At the height of the Dolphins’ bullying scandal, when the offensive line was in shambles, the Today show was camped out on front lawn, and the playoffs seemed a pipe dream, some in Miami's locker room began to lose faith.
That's when Joe Philbin delivered the most important speech of his young career. Philbin, the Dolphins' second-year coach, is no great orator; he’s an even-keeled manager of talent who believes football is a simple game of scheme and execution.
But the surreal and wholly unique moment called for true leadership, lest the whole season slip away.
“He just stood up there and he told us, ‘Look, they're saying this about me, but I don't care,’ ” cornerback Nolan Carroll recalled last week. “He's telling us, ‘Stick with me; we all have to stay together as a team. They're all going to individually try to separate us, have us all pointing fingers at each other. We can't do that. We have to stick together.’ ”
Philbin, Carroll said, continued: “ ‘We're going to have downs. We're going to have a lot of downs. The key is, in those downs, stick together even more. Be supportive of everybody.’ That's what we did. When I heard that, it made me believe that, ‘Hey, we can get through this.’ ”
They have, and with remarkable results. Since the day Jonathan Martin walked out on his team, creating a media firestorm unmatched in team history, the Dolphins have delivered a counter-punch worthy of a prizefighter.
Instead of cracking under unprecedented pressure, they have won four out of six games — including two on the road — and are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
And the Dolphins, who play host to the Patriots on Sunday in a crucial AFC East game, have done this without two-fifths of their starting offensive line. Neither Martin nor his alleged tormenter, Richie Incognito, are likely to ever play for the team again.
How is this possible? Because, as Dolphins players will uniformly testify, their coach never changed who he was. Steady Philbin stayed steady Philbin, and his locker room followed his lead.
“We had to take on an us-against-the-world mentality, because it really was,” receiver Mike Wallace said. “People were really trying to destroy us. They wanted our coaches gone. They wanted our [general manager] gone before letting things play out.
“That's why they're on the outside. We know what we go through when we're together. We know the time everyone puts in, how hard everyone works. Coach Philbin, he's a great coach. We're going to fight for him. I love Coach Philbin as a man. I think he's a stand-up guy, a great guy. We're going to always fight to the end for our coach.”
Philbin, speaking at length with the Miami Herald on Friday, was appreciative of Wallace’s words.
And although he, like Wallace, knew there were many on the outside trying to run him out of town, Philbin said he “never, never” felt any such pressure from Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
“Not one minute,” Philbin said. “Steve was very, very supportive from the moment this thing happened. He never really panicked, never really flinched.”
In typical fashion, Philbin used Wallace’s praise to segue into a broader discussion of how everyone in the organization needs to buy into a system to succeed.
Philbin innately is so even-tempered that his wife Diane jokes she often can't tell if he has won or lost after a game.
“If you ask the eight or nine guys that I've worked for, they're not going to say ‘Philbin's a genius’ or this or that, but ‘he's steady, he cares and is willing to roll up his sleeves and do whatever's necessary,’ ” Philbin said. “That's the kind of guys I want to be around and want to be a part of.”
Philbin also has a wry sense of humor and a broader sense of perspective that was crucial to surviving his coaching career’s ultimate stress test.
In some of the darkest days, Philbin told his players that there will be sticking points in every person's life when you decide what you want to be and who you want to be.
That moment for him, Philbin told his players, came in the mid-1990s, when he was unemployed after one year as an assistant at Ohio University.
He had four kids at the time, and the paychecks had run out. “We didn't have two pennies to rub together,” he said.
Philbin was beginning to wonder whether coaching wasn't for him. But he came home from a job interview one day and his wife showed him a pregnancy test. It was positive. Child No. 5 was on the way.
“I decided I was going to be a coach,” Philbin said. “That's what I was going to do. I was going to be the best coach I was going to be. I wasn't going to fold under the heat of all of these obligations.”
And there was some serious heat in Miami last month.
When the scandal was at its worst, the Dolphins locker room’s very culture was under siege. The team was broadly painted as consisting of bullies and, at the very least, being racially insensitive. And it wasn't fair, the players believe.
Many didn't even think Incognito, who called Martin a racial slur in his now-infamous voicemail, was a bigot. But the tabloid-TV types who turned the team into a caricature didn't have time for the finer points.
And so, in a team meeting in early November, Philbin told his players that if they were fed up with being slandered, to do something about it.
“He said, ‘I’m sick of you guys getting beat up. Stand up for yourselves,’ ” Brian Hartline recalled. “So we did.”
The result: one of the most remarkable media sessions in sports.
Players slammed the idea that Martin was bullied, derided the concept that this was a fractured locker room, and expressed support for Incognito. Ryan Tannehill went so far as to say that Incognito was a “great teammate” and that the two feuding linemen were “best friends” until the moment Martin left the team.
Who exactly is right — Dolphins players and at least one assistant coach who believe this whole thing was overblown, or Martin, who alleges emotional and even physical abuse — probably won’t be known until NFL investigator Ted Wells completes his independent review.
But in the short term, it doesn't matter. It changed the story’s narrative. And Philbin's leadership empowered his team and buoyed its spirits.
“Philbin has done a masterful job keeping this together with the outside issues,” said Charley Casserly, the former Redskins and Texans general manager who watches the league closely in his role with NFL Network.
Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was even more effusive. Unprompted on Monday, he delivered an impassioned defense of his longtime friend and protegè.
“You talk about going through some very difficult times, as a head coach, I never had to endure what he’s had to endure this past season with the distractions that we had here in the midseason time,” Sherman said. “For him to keep our team together and keep us focused, you have no idea what a task that is to keep a team together and not splinter.
“We wouldn’t be in this position if he wasn’t able to pull us all together, coaches and players alike.”