Greg Cote: Joe Philbin not faultless in Bullygate, but he shouldn’t be vilified either

02/21/2014 12:01 AM

02/21/2014 7:46 PM

I’m not sure what Joe Philbin’s time is in the 40-yard dash, but I can tell you it had better be fast to outrun all of these Dolphins fans and hysterical media chasing him with torches and pitchforks.

One wonders if the lurching mob, upon catching him, would have Philbin fired or think a firing squad more fitting. Or perhaps the outraged masses might be mollified to merely parade him tarred and feathered through the streets of downtown Miami, given that the public stoning has fallen out of fashion here in the States.

Next I am awaiting a news report out of Miami that identifies the Dolphins coach as the grainy figure on the Zapruder film lurking on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963. Granted, he was only 2 at the time. No matter. Joe Philbin: Toddler Assassin!

How much did he know!?

When did he know it!?

Philbin’s role (or nonrole) in the Dolphins’ Bullygate scandal has reprised the kind of accusatory questioning popularized during Richard Nixon’s Watergate.

The difference is that one situation involved the president, the Constitution and national security. The other involves why a football coach wasn’t aware that a few of his players were being mean to other people.

The apparently endless Bullygate saga returned to a boil Thursday as Philbin, in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, met the media for the first time since last week’s release of the Ted Wells report, the independent investigation of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin mess.

The report found Philbin faultless because it found he was not aware of the bullying or harassment as it was happening. Being unaware generally is a pretty fair rationale for not taking action, except that in this case the roiling mob cries, “But he should have known!”

Here is what’s funny to me.

When Miami was 8-6 and seemed certain to make the playoffs, the national and local narrative was what a great job Philbin had done navigating his team with a calm hand through its months-long crisis.

Damage done

But two losses to end the season and blow a playoff spot changed that narrative, retroactively recasting Bullygate as corrosive and sending fans and media mad-scrambling to lay blame and identify heads that should roll.

Plenty have.

The collateral damage of Bullygate, a minor matter run amok, has been great.

General manager Jeff Ireland lost his job at least partly because of it.

Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman was fired — against Philbin’s strong wishes — mostly because the offense underperformed, but surely the embarrassment of Bullygate and resulting cry for change played a role.

Offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill were fired Wednesday night, directly because of Bullygate.

Incognito and Martin both will be ex-Dolphins because of this; so, almost certainly, will John Jerry. Mike Pouncey likely will survive to remain on the team but faces a probable league suspension.

Enough! Enough, enough, enough.

Can we please stop making this thing even more wildly overblown than it has already gotten? Can we stop trying to add to the casualties by scapegoating Philbin?

Can we move on from this stench for God’s sake!

You’d think not, to hear the line of questioning pounding Philbin on Thursday.

Admirably the coach was as patient and politically correct as possible.

“I want everyone to know, I’m the one responsible for the workplace environment at the Miami Dolphins facility,” he said, prudently. And, “We are going to have a better workplace, I promise you that.”

He showed what sounded like honest regret.

“Certainly I would have hoped I would have noticed some of these things,” he said, “but I can tell you I never turned my back. If I had heard this type of language or these type of acts being done, I would have intervened immediately.”

I believe Philbin, and I also believe he is being unfairly criticized for what he didn’t know.

Most NFL head coaches (not only here) are rarely in their team’s locker room during the week. “That’s our room, the players’ room,” as tackle Bryant McKinnie told me this Tuesday when I asked him on 790 and 104.3 The Ticket.

Locker rooms also are a closed society where secrets are kept, the climate that led even the main victim, Martin, to not say anything about his mistreatment to Philbin.

An extenuating circumstance here also suggests lenient understanding toward Philbin. This controverys -- players bullying one another -- was something no head coach in NFL history had ever dealt with.

O’Neill, the trainer fired, was constantly in the locker room and witnessed some of the harassment. Turner, the line coach fired, worked directly with the players involved and even participated in some of the questionable behavior. That is why those two were fired. Those were two who might have informed Philbin but did not.

Those criticizing Philbin need to leave the naïve fantasy world where the NFL head coach knows everything about everything. They need to re-enter the real world, where coaches do not eavesdrop on players’ personal text messages, do not spy on guys at strip clubs, do not have mental telepathy and do not periodically ask during team meetings, “Any of you guys in here being bullied? Show of hands, please?”

Reality check

More reality: A head coach is overburdened as is and does not have time to monitor and babysit the way his grownup players interrelate. Team chemistry and locker room policing are self-regulated phenomena and, sorry, but the head coach is not Dr. Phil.

You want to get on Philbin because his two Dolphins seasons have been 7-9 and 8-8? Fine. That’s fair. That’s on him: His record, his direct responsibility. And that is why next season could and perhaps should be playoffs-or-bust for him.

Should Bullygate play any role in the judging of Philbin? Yes. Absolutely! Just not the role you might think.

What he knew or when or why not — those things are all moot points and pointless. Why are we even still talking about that? Done with it. Past it.

Judge Philbin’s Bullygate role from this point forward. Judge him on whether or not he leads the Dolphins to survive this, learn from it and move on stronger.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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