It’s too simplistic to say Joe Philbin has been humbled. I’m not even sure that’s what has actually happened. But when an NFL coach spends much of an hour-long interview talking about how problems at work kept him awake some nights and how he has had time to reflect on what went wrong and has plans to change, it’s clear some significant transformation is underway.
Maybe Philbin is simply doing what he asks his offense and defense to do each week of the regular season: Identify mistakes, correct them, make the necessary adjustments so as to not repeat them, and improve next time.
That’s what Philbin seems to be doing now if you believe he was being sincere (and I do) when discussing how he plans to handle his players, his locker room and his job following last season’s harassment scandal.
“I’ve been more focused on how I can do things better so it doesn’t occur as we move forward as a football team and an organization,” Philbin told a group of reporters huddled around him at a breakfast table.
“I’ve been focusing mostly on myself. What do I have to do better?”
The Wells Report that was released after the Dolphins’ harassment scandal cleared Philbin of any wrongdoing when it said he was unaware of any activities that directly or indirectly led to the trading of Jonathan Martin, the firing of an offensive line coach and a head trainer and the coming medical evaluations and possible sanctions against Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey.
But if Philbin emerged technically unblemished because he didn’t approve or know about or fail to act on any of the wrongdoing, the report’s 144 pages soiled the coach in excruciating detail for his obliviousness.
Philbin was painted as unaware of things going on under his watch if not under his very nose.
How else to say it when players were simulating sex acts they told Martin was with his sister or mom during practice and the coach apparently didn’t see it?
It made the Dolphins’ closed practices sound like they were closed to Philbin, as well.
How else to say it when no one felt comfortable going to the coach and telling him something was wrong when the irregular treatment of Martin, other players and some staffers was an open secret among multiple members of the organization?
Philbin apparently recognizes this has to change as much as the culture in the Dolphins’ locker room has to root out detrimental behavior that has nothing to do with winning football games.
And perhaps one way of doing that is having more of a presence in the locker room.
“Let’s be honest, guys, every offseason since I’ve been coaching and I’m going into my 31st year, you always think of ways you can do your job better,” Philbin said.
“As I examined some of the things that as the head coach of the Dolphins I can do better, I think the visibility factor can be a difference. That's one of the things I'm going to do. It's not that I've never been, but I think what happens sometimes to coaches is you're conflicted with, ‘should I watch that blitz tape. Gosh, I got to get that third-down film watched.’ And sometimes it's better use of a head coach's time to walk through the training room, walk through the locker room, walk through the hallways. It's not that I've never done that stuff, but it's fair to say I'm going to do it more.”
One of the problems that caused a troubling relationship among a handful of players to mushroom into a full fledged scandal was the fact no one trusted Philbin enough to be honest with him.
Martin was more afraid of not becoming a locker room snitch than being honest with the head coach who could have stopped the behavior. Offensive line coach Jim Turner, under direct questioning from Philbin, apparently lied to his boss and told him none of the things that were being alleged in the press were actually happening.
And not only did Turner know they were true, according to the Wells Report, he actually engaged in some of the activities.
So Philbin needs to gain a greater trust from his players so that perhaps the next player with a problem will come to him instead of simply quitting the team. And Philbin needs to make sure his assistants know they must report all the news — including bad news — to him.
“I mentioned visibility. I think accessibility also is important,” Philbin said. “They're a little bit tied together. In the NFL, everybody doesn't want to be the bearer of bad news. The head coach is busy. Don't bother him. He's watching film. He's doing this or doing that.
“We got to get away from that. I frankly have to be a little more vigilant in my enforcement of policies and procedures that I want to have in the locker room and the program. That falls on me. There has to be better communication both ways. From them to me and me to them. Players to me. Me to players. That's something I felt, as you have a little bit of time to reflect on things, certainly needs to improve.”
The Dolphins have a long way to go. And so does Philbin. He is convinced his team did not play flat in the final two weeks of the season despite the fact they got trounced by two teams they should have beaten — and in the case of the New York Jets, had easily beaten only a month earlier.
His team played to his personality most of the season in not getting too high or too low. And in the final two weeks the Dolphins played to his personality in that they didn’t show a ton of emotion.
But forget that part. That isn’t a fault or a flaw. That’s just a trait.
Philbin has identified what he believes are a couple of flaws in his coaching approach and he’s intent on changing those.
That’s admirable. That’s encouraging.
“We’re going to work through this thing,” Philbin said. “Maybe next year will be a little calmer. To me if you acknowledge things that could have been done better and you’re devoted to doing them better, that’s really important.”