The Miami Dolphins’ offseason was designed to reshape the roster with a dozen veterans cut or allowed to walk while new talent was brought in. The offseason was used to upgrade and reinforce the front office with the hiring of Mike Tannenbaum. The offseason was used to remake the home field.
The offseason was used to understand what has gone wrong and, well, make it right.
And the element of all that change that has gotten little public attention?
The bonding of all that work to make the Dolphins into a cohesive organization.
The Dolphins have been a lot of things in recent years — good but not great, full of drama on and off the field — but one thing they definitely have not been is bonded.
But the fix for 2015 is fully underway and ongoing.
This team suffered a terrible bullying scandal in 2013 that made national headlines when multiple teammates made one weaker teammate feel so ostracized he simply quit the team — after throwing a plate of spaghetti against a wall, of course.
The issue of workplace harassment was addressed before last season began. Richie Incognito had been expunged, and Jonathan Martin was cut. The many committees created to address the problems relating to the scandal were named. And young players were no longer forced to get stupid haircuts and have veterans extort expensive meals from them.
The team even adopted a “stronger-together” motto and social media hashtag, then came up with a credo about respecting and never quitting. A symbolic shield fashioned in the form of those used by ancient Spartans became something of a mascot.
(The shield was the tool Spartans used to ensure the safety of a brother in arms.)
How did that all work out?
Well, let’s just say it was a project and the work in progress never yielded peak results.
The Dolphins still finished 8-8 in 2014. Players privately complained about offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s harshness and tone. Receiver Mike Wallace, the team’s highest-paid player, was unhappy and manifested that privately and publicly.
Coach Joe Philbin threw quarterback Ryan Tannehill under the bus before a game against Oakland, refusing to give him a public endorsement as the starter despite giving that endorsement privately.
And some players, most of whom are gone now, felt a season that was supposed to be like a family affair was more about managing issues individually.
So 2015 is once again about finding that missing glue. That missing kinship. That union that so many good NFL teams seem to have but the Dolphins have been so obviously lacking.
This season is about finding that missing element that can keep 53 players, coaches, personnel people and staff glued to a common cause:
Making the playoffs.
Understand this has nothing to do with talent. The Dolphins have talent and have had enough talent to make the playoffs the past two seasons. But somehow that talent frayed at different times in 2013, especially late in the year when inferior teams seemed to want to win more than the Dolphins even when Miami had more at stake.
Somehow that talent fell off the table late last season — especially on defense — after showing itself capable of great early season feats against, for example, the New England Patriots.
The drop-off in production wasn’t a talent issue. It had to be something else.
And maybe that something else had to do with the Dolphins all being in the same boat but rowing in different directions — one player thinking about getting paid in free agency, another upset he wasn’t getting the football deep, another upset he wasn’t getting the ball at all, another letting his performance level drop because his interest and inspiration level simply weren’t where they had been in past years.
Those four players and others are gone now, replaced by players the team likes more. But what is to keep this bunch from heading down the same path as the last bunch?
Well, the organization and the coaching staff are working hard to find a team bond that can prevent another disintegration late this season.
Philbin has worked hard at it. He has talked about making his relationship with players more important. Maybe, the thinking goes, if the players like and respect their coaches better, they will play better for them.
So the coach adjusted the work week. He has been loose, so much so he donned a top hat and tails and sang to his football team during a skit the night before a preseason game in Carolina.
Philbin also set high championship goals when that wasn’t his approach in the past. He has given the team surprise time off during training camp, at one point taking them as a group to see Straight Outta Compton, for goodness sakes.
Yeah, Philbin has tried to be dope.
The team has had multiple “team-bonding exercises” to forge kinship.
Last year the Dolphins hired Mastery Technologies to help bind the team and its personalities. The company’s stated mission is to “ignite the human spirit of your people and show them a path to a level of exceptional achievement far above commonly held limits.”
MTS is the brainchild of Dr. Jay Ferraro and Cmdr. Curt Cronin (Navy, retired). Cronin is a former navy SEAL. He deployed 13 times over 15 years and was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor and the Bronze Star, not to mention three Distinguished Meritorious Service medals.
So is it surprising one of the bonding exercises the Dolphins did this summer was trek to the shores of Fort Lauderdale beach and go through a day of Navy SEAL training, complete with running swimming, and lifting a telephone pole over their heads in unison during the workout?
The point of the exercise was obviously to make this team something of a brotherhood.
“They’re there to help our players and support our players in whatever they need,” Tannenbaum said of Cronin and Ferraro.
Will it all bring results?
Dolphins players are definitely talking the right talk. When he returned from an injury in training camp, receiver Kenny Stills had lost his starting job to Rishard Matthews.
Did he want that job back immediately? Probably. But this is what he said:
“I’m prepared to do whatever they ask me to do,” he said. “I don’t overthink it too much. I just want to make plays for the team.”
Interestingly, Matthews had said something similar days before when the idea of him losing his newfound starting job was posed to him. All he wanted was to help the team.
That might not get anyone’s attention. This might:
Ndamukong Suh came to the Dolphins as the team’s new highest-paid player. Part of the reputation he brought to Miami was that of a no-nonsense guy who is more interested in getting his business done at a high level than playing nice with teammates.
But once Suh knew he was headed to the Dolphins, he recognized he couldn’t simply walk in as the big man on campus. So he called Cameron Wake to make sure the arrival wouldn’t be met with professional envy.
“Once I knew I was coming down here, I reached out to him, understanding this is his defensive line and I am coming to be a part of it,” Suh said. “I just want to understand particularly my role — how I can help, how I can help him make more plays, get more sacks.
“I am a selfless player, so I want to see him be successful, and I want to be successful myself as a competitor and go from there. Communication is key.”
The Dolphins are working hard on changing the culture. The head coach is working at it. The highest-paid player is trying to fit in. Most of the men on the roster are saying the right things about their approach.
So has this team bonded? Is that fundamental glue that will keep this team from unraveling under pressure fully sealed?
Only the season will show that. But the work has been done.