Fair or not, there’s an impression surrounding the Dolphins that owner Stephen Ross has too many people in his ear.
From Tom Garfinkel to Matt Higgins to Dawn Aponte to Dan Marino, Ross doesn’t lack for advisors on matters large and small.
But any suggestion that the decision on Joe Philbin’s fate belongs to anyone but Ross and Ross alone is patently false, multiple sources have told the Miami Herald.
There’s a growing belief around the league — beginning in the Dolphins’ own locker room — that Philbin will not be brought back for a fourth season after back-to-back blowout losses crippled Miami’s playoff hopes.
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But the move is still no slam dunk; Philbin remains in place and will coach the team Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Ross has always been supportive of Philbin in his public remarks. But even the coach must know he’s on shaky ground if his team misses the playoffs for three consecutive years.
Philbin acknowledged Monday that Ross expressed disappointment with the team’s performance in the second half of Miami’s blowout loss at New England.
In the next two weeks, Ross will surely continue to consult with those close to him, beginning with Garfinkel, the Dolphins’ CEO.
But at the end of the day, Ross will be the one who decides the course of the franchise.
These type of questions even exist because the Dolphins have a somewhat unconventional power structure, by league standards. There is no middleman. In essence, everyone from Garfinkel to Philbin to general manager Dennis Hickey reports directly to Ross.
Many teams have a team president or director of football operations who serves as a buffer, makes major football personnel decisions and helps weed out the personal motivations that inevitably crop up in any organization.
Garfinkel, hired before the 2013 season, might someday be that person, but he’s not yet.
He’s a business manager, first and foremost, and one who has earned Ross’ trust by helping broker the team’s stadium renovation deal with Miami-Dade County and by increasing attendance in each of his first two seasons.
But his background is in baseball and auto racing. He has had no other job in football than his current one.
Higgins, meanwhile, does have a background in football, but always on the money end. He was the Jets’ executive vice president of business operations and close advisor to owner Woody Johnson from 2004 to 2012 before teaming up with Ross at RSE Ventures, a sports and entertainment venture capital firm.
Along with Don Shula and Jorge Perez, Higgins is also a Dolphins vice chairman, and he is rarely far from Ross’ side in public.
Aponte, the team’s executive vice president of football administration, and Marino, an advisor to Ross and Garfinkel, appear to be further down on the pecking order, but still can get an audience with the owner.
There’s also former Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson, a Ross confidante who helped run the team’s general manager search in early 2014.
However, Peterson’s role with the organization has never been an official one, and some wonder how much sway he currently carries.
That leads us to perhaps the biggest question of them all: What is first-year GM Dennis Hickey’s role in this decision? Some teams allow their general managers to pick their coach. Not so in Miami, where Philbin and Hickey are co-equals in the internal hierarchy.
Late in Sunday’s embarrassing loss to the Patriots, Ross and Hickey privately chatted on the sidelines. It couldn’t have been about the weather.
Could Hickey survive the expecting coaching change? Unlikely, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Jeff Ireland survived Tony Sparano’s firing — by two years. But some believe Ross would want to wipe the slate clean, particularly if that’s what it would take to land a top name such as current San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
However, those who believe a trade for Harbaugh is not only likely but almost inevitable are off base. The speculation is that he would be Ross’ top target, but some doubt it would be a sure thing.
Potential stumbling blocks: the 49ers’ asking price, and whether Harbaugh’s wife, Sarah, could be persuaded to leave the West Coast.