Call it a tank, call it a strategic reset.
Call it whatever you want, but the Dolphins’ decision to strip their roster down to the studs with an eye on the future has unleashed a wave of criticism among pundits and ex-players.
But talk to the people whose opinions matter the most — NFL team owners and executives — and you’ll get a far different perspective.
League power brokers were in Fort Lauderdale this week for the NFL’s fall meetings. And those who stopped to chat with the Miami Herald were largely understanding, and even supportive, of the team’s reset.
”I think they’ve got a great strategic plan,” said Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. “Well managed. I have high hopes for the future of the Dolphins.”
Added Arthur Blank, who owns the Falcons: “Every coach, every general manager, every owner has both a short-term view and a long-term view and you have to balance all of that out, depending on where your franchise is.”
The Dolphins right now are probably the worst team in the NFL.
But that should come as no surprise to their front office. Miami’s payroll, $135 million, is by far the smallest in the league and a good $50 million below the league average. They’ve traded away three of their best players since the end of the preseason.
Industry insiders estimate that more than half the players on the roster would not be in the league if the Dolphins didn’t employ them.
The result, an 0-5 start, is predictable.
But there is a benefit to being bad. Next April’s NFL Draft should be rich with quarterback talent, and the No. 1 overall pick would allow the Dolphins have their pick of them all.
And so, there’s incentive to lose, and lose on epic scale, in the short term to up the odds of long-term success — although the Dolphins strongly push back on any suggest that it’s been their plan.
“I don’t know that they’re intentionally trying to be bad,” Blank said. “I think it’s a question for [Dolphins owner Stephen] Ross. If it’s intentional, it’s not healthy for the league and not healthy for our fans. I’m not sure it’s intentional. Our results are 1-5 and I can tell you that’s not intentional.”
The NBA and NHL have tried to discourage teams to tank by instituting a lottery. But in conversation with owners and executives here this week, there’s little to no appetite for the NFL joining them.
“We find the draft to be successful on many fronts,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday. “One, the competitive side. But also the event itself has grown dramatically. It’s not under active consideration. It hasn’t been raised by either the committees or the clubs at this stage.”
When asked if that might change if a bunch of teams start punting on seasons in an attempt to land a high pick, Goodell responded:
“The good news for us is we don’t see that. I don’t think the league has ever been more competitive than it is today. You see that in teams going from last to first in dramatic fashion. I think that’s unique to the National Football League. I think we’ve had 16 out of 17 years where that’s happened. For us, the competitiveness of our game is obviously critical. I don’t think that’s solved by a lottery. I think that’s solved by all the other issues we try to deal with on a regular basis through the competition committee and the league in trying to make sure our league is competitive.”
Marc Ganis, founder of SportsCorp and a sports business consultant who has done work for multiple pro teams and is a constant presence at NFL owners meetings, said this week the Dolphins’ approach is justified as a business strategy.
”I don’t accept the premise the Dolphins are not trying to win,” Ganis said. “There are times you work to reload, and that means trading players that have value today to get more draft picks. That’s a strategy in order to be competitive for the next five or 10 years. Sometimes, one or two players can make a very good team a championship caliber team. That’s not the case with the Dolphins now [and that’s why their strategy was justified].”
But a season of losing will inevitably have at least temporary impact on fan engagement.
The Dolphins have been outscored 180-42. And yet, management isn’t concerned that this season will damage the team’s brand.
Dolphins ratings in Miami-Fort Lauderdale are the lowest they’ve been this century; only 9.2 percent of Dade/Broward homes with TV sets tuned in last Sunday’s game against the Redskins, which is stunningly low for a team in its home market.
Last Sunday’s game also marked the first time that Hard Rock Stadium did not sell out for a Dolphins game since the team shrunk stadium capacity before the 2016 season.
The team announced tickets distributed for Sunday’s game at 59,808.
Asked if any of these things concern him, team president Tom Garfinkel said: “I’m not concerned. Our fan base has been fantastic and supportive. We have a great loyal fan base and I have tremendous confidence in our football leadership and the decisions they’re making and am excited about the future of the team.”
Garfinkel said ticket sales “are down a little bit from where they’ve been the last couple years. They’re still significantly higher than where they were in 2012, 2013.”
Garfinkel cited two reasons for the drop in attendance: “Obviously, team performance has something to do with it. It’s also a consequence of having four of our first five games at home where there’s been a saturation in that time period. It’s hot. They’ve been to a couple already. That’s part of it.
“If you look at it, you have to judge the end of the first quarter, start of the second quarter to know how many people are there because one of the things we’ve done is kind of created our own problem by having such great club places that often people go back in the clubs.
So you’ll notice at halftime it will empty out, beginning of the third quarter it will look empty and beginning of the fourth quarter, it will look full again. We’ve had great fan support.”
Asked what the franchise needs to do to get attendance back to past levels, Garfinkel said: “We’re working hard to try to improve the performance of the team on the field. That will get people in the seats earlier and staying in them.”
Garfinkel said season ticket prices for 2020 have not been determined. And he said he’s unaware of a single person asking for a refund this season: “Nothing has come to my desk.”
Does he worry about the franchise’s long-term popularity being damaged?
“We have a great fan base and I’m consistently blown away by the support our fans give us over the last six years I’ve been here. When I travel on the road, there are always a couple thousand people wearing Dolphins jerseys. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from our fans about the direction of the team, the future of the team, and continually impressed by our fan base and how loyal they are.”