Stephen Ross says he doesn’t tell his employees what to do. He says he doesn’t tell coach Joe Philbin and new general manager Dennis Hickey what decisions to make. He believes in hiring good people and letting them do their work.
“I’ve always told the coach and I’ll tell Dennis and I’ve already told him, ‘If I tell you to draft a player or play a player or call a play, you don’t have to listen,’ ” Ross says.
“You don’t micromanage them.”
And that has generally been true of the Dolphins’ owner. But if Ross sees no need to cross the line from macro managing an organization (which is his role) to micromanaging (which he says he doesn’t do), he has felt comfortable inching close to the line between the two recently.
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Consider that Hickey, Philbin and executive vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte called longtime head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill to a meeting room in Indianapolis last week and fired him, supposedly over allegations in the Ted Wells report.
The trio did the firing. But it was Ross who gave the order.
It was also Ross who made the call to fire offensive line coach Jim Turner.
Yes, as one Dolphins source points out, the Wells report findings forced the owner to get involved in an area he otherwise would leave to others. Those moves by Ross should be seen through that prism.
But it was also Ross who told — rather, requested — that Philbin fire offensive coordinator and longtime friend Mike Sherman after the season. When Philbin resisted the idea, Ross made a stronger request that Sherman be fired.
Sherman was fired.
Ross sided against Jeff Ireland after the general manager and Philbin could not work together and moved to demote Ireland — which led to Ireland balking and a mutual parting of ways.
Ross decided Philbin deserves his continued loyalty and confidence even in the face of the harassment scandal, even after some advisors told him to make a change, even when multiple GM candidates suggested they’d like the authority to fire Philbin as a condition for being hired or even interviewed.
And Ross, convinced he’s right about his head coach, is pleased with the path he has taken.
“I like the track we’re on,” Ross says. “We were in it this year. We all suffered together. But you saw a lot of difference, you know. I feel as bad as everybody we didn’t make the playoffs. But we sure were competitive. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing and you just don’t start all over again.
“I think with the talent and talking with people outside and I believing — and you always want to believe what you want to believe — but talking to outsiders, we’re not that far away. And you don’t start all over again. And I also have a lot of faith and confidence in Coach Philbin and his staff and the direction we’re headed. So there’s no reason to make wholesale changes.”
Ross micromanages inadvertently in some instances, another club source says, by adding layers to the team’s structure.
“Steve stays out of the way,” the source says, “but then it’s, ‘but by they way, let me introduce you to Carl Peterson, and by the way let me introduce you to [Fins Associate, LLC head] Ron Katz, and by the way let me introduce you to Matt Higgins, and by the way let me introduce you to … .’ And those people do get involved.”
The Dolphins locker room might soon feel the effect of this management style because, by the way, Ross has named a committee to set the boundaries for Miami’s locker-room culture.
Agree or disagree with Ross and his approach. Your opinion doesn’t matter.
The only opinion that matters is that of Stephen Ross. He’s in charge. He empowers people within the organization — sometimes people you’ve never heard of — and he can yank that power away.
He’s the owner and so if the Dolphins point themselves toward a championship, he should get the credit. And if he drives this franchise into a ditch, he should get the blame.
Ross, it should be noted, believes the Dolphins are not going in or going toward a ditch.
Although some people will argue the Dolphins’ reputation suffered a black eye by hosting the harassment scandal and then collapsing out of playoff contention late in the season, Ross thinks the difficulties of the season actually made his team look good.
“I think the respect we gained, how we handled the situation that took place here says an awful lot about this organization and about the people that are running it,” he says. “I feel comfortable that we’re headed in the right direction.”
I don’t see the Dolphins headed in the right direction. But I don’t work for Stephen Ross.
The people who do work for Ross are in lock step with his organizational view. Hickey thinks everything that plagued the Dolphins the past few months — the scandal, the internal dysfunction, the late-season collapse, and yes, the oft-criticized general manager search that ultimately empowered him — might be good for the franchise.
“I think this is going to make us stronger,” Hickey says. “I think this organization is going to be stronger as a result of this, and moving forward we’re excited about the future here with the players and the interaction. I know you’ve heard this before, but I’m so excited about the interaction I’ve had with the coaches, the players, and just knowing as we’ve talked about their goals and their plans, seeing the passion that’s in their eyes, the passion that’s in our organization’s eyes.”
The Ross culture has been established. The Dolphins are the embodiment of it. That matters because it determines where the franchise goes. It also matters because it determines who the franchise can attract.
Forget about players for a moment. They mostly come for money or the chance to win championships. For many of them, the Dolphins can overpay or promise the titles as they have in the past.
But the Ross culture has been unpalatable to multiple people of a higher caliber.
Jeff Fisher decided he didn’t want to coach the team because Ross demanded he accept Ireland. Peyton Manning saw no one in the organization he could identify with so he didn’t give the Dolphins strong consideration when he was available. At least four general manager candidates this year declined a Miami job or interview offer because they didn’t like the structure Ross insisted be in place.
And the culture Ross has established might soon get another notable test.
It is possible the Dolphins might want to add Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, recently fired from his CBS television job, to the organization.
Well, Marino would have value to Ross as an admired name around the NFL that would add respect to the beleaguered Dolphins brand. Marino could give local fans a reason to believe in the franchise and, yes, buy tickets again. But that’s public relations.
Marino, in that regard, would be a figurehead addition.
But if Marino wants to wield actual power — say, the ability to decide the fate of Philbin or Hickey, or the chance to fill a role in Miami like John Elway fills in Denver — that might be practically impossible.
First, Marino would have to prove to Ross he would be willing to work long hours and commit to the franchise rather than his retirement lifestyle. And even then, Ross might not be willing to hand over the keys to his kingdom.
Because micromanaging or not, Ross wants to keep certain decisions for himself.
As Ross says, “I own the team. We’ll start there … .”