the Miami Dolphins practice field like a pack of blitzing defensive linemen, a sight becoming all too familiar this week to coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Nearly 100 reporters — armed with cameras, tripods, microphones and pointed questions — sprinted toward the interview area, ready to pounce on Philbin and Tannehill, who had no helmets, pads, or 300-pound linemen to protect them.
The media throng was there to grill the Dolphins on their latest and potentially most damaging crisis, allegations that Pro Bowl lineman Richie Incognito bullied teammate Jonathan Martin and harassed him with a racist voice message last April, and that other teammates may have been complicit.
Martin, a second-year lineman, left the team, is back home in California undergoing treatment for emotional issues, and hired attorney David Cornwell, whose clients include Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Ben Roethlisberger, and Reggie Bush. Incognito was suspended from the team indefinitely while the NFL conducts an investigation.
Last season, the Dolphins were featured on the T.V. reality show, Hard Knocks. But the harder knocks have come during this 4-4 season, and the Dolphins are getting used to being under siege.
Tannehill has been sacked 35 times in eight games, more than any quarterback in the NFL. He’s on pace to break the 45-year-old franchise record, and the recurring image of Tannehill falling down, grimacing, dusting himself off and getting back up personifies what could be dubbed the Dolphins’ imperfect season.
Other than a promising 3-0 start and an exciting overtime safety to beat Cincinnati, they have had to deal with a lot of bad publicity — everything from a lost Super Bowl bid to an offensive hat to a middle finger to the offensive line woes to a $60 million wide receiver with just one touchdown catch in eight games to the current public relations nightmare.
Philbin, the wear of the week evident on his face, tried to bring some levity to the situation as he braced himself for the media onslaught.
“I hope the Dolphins are not liable for any of those hamstrings that all you guys pulled on the way over here,’’ he joked. He got a few laughs, and then got hammered with questions.
Did you or any of the coaches tell Incognito to toughen up Martin and if you did, did it go unmonitored and out of hand? Did you visit Jonathan Martin in the hospital? Is there a time table for the NFL investigation? Have you heard the voice mail and what is your reaction to Incognito’s use of the N-word? Do you, personally, have anything to fear from this investigation?
The national media narrative had clearly been set, loaded with a pair of hot-button buzzwords: bullying and racism. There was no scrambling from the interrogation. And the questions will continue in the coming days, as things are about to get even messier. Martin’s attorney released a statement late Thursday night alleging that the second-year Stanford graduate had endured constant harassment, verbal abuse and even a “malicious’’ physical attack by teammates.
“Jonathan Martin’s toughness is not at issue,’’ said the statement. “The issue is Jonathan’s treatment by his teammates. Jonathan endured harassment that went far beyond the traditional locker room hazing.’’
Philbin said the Dolphins are cooperating fully with the NFL investigation, and are ready to accept whatever repercussions there may be.
“If the review reveals anything that needs to be corrected, we will take all necessary measures to fix it and ensure this doesn’t happen again,’’ Philbin said. “The type of culture I’ve championed from the day I walked in these doors is one of honesty, respect and accountability for one another. That is the hallmark of this program. I believe our locker room reflects those beliefs. I believe in the men in our locker room and I believe in our coaching staff. I have full faith and confidence that we will stick together as a team, and we will focus on task at hand, which is preparing for our Monday night game against Tampa Bay.’’
Oh, yes, there’s a game on Monday. Against the dysfunctional 0-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the few teams that make the Dolphins seem stable.
The Bucs surely can relate to the Dolphins’ troubles, as they have lost 13 of their past 14 games, dealt with outbreaks of MRSA infections, a breach of confidentiality in the NFL substance abuse program, venomous criticism of coach Greg Schiano (including “Fire Schiano’’ billboards), and a messy breakup with quarterback Josh Freeman.
Perhaps Monday’s game could be called the Distraction Bowl, although Miami players insist they have been galvanized by the adversity. Many Dolphins passionately defended Incognito, and seethed at the media’s portrayal of their locker room as a leaderless mess. They greeted the media on Wednesday by playing circus music from a locker room stereo.
“We’re definitely not beleaguered,’’ said offensive lineman Tyson Clabo. “At this point in the season we have eight winnable games ahead of us and we could have a very good second half of the season. We’re definitely not focusing on the circus you guys have made in our locker room.’’
Defensive tackle Randy Starks added: “Everyone’s talking about it, but we have a job to do. The only way to get this behind us is to go out and get a win. I think it has strengthened us so far, all this stuff has made us closer. We’re definitely not being separated. We’re all together. ’’
ESPN football analyst Mark Schlereth, a former Pro Bowl lineman with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, said it remains to be seen how the Dolphins’ off-field troubles will affect them on the field.
“They are putting up a good front with all the support for Richie, and some guys do use personal or work problems as motivation, and use the football field as a safe haven, but I’ve got to believe that some of those guys are privately worried about this independent investigation and what it may uncover,’’ Schlereth said.
“The NFL locker room is the most politically incorrect place on the planet, and knowing the Neanderthal nature of some NFL players, if investigators are using real-world sensibilities, and you know that you did things that crossed the line, atrocious things, or that you didn’t stand up, or say “Alright guys, that’s enough,’’ when others were crossing a line, then you were part of it, and it would be very hard to focus on your job right now.’’
Schlereth went on to say that while there was plenty of joking in the Redskins and Broncos locker rooms from 1989-2000, there were always players who stepped in when things started getting out of hand. He recalled one Bronco special teams player who was “way too intelligent to be playing football,’’ and when he got picked on during a bus ride, Schlereth stood up and told his teammates to stop.
“There are unwritten rules about locker room behavior,’’ he said. “You learn what the lines are. You figure out that certain guys can dish and take it, others can’t. The team leaders and management have to step in if the lines get crossed, and if they don’t, they are either complicit or incompetent. The Dolphins coaches and general manager have a lot of questions to answer.’’
An imperfect season, for sure.
Even before the season began, there was bad news for Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Last May, NFL owners passed over Miami and awarded Super Bowls 50 and 51 to San Francisco and Houston, sending a message that the stadium needs improvements before it will be awarded the game again.
In July, there was the widely-circulated photo of center Mike Pouncey in a “Free Hernandez’’ cap, referring to suspected murderer Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots star and Pouncey’s University of Florida teammate. Pouncey was back in the news two weeks ago, when he was served with a Grand Jury subpoena related to the Hernandez case.
In August, highly-touted free agent tight end Dustin Keller suffered a serious knee injury that sidelined him for the season.
Then there was the unbecoming image of Starks, the Pro Bowl tackle, celebrating a sack by flipping his middle finger at the Dolphins bench, believed to be an in-your-face gesture toward coaches who had demoted him from the starting lineup.
The signing of former Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver Mike Wallace had Dolfans giddy last spring. He signed a five-year deal for $60 million, so fans expected big things. He has not made the impact everyone hoped for, and he complained early in the season that he wasn’t getting the ball enough.
Wallace isn’t the only one complaining about the Dolphins’ offense. Fans and media have been second-guessing the play calling of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman all season.
Yet none of the Dolphins’ troubles this year compare to the inflammatory saga of Incognito and Martin.
Miami players say they were blindsided by the situation. They never saw it coming. They characterized the two players as very close friends on and off the field, and said Incognito treated Martin like a kid brother. Clabo called them “thick as thieves.’’
Players both black and white said Incognito is not a racist, despite the use of a racial epithet in an April voice message to Martin. They suggested he called late at night, after a few drinks, and was trying to be funny. Receiver Brian Hartline said Martin played the message to teammates in the locker room, and laughed along with them.
Starks, who is black, said the portrayal of Incognito as racist is unfair and inaccurate.
“Everybody jokes around in locker rooms, but he doesn’t go around just using the n-word, blasting it all over, that’s never been his character,’’ Starks said. “Whatever was said wasn’t meant that way. Richie’s a good teammate. Jon Martin was a good teammate. Everything’s been blown out of proportion.
“We’re trying to clear Richie’s name. We know he has a bad rep from years ago. He is a good guy. I’ve never had a problem with him.’’
“We joke on each other. You can’t have thin skin around here. At the end of the day, we still love each other, still play for each other. The way we joke around is way different from the way someone might joke around a corporate office.’’
The Dolphins in disarray is not a new theme. On Oct. 2, 2011, a newspaper headline read: “Chad Henne injured, Dolphins in Disarray after loss to Chargers.’’ On Jan. 5, 2007, a headline read: “Saban’s Departure Leaves Dolphins in Disarray.’’
There have been other low moments in franchise history. Dave Wannstedt resigned on Nov. 4, 2004 after a 1-8 start. There was the Ricky Williams drama, Cam Cameron and the drafting of Ted Ginn, Gator Day on the University of Miami home field, Ross’ ill-fated belief that celebrity part-owners would help attendance, and Nick Saban’s ugly departure.
Only the aging Miami fans can remember the franchise glory days, the Perfect 1972 season, the three decades under Don Shula in which the Dolphins won two Super Bowl titles, made five Super Bowl appearances, and had only two losing seasons. It all seems like ancient history as the newest edition of the Dolphins tries to salvage its image.
In a bit of irony, the ’72 team was honored at the White House in August, just before the start of this season.
Said CBS commentator Rich Gannon: “It’s going to take people with great strength, great morals, fortitude and great leadership to go in there and clean up a locker room that is in disarray. I don’t know that (the Dolphins) have enough of those players right now in that building.”
Tannehill can take hits from opposing linemen. He is having a harder time accepting knocks from media and fans about the integrity of Dolphin leadership.
“We have a bunch of good guys in this locker room and to be put in a situation where everyone’s attacking our locker room, saying it’s such a bad place, such a bad culture, no leadership to stop the situation…No one knew there was a situation to be stopped. It’s really tough for us to sit here and hear all that.
“Right now we’re focused on sticking together as a team, having each other’s backs and getting ready to play a football team.’’