When the Miami Dolphins were at their lowest in 2017 — in the middle of a five-game midseason losing skid and then a three-game disaster to end the season — coaches and players looked around the locker room searching for a leader who could step out, speak up, and show them the way.
And there was no one.
The veteran leadership that sometimes raises teams out of such a crisis was absent. No one had the personality nor the reputation to call for a rally to save the season. Ray Lewis didn’t walk through the locker room doors.
The Dolphins were bereft of an alpha leader who could join forces and change the course of things.
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Everyone knew it.
No one could do a thing about it.
This is coming out now because we’re in the autopsy stage of evaluating the 2017 Dolphins.
And the findings so far are stark because this team’s hopes for building on a bright 2016 died as much because of a lack of leadership as any performance reason. These Dolphins needed better discipline,better quarterback play, and more consistent play from the secondary, offensive line and linebackers.
And it needed leadership.
And unlike the other issues that can be addressed in an offseason, identifying, adding and empowering locker room leaders is hard to do. It’s not an offseason assignment like others, because leadership cannot be artificially introduced like, say, a guard can.
It has to happen naturally.
So we have no idea whether the problem will persist next season.
“I think it’s probably a work in progress for us,” coach Adam Gase said recently. “I know that was something that I’ve talked to a lot of guys — especially after the season — about. It’s never going to be the way we really want it and we have to keep talking about it until guys really take control of this thing.”
Wait, that’s not all right. Random “guys” cannot take control of anything.
Rookies cannot take control. Backups cannot be locker room leaders — although a couple on the Dolphins such as Michael Thomas and Walt Aikens tried. Coaches definitely cannot be locker room leaders.
“There are a lot of things I can do to make things the way we need it; but at the end of the day, player accountability, making sure that everybody is on the same page, you need your leaders to step up, you need them to be vocal, you need them to actually do their part in a leadership role,” Gase said.
And that is where the Dolphins missed Ryan Tannehill.
And where Jay Cutler tried to fill the void but ultimately failed.
And where Cameron Wake has never really been comfortable. And where Ndamukong Suh has improved to the point that he’s respected by the young defensive tackles and most of the defensive line, but he doesn’t have standing among offensive players.
This is where Kiko Alonso is too quiet. And Reshad Jones is mostly about letting his play do the talking.
This is where Lawrence Timmons was supposed to help … until he went AWOL and showed he could not be a part of the solution.
This is where Andre Branch was a big addition in 2016, but went into a shell when he was hurt and not performing well last year.
Jay Ajayi? Come on, he got traded because he was more concerned with his individual brand and statistics than the team’s welfare.
Kenny Stills? He’s thoughtful and he did all the right things with the younger wide receivers, but his disdain for the platform and the attention prevents him from assuming that mantle.
Jarvis Landry is another lead-by-example guy. And, unfortunately, that example is sometimes the wrong example — as his ejection in the season finale showed.
I would have expected Mike Pouncey to be that guy if anyone could be. But Pouncey, who basically runs the offensive line, couldn’t or wouldn’t expand his borders beyond that.
And what did that make the 2017 Dolphins? A leadership-starved team that lacked identity and enough peer pressure to force the fast and permanent correction of mistakes. So, there could be no rally.
Interestingly, the 2016 team had all those things. Remember that the playoff Dolphins of 2016 overcame a December Tannehill injury and actually won two of the next three games to finish the season.
But the Tannehill loss and the trade that sent offensive tackle Branden Albert to Jacksonville doomed the ’17 Dolphins on the leadership front.
Yeah, you read correctly … Brandon Albert’s absence meant there wasn’t that veteran wisdom that everyone seemed to follow.
Albert often made sure multiple teammates hung out and bonded away from the facility, but last year the Dolphins mostly all went their separate ways after work.
“We need our veteran leaders to step up and really take handle of this locker room this year,” Gase said.
We’ll see because everyone failed that assignment last season.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero