Dolphins linebacker Raekwon McMillan had just hit Patriots quarterback Tom Brady - a perfectly legitimate play, mind you - when the referee working Sunday’s game said something that surprised him.
“Tom didn’t say anything but the referee said, ‘Stay off Tom.’ I put my hands up in the air and said ‘I got you.’”
From a big picture perspective, the referee’s comment isn’t surprising in the sense that the NFL likes to protect the quarterbacks, who are in some ways the league’s meal ticket. And there’s no bigger name in the league than Brady.
And McMillan didn’t seem angry about the referee’s remark, because NFL players generally know that quarterbacks will be protected.
Bill Vinovich was the referee for the game.
But McMillan wishes he had a photo of the moment.
“I’m still looking for pictures from the hit so I can hang it up and show my kids some day,” he said.
After playing only 22 snaps in the opener against Baltimore, McMillan played 36 snaps against the Patriots and was highly effective - to the point that Pro Football Focus rates him fifth among all linebackers through two weeks of the season.
The twist Sunday was that Miami often used him to set the edge instead of in the middle of the field in the traditional mike linebacker role.
“I never really played edge in my life,” he said. “I came off the edge a little bit last year but not too much. Getting my first bit of work at it this year. You are dealing with bigger bodies. I was dealing with them at linebacker but it’s an every snap thing dealing with big tackles [when you play on the edge]. We’re professionals; whatever they ask me to do, I go out and do it. I was excited to get on the field and play.”
Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham praised McMillan’s play Sunday but cautioned that his role could change this week at Dallas and that it wouldn’t necessarily include playing as much on the edge.
▪ Do Dolphins veterans ever wonder how it could have reached this point, how so many quality veterans could be purged? If so, none are saying it publicly.
“I control what I control,” Bobby McCain said, after noting the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade “sucks.”
McCain added: “I don’t make any decisions. You never know if it’s the day it’s your number [to be jettisoned]. We’ve got to perform and work our [butts] off and try to get a performance that will bring home a W and quiet the haters.”
Left tackle Jesse Davis said: “I feel like it’s kind of the norm now” for the team to trade productive veterans.
How deflating is it?
“I can only speak for myself,” Davis said. “After the game, I was really frustrated and hard to look past it and try to see something that’s not there. Give it a couple hours and you get that emotion out of you and don’t think like that and move forward. It’s difficult in the moment with those feelings, but then you gather yourself and say, ‘We’ll be OK.’
“This is your job. If you don’t do it, you’re not going to be here. They’ve shown they get rid of guys if they don’t do what they’re told.”
While some players might be demoralized by being on a team on pace for NFL futility records, others are happy simply to be in the NFL.
“The thing is, I just try to keep a positive mindset through all of it,” rookie defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “This is my dream job, so just try to embrace it and have as much fun with it as possible.”
Another example: Rookie guard Shaq Calhoun, asked about the adjustment of going from starter in preseason to inactive in the regular season opener, said: “It wasn’t [hard], because I was an undrafted free agent. I’m just glad I’m still here, to be honest with you.”
On Wednesday morning, Brian Flores announced the Fitzpatrick trade to the team - most players knew anyway - but didn’t explain it. He has felt no need to explain to the players why these trades are being made or the longterm vision. Such a candid discussion might be awkward, anyway.
“There are certain things, whether it’s the Minkah trade or Laremy Tunsil or Kenny Stills [trades] or dropping the ball or throwing an interception that some people treat them as taboo, but you just have to be open about it and put everything out there,” Ryan Fitzpatrick said.
▪ In a conversation with Pittsburgh media on Wednesday, Minkah Fitzpatrick declined to explain what went wrong with the Dolphins but said he’s fine doing whatever Steelers coach Mike Tomlin asks of him.
Tomlin plans to play him exclusively at free safety when Pittsburgh plays at San Francisco at Sunday. As colleague Armando Salguero reported, Fitzpatrick told the Dolphins he only wanted to play slot or boundary cornerback or both.
“I think right now it’s important to anchor me down because I’m learning an entirely new system,” Fitzpatrick said. “Once I learn the system more, I’ll be able to move around a little bit. It’s part of my game. It’s one of the reasons they wanted me around.”
▪ Sunday’s Dolphins-Cowboys game was cross-flexed from CBS to Fox - a move made when the schedule was announced in April - and will be televised in 21 percent of the country.
Here’s my piece on how Dolphins players reacted to the Fitzpatrick trade, the plan to replace him and a new development regarding what the Dolphins are getting from Pittsburgh in the trade.
Here’s my piece on the former NFL players union president calling the Dolphins’ dismantling “unethical and morally reprehensible.”