Dan Campbell completed an improbable five-year journey from coaching intern to interim head coach of the Dolphins on Monday when owner Stephen Ross fired coach Joe Philbin, believing the team wasn’t performing up to its capabilities.
“It was hard to do but something I felt needed to be done,” Ross said, expressing disappointment in Miami’s 1-3 start. “I believe in our roster and didn’t believe we’re performing to the potential we had. This was the time to make this decision. We’ve played four games. I haven’t seen a lot of improvement. I’ve seen same old, same old. My goal is still to make the playoffs. I thought this was best opportunity we had.”
Mike Tannenbaum, the Dolphins vice president/football operations, said the expectation remains to win now: “This is not a three-year rebuild.”
Ross said Campbell, the Dolphins tight ends coach, “absolutely” is a candidate for the permanent job. He likely would be the leading candidate if the team somehow rallies to make the playoffs or plays exceptionally well over the final 12 games.
“I’m not here just to finish the season out,” Campbell said. “That’s not my plan.”
The Dolphins also considered special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi but picked Campbell because Ross and Tannenbaum are impressed by his enthusiasm, passion, leadership, toughness, energy and demeanor and believe he can connect with players, according to a source. Ross and team executives believe the team needs an emotional spark.
It was hard to do but something I felt needed to be done. This was the time to make this decision. We’ve played four games. I haven’t seen a lot of improvement. I’ve seen same old, same old.
Campbell’s promotion was well-received by players, according to multiple sources.
“You want to promote from within instead of going without,” Ross said, adding he spoke to coaches who have worked with Campbell, including Bill Parcells. “The confidence he has, the whole demeanor… is something I have a lot of respect for. It made me feel confident and happy we had somebody like him we could turn to.”
Campbell, 39, was given the authority to fire maligned defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle and any other assistants, according to a source.
Campbell said he has not decided whether to make staff changes but mentioned that defensively, “we have time to evaluate what we’re doing, what we’re not doing.” Former Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who now works for the NFL’s officiating department, is among the top defensive coordinators available.
Campbell spoke boldly and brashly, saying: “I don’t want guys just to do their job. I want them to dominate. Just doing your job is this. You go 8-8, 7-9, 9-7.”
Campbell said the Dolphins have “the most talented roster we have had in [my] six years. We may have some things that need to be moved or shuffled. I need to sort that out.”
He said foremost, “we have to change the culture. We need to become a more aggressive front and team in general. Our front four on defense and the offensive line, we need to breed a culture of competitiveness, finish and intensity. We need to change it in practice.
“This team plays hard. But they’re not competing. I have to get them to compete more. You can’t just go out on Sunday and say, ‘I’m going to win.’ I’m going to talk the talk and walk the walk and you follow me.”
Campbell made clear he wants the team to play with a more aggressive bent.
“We are going to play by the rules. But we are going to be much more aggressive,” he said. “We’re going to walk that line. Not saying I want dirty players. I don’t want us playing conservative and playing on our heels.”
Though some players privately complained that Philbin’s Thursday practices were too long and physical, Campbell indicated he wants practice to be more intense, not less.
“We need these guys to go after each other,” Campbell said. “On the best teams I’ve been on, during the week, they go after it. It gets heated. It gets intense. It’s not just going through the motions. That’s what’s got to change. If we start there, that will put us in the right direction. X’s and O’s will come later.”
“I feel there’s a lot more we can get out of these guys and we need to get it out. We need to change the culture where it’s so competitive on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, where it’s very heated. That’s when you really get good. That’s when you get the most of your players. You can’t just go through the motions on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and get the most out of them. They have to be challenged.”
Campbell said his strength is his ability to “relate to the players. I understand them. I feel like, whether a player or coach, I can pull the best out of people.
“There is different ways to motivate players. Some players need a kick in the rear. Some need to be patted on the back. Some need to be told they’re not good enough; that’s when they rise to the top. That’s my strength; I understand people very much; I understand players.”
Ross concluded he needed to fire Philbin shortly after the Dolphins’ 27-14 loss to the Jets in London on Sunday, then finalized the decision Monday morning.
Ross, who is traveling, could not immediately reach Philbin by phone on Monday morning to tell him he was being let go. When Ross finally reached him, Philbin asked if he could leave team headquarters to tell his wife in person, and then return to tell his coaching staff at noon, before an announcement was made publicly. The Dolphins granted that request.
Ross said he started considering a coaching change after the Buffalo game.
“We won the first game, we didn’t look good,” he said. “Then Jacksonville, a team that we should have beaten. I think we outplayed them, but we lost. We didn’t look good at all. And then seeing the performance against Buffalo,... then seeing the same type of performance [against the Jets].
“Everyone knew what the mistakes were, we had to get off to a fast start. Our first quarters; I guess the best way to call them was abysmal. I thought that with a bye week and roster we have, I owed it to the fans and myself. Knowing I’ve built organizations, I’ve run organizations, and I drive to be best in class and to win. I didn’t see that happening.”
The Dolphins have been outscored 37-3 and outgained 622-125 in the first quarter.
Campbell, 39, was born in Bosque County, Texas, attended Texas A&M, was selected in the third round by the New York Giants in the 1999 NFL Draft and played for the Giants, Cowboys, Lions and Saints. He missed the 2009 season with a knee injury and retired after that.
Philbin finished his Dolphins career with a record of 24-28 and no playoff appearances. He said in recent months that he had made an effort to connect more with his players, but some of those players have said Philbin lacked the ability to inspire or motivate them.