Step One for Joe Philbin is to begin repairing his ball club’s reputation — not to mention his own.
But Step Two — fixing his team on the field — is probably more important for Philbin’s long-term future. People around the league know he’s in a win-or-else scenario. That means the Dolphins, with a roster full of needs, better ace free agency and the draft.
For Philbin, this week is about doing both.
At the league’s annual Scouting Combine on Thursday, Philbin accepted responsibility for the Dolphins’ bullying scandal and vowed to fix his toxic locker room.
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And then, after a 13-minute question-and-answer session with reporters from both South Florida and around the country, he vanished, off to do the real work of the week: evaluate college talent and line up meetings with agents of free agents the Dolphins want to sign or keep.
Speaking for the first time since Ted Wells determined that three of his players engaged “in a pattern of harassment,” Philbin said the behavior was “inappropriate and unacceptable. ... We’re going to make it better.”
Philbin added: “I’m the one responsible for the workplace environment at the Miami Dolphins facility.”
And yet, the Dolphins’ coach said he was unaware of the majority of events detailed in Wells’ damning report when they were happening.
Furthermore, Philbin punted when asked how he could have allowed Richie Incognito to become a team leader in 2013, particularly after his alleged molestation of a woman at the team’s charity golf outing.
Philbin technically didn’t name Incognito to the Dolphins’ leadership council; it was decided by a vote among the players. But he also didn’t veto the selection. Philbin did say he was part of the group that decided to fine Incognito $50,000 for the incident instead of cutting him outright.
Bullying victim Jonathan Martin remains under contract with the Dolphins, but few believe he will return to the team. Philbin said Martin will meet with owner Stephen Ross in the coming days or weeks, and didn’t not want to speculate about Martin’s role with the team moving forward before that meeting takes place.
Philbin also wouldn’t say if Incognito, Mike Pouncey or John Jerry have a future with the team. All three are expected to receive some sort of punishment from the league — either a suspension or a fine.
“We haven’t made any decision on any of the futures” of the players involved, said Philbin, who added the Dolphins are working in concert with the league on possible sanctions.
Philbin tried to walk the line between contrition and action, saying that he “would have hoped that I would have noticed some of these things.”
When asked if the incident has been embarrassing for the franchise, Philbin responded: “It’s been tough on a lot of people. Tough for our ownership, fan base. It’s touched a lot of people across the country.”
Philbin added: “I have to do a better job. ... I’m going to look at every avenue.”
When asked by a reporter if he feels grateful to still has a job, Philbin responded: “Steve Ross is the one who does the hiring on the Miami Dolphins. ... It’s a question you should ask him.”
Ross has publicly (and privately) supported Philbin, believing he handled the crisis well. But league observers also know that he’s on a short leash.
If the Dolphins miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season in 2014, Ross will likely fire Philbin — and possibly clean house altogether. That means this week is as important for first-year general manager Dennis Hickey as anyone else.
Despite Philbin’s remarks Thursday, a number of important questions remain. How did he not see his players simulate sex acts during pregame warmups? Why didn’t he follow up more diligently after Martin told him about his emotional issues last May? (Philbin declined to answer when asked specifically about this.)
And, most importantly, can he regain the trust and respect of his locker room? Philbin often speaks of integrity and respect. He has a sign on the team’s message board that reads “24/7/365” — a reminder to players that they represent the organization at all times.
But critics wonder how much he follows up on those words. The execution has been lacking in Miami, as Wells made painfully clear. And some believe that’s a reflection of leadership.
“I can tell you, I can tell our fans, I can tell you sitting here, I can tell our players, we’re going to do things about it,” Philbin said. “We’re going to make it better. We’re going to look at every avenue, uncover every stone, and we’re going to have a better workplace. I promise you that. I’m going to make sure that happens.”