On Monday, in the aftermath of another Dolphins season of failed expectations, coach Joe Philbin shrugged off questions about his future and instead made the same points he has cited repeatedly after losses this season: That his team needs to play a full 60-minute game, that the opponent deserved to win, that “we’ve got to find a way to make more plays.”
Those words have become predictable and the team’s December swoons have become too commonplace, putting Philbin’s job very much at risk with two games remaining.
Though owner Stephen Ross has declined to publicly discuss Philbin’s status, Ross is interested in luring Jim Harbaugh from the 49ers if the Dolphins miss the playoffs, according to a source. ESPN reported that Oakland is the front-runner to land Harbaugh.
Even if Ross cannot snag Harbaugh, Philbin is still in jeopardy, though it’s not absolutely certain that Philbin would be out if his team finishes 9-7.
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With home games remaining against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets, the Dolphins aren’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but their chances are somewhere between slim and none.
If Ross cannot lure Harbaugh — who is under contract to the 49ers for 2015 but not expected to return there — there’s no obvious second choice.
Ross has high regard for Tony Dungy, but Dungy has made it clear he’s not returning to coaching. Ross also very much likes Jon Gruden, but Gruden said Monday he has signed an extension to remain with ESPN through 2021.
Ross is expected to solicit input from a small inner circle that includes his New York-based sports executive (Matt Higgins), his Dolphins president (Tom Garfinkel), special assistant Dan Marino, team consultant and former Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, and perhaps general manager Dennis Hickey and longtime friend Carl Peterson (who has been less visible this season), as well as others whom he respects around the league. In the past, Ross has sought counsel from Dungy and Bill Polian.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Tannenbaum recommended any of the clients that his agency represents, a group that includes Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.
It also wouldn’t be surprising if Tannenbaum gives Ross some positive feedback on Rex Ryan, who is widely expected to be fired by the Jets after the season. Tannenbaum and Ryan worked together in New York.
The Dolphins’ past three head-coaching hires have been assistants. If Ross cannot lure Harbaugh but wants to hire an experienced coach instead of an assistant, appealing college coaches would include Texas A&M’s Mike Sumlin and Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.
Sumlin denied overtures from NFL teams last offseason, and Malzahn — when linked to the Cleveland Browns opening last offseason — insisted he was committed to staying at Auburn.
Some perspective on where the Dolphins stand after a decade of mostly mediocrity, or worse:
▪ They have just one winning season in the past eight years (11-5 under Tony Sparano in 2008) and are 60-82 over those eight seasons and this one.
▪ They’ve had only one playoff appearances in the past 13 years. The past five seasons, before this one, ended 7-9, 7-9, 6-10, 7-9 and 8-8.
▪ Since the 2001 season, the Dolphins have gone 103-119, compared with 169-53 for the New England Patriots, who have won the AFC East 12 of those 14 seasons.
On Monday, Philbin declined to say if he expects to return next year or whether his body of work warrants a fourth season.
“What my focus is … is the 2014 season,” he said. “What’s happened in the past certainly at some point is relevant, but right now what’s relevant is getting our team to play up to their potential for 60 minutes against the Minnesota Vikings. That’s really all that is important to me right now.”
He said he spoke with Ross on Sunday and “we’ll talk again a number of times throughout the week. We’re both disappointed in how the team performed in the second half.
“We just talked in general about the game. Anytime you are down by one point and you end up losing by 28, there were some things we didn’t execute well enough. We didn’t perform well enough in the second half. We were both disappointed. ... I think that’s understandable.”
Philbin said he’s not surprised that several players rose to his defense after the game because “we have an outstanding locker room. We have an excellent working relationship.”
None of the Dolphins’ seven losses are against teams that currently have a losing record. Asked if most of the teams the Dolphins lost to simply have more talent, Philbin said: “I don’t believe that.”
So has the team underachieved?
“I go into every game thinking we’re going to win every single game,” Philbin said. “Part of my job is to get the team to play up to their potential. So to that degree, certainly I feel like we could do better. There’s still more football to be played, and we have to see how this thing finishes out.”