Perception is not reality, but it passes for it in the meathead world of sports, and we can all be guilty of confirmation bias when viewing things, inclined to find the facts that reaffirm what we already believe instead of changing our belief with new facts: So you see this indecision at the very top of the Dolphins organization today, stacked atop more than a decade of failures, and the leaders of this organization look like obvious and bumbling fools who should arrive together at work in a clown car.
How is it possible that general manager Jeff Ireland, one of the most unpopular figures in the history of South Florida sports, still has his job?
After six years of mess?
After getting coach Joe Philbin a bunch of players Philbin didn’t use, Ireland’s 2013 draft picks playing fewer downs than any draft class in the league?
After that staining Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin absurdity that Philbin handled a lot better than Ireland as Ireland hid silently in the shadows?
Are these people idiot losers?
Where’s the leadership here?
These are the angry questions the raging customers are asking today, but there is an answer as to how all this is is possible. And, no, it isn’t because they are incompetent fools. It is because they are hopelessly human.
A few years ago, owner Stephen Ross put Ireland in an impossible, unfair position. Ross has admitted to botching this and says that he didn’t know what he was doing at the time as a new owner. He forced Ireland to choose between his new boss/job and his friends and mentor. Ross wanted to go court Jim Harbaugh to be his new coach, but couldn’t do so by himself, not knowing enough football or his organization, so he had to bring his football guy. And Ireland got on that plane to court Jim Harbaugh. Ross was so naive at the time he actually thought agents would keep this quiet.
All it did was fracture the entire relationship Ireland had with his long-time friend, Tony Sparano, and his mentor, Bill Parcells — and with a betrayal so public and embarrassing that Ross tried to fix it by throwing a bunch of money at a sour Sparano, who hadn’t actually done much to earn it other than be betrayed in a humiliating fashion.
Ireland chose self-preservation over his friends. Ireland chose his family (four kids, two with special needs) over his friends. Ireland chose his one big shot at this kind of job of a lifetime over his friends. A lot of people would have done that. Not a lot of employees getting their big chance would have said, “Um, no, new boss, not getting on that plane.”
A lot of people would have made the mistake Ross did there, too, needing someone in his organization to come with him and talk football with Harbaugh. If Ross goes with someone outside the organization other than Ireland, then he has lost his coach and his GM once it leaks. All of this is easy to see now, with the clarity of retrospect, but “treasured experience” is just another phrase for “I made huge mistakes.”
Ireland doesn’t speak with Sparano and Parcells anymore. The friendships are broken. During the last season of this dysfunction caused by Ross, even the wives of Sparano and Ireland didn’t speak, Sparano’s wife asking that her skybox be moved so she didn’t have to be near that family. If Ross admits he is wrong for how he botched that, and if Ireland showed allegiance to the organization and Ross (and, yes, himself) over his friends, that buys you something with an owner who fancies himself loyal. It buys you, it would appear, more time and rope than most owners would give.
Ireland would be fired already in most other cities with his recent track record. The business can be cold that way, and the rich people who own these teams got rich often making cold decisions. This emotional world can make those decisions difficult because two games ago — two games! — it looked like Ireland would save his job. The last two games — two games! — don’t change how good or bad of a general manager he actually is. He’s the same general manager either way. But in a lot of markets with different owners, he’d be fired for those last two games.
Funny thing, expectations. The Dolphins and Cowboys and Bears view their 8-8 as a calamity. The Jets douse their coach in Gatorade for their 8-8 and give him an extension.
Ross has spent a lot of time gathering information the past few days. This is actually wise even as it looks indecisive, and even as the customers and media howl outside the gates at team headquarters. Good leadership always risks unpopularity, and he can not listen to the howling customers, even though the howling customers demand to be heard and satiated.
The act of collecting players is inherently unscientific, and winning can be random and lucky sometimes, but the general manager job is actually pretty easy to evaluate. The Dolphins have six years of information on Ireland. Not just the players he drafted, but the players he didn’t. So the Dolphins have six years of notes and evaluations that they can cross-reference against players Ireland didn’t take, and how well or poorly they did elsewhere. This is more information by a lot than we, the howling public, have. And it is also a more accurate reflection, and more representative sample, of how well he did his job than merely the Dolphins he selected.
Every player Ireland has ever evaluated has a documented record, and Ross has had enough time (in the past six years, not the past six days) to see how right or wrong Ireland has been. Even being unscientific, even though it is questionable how much Magical General Manager X can see that Fired General Manager Y can’t, the results are the results, and six years of free agent and draft evaluations is enough to determine whether someone should be fired or not.
Those are the facts.
But what about the emotions?
Emotions sometimes don’t care about facts.
And if Ross blames himself with guilt about the beginning with Ireland, and prides himself on loyalty, he might indeed have more facts than we do, but he is going to see them a hell of a lot less clearly than we do as well.