Joe Philbin botched this. The Miami Dolphins head coach publicly mishandled the most important position on the field this week, undermining his starting quarterback and needlessly causing a distraction for his team. This is a big deal because it involves his leadership and judgment, and calls into question both.
NFL coaches get fired for their won-lost record first and Philbin — 16-19 into his third Miami season — is on shaky ground by that measure alone, likely needing to make the playoffs for the first time to save his job. Other factors are weighed, too, though, and this one will sit ugly on the wrong side of Philbin’s ledger.
“Steve doesn’t get it,” a club source who is a friend of owner Stephen Ross told me Thursday. “He doesn’t like it. He’s shaking his head. He is not happy right now.”
(I should say this is the same source who in 2011 told me coach Tony Sparano’s job was in peril just weeks before Ross made an in-season coaching change).
A year ago during the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying scandal Philbin came off as an unaware, blinders-on coach whose locker room had turned into a frat house behind his back.
Now, oppositely, Philbin is hands-on in his latest mess. He addressed his team Thursday morning and wisely owned up to the distraction he had caused, saying he should have handled it differenly. Even Tannehill, normally so conservative and composed in his public comments, was angry enough to not play nice with the coach on Wednesday.
“Obviously it doesn’t feel good,” said Tannehill. “It creates a bunch of stir, a bunch of distraction in the locker room – mostly from the outside coming in and guys having to deal with the distraction of it. So it’s not a good feeling.”
He was asked is he wished his coach had handled it differently.
“Honestly, yes,” he said.
It is extraordinarily unusual for an NFL starting quarterback to call out his head coach and accuse him of creating a distraction. This has created the sort of headlines that, once again, should cause the rest of the league to wonder what the heck is going on down there in Miami.
You don’t decline to publicly name your starting QB unless it’s an open competition or you are undecided. If you refuse to name your starter even though you know who it is, you are simply mishandling your job. Tannehill took first-team snaps in practice this week and Philbin privately told him he would start Sunday vs. Oakland in London. But the coach remained publicly noncommittal. That’s strange. That’s unnecessary. That’s dumb.
Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Andrew Luck – their coaches can be mum on their QB starter and it isn’t an issue. But Tannehill is less established and has been struggling. When his coach is noncommittal, all it does is erode public faith in Tannehill, shake his confidence and beg the media to make bloom a quarterback controversy.
How a smart coach should have handled this:
“We expect more from Ryan and he does, too,” Philbin should have said, or something like it, “but our faith in Ryan is strong. He made big strides from his rookie year to last season, and three games into this season is not enough indication that progress won’t continue. He’s our guy.”
Through three games Tannehill has a 74.1 rating, 56.5 completion percentage and 5.0 yards per attempt. Those are bad numbers. He has had receivers drop too many passes and his protection against sacks still isn’t great. But those are still bad numbers. They seem even worse because the league-wide passer rating of 90.6 is the highest ever through three weeks.
Nobody is saying Tannehill mustn’t be better starting Sunday, or that he is beyond criticism. Miami is on a 1-5 skid dating to late last season, and it is his urgent responsibility to lead a turnaround. He isn’t beyond benching if poor performances and losses continue to mount.
Not three games into a season, though! To do that now would be a premature decision based on panic.
The Dolphins needed Joe Philbin to convey that calming message this week, that leadership, instead of playing the lead role in creating this unnecessary mess.