This Conference Championship Sunday will be the NFL’s greatest day of football this season but it could be somewhat less enjoyable for Miami Dolphins fans because one exceptional player — Vontae Davis — is playing well for someone else after the Dolphins unceremoniously marched him off their roster.
Another one that got away.
But the fact Davis, drafted by Miami in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft, has become one of the league’s best cornerbacks after he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts could serve as a valuable lesson for the Dolphins.
That Davis is playing a position of Dolphins need in a postseason game could perhaps give pause this offseason when the local team makes important roster decisions.
The Dolphins — specifically former general manager Jeff Ireland and current coach Joe Philbin — were in agreement when they traded Davis in 2012. They traded the player, in part, because they were worried about his maturity and about a drinking habit so acute he once showed up late and drunk to a practice.
And since Philbin became coach, he has made or endorsed numerous decisions to break ties with good players who either had off-field problems, had volatile personalities, or were in some way deemed too outspoken.
The list of such players includes Davis, Brandon Marshall, Karlos Dansby, Sean Smith, Chad Johnson, Phillip Merling, Davone Bess and Reggie Bush.
Some of those decisions were undoubtedly the right call. Some were not.
(Both must be acknowledged in fairness because the same folks who generally complain Dansby and Marshall are no longer on the team aren’t quite so vocal when one mentions Merling, allegedly involved in ongoing domestic-violence issues, and Bess, who had some sort of meltdown last year, aren’t around).
But right or wrong in those decisions, Philbin has gained a reputation as a coach who doesn’t want players who rock the boat in any significant manner.
The irony is Philbin obviously allowed Richie Incognito to be on his team for a couple of years, but that’s another story.
The fact is that after Dansby and Bush voiced strong opinions in 2012 that didn’t agree with the coach’s thinking, they were either not re-signed or traded before the next season began. The fact is Marshall was traded months after Philbin was hired not because of the receiver’s talent but because he was outspoken and volatile and was fighting borderline personality disorder.
Marshall also had numerous run-ins with the law and the Dolphins were worried his litany of troubling episodes with family and teammates would continue.
So the Dolphins made hard decisions that removed loud or troubled players from the roster. Great. But those same decisions also removed in many instances invaluable talent from the roster.
And this is where nuance becomes necessary.
It’s not exactly right to say the team made a mistake by letting Marshall go. Miami didn’t simply blow it on Vontae — although I wrote at the time it was curious to give up on such a young player.
The team made hard choices. And some look bad now in retrospect while others that worked rarely get mentioned.
I bring all this up because this offseason the Dolphins will be forced into more difficult calls on players who are very talented but also are sometimes a pain in the neck.
The team must make a roster decision on Mike Wallace that isn’t all about his whopping salary and good-but-not-great production. The team must make a roster decision on Rishard Matthews that has nothing to do with his modest salary. The team also must make a tough decision whether to re-sign Jared Odrick.
Wallace, Matthews and Odrick all had notable run-ins with coaches last year.
Wallace privately but routinely complained about the amount of passes coming his way throughout the season until that dissatisfaction finally went public in the season finale when the receiver threatened not to play if he wasn’t going to get the football and Philbin called his bluff by benching him.
Players know this happened. Half a dozen have told me they will be watching to see whether Wallace “gets away with acting up” in the future or whether Philbin will make a firm stand and get rid of an unhappy player.
So the Dolphins must weigh bringing Wallace and his enormous talents back versus damaging Philbin’s credibility in the locker room.
It feels like there’s no right answer on this one but the Dolphins have to come up with an answer anyway.
Matthews got into an argument with an assistant in front of several other players during a meeting — not exactly uncommon in the NFL, by the way — and he was scratched from the lineup the final two games as a result.
So will the Dolphins keep a player Philbin doesn’t love on the roster, knowing the youngster might blossom into an exceptional player … but also knowing Matthews might repeat what happened at the end of 2014 in ’15?
No easy answer.
Odrick and Philbin got into a quarrel on the sideline during the loss to the Baltimore Ravens. All the parties later insisted everything was resolved, but Odrick was fined and will soon be an unrestricted free agent, so a decision on him is looming.
Do the Dolphins pay a talented, free-spirited player on a line needing to gain talent rather than lose it? Or do the Dolphins view Odrick as player who acted out too publicly and must be replaced?
All three men have talent. But none is certain of being on the team next season because of issues that go beyond talent. Teams make these type of decisions all the time.
The Vikings must make an Adrian Peterson decision, someone will make a Ray Rice decision, the Cowboys years ago made a Dez Bryant decision (one the Dolphins blew).
Vontae Davis going from Miami castoff to a star for Indianapolis in a conference championship game is proof there are no easy answers.