This was an especially loud Miami Dolphins victory — noisy like brass and banging cymbals. It shouted that this team must be respected now as an NFL playoff contender. It was the sound of 70,000 fans celebrating, and then a locker room full of jubilant players doing the same.
Decibels pound everywhere when you win a game 37-0 over a good San Diego Chargers team. When quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a career-best day and the defense pitches its first shutout since 2006, strength coalescing, everything comes together like a fist does.
All of this surrounding party noise, but I’ll remember the quiet about Sunday most. I’ll remember sitting alone with coach Joe Philbin in his small, cinder-block office at Dolphins stadium an hour or so after the game.
All you heard was an air conditioner’s soft hum, and the sound of a man grieving his father.
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“As recently as last May he was at the local senior center volunteering washing dishes,” Philbin said softly with a small smile, emotion putting a slight wobble in his words. “He’d done that for 20 years. He was a great, great man.”
Paul Philbin, 93, passed away Friday evening at home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, near Springfield, where Joe was born and raised. Having your parent for such a wonderful, long time doesn’t always make the saying goodbye easier.
Professional football can seem so important, but a death in the family matters more.
On Sunday, Philbin watched his team play its best all-around game of his three years in Miami, just two days after comforting his mother, Mary, and seeing his Dad for the last time.
He had been away from the Dolphins for two days, both important practice days.
“I kind of just showed up for the game,” the coach said Sunday.
Said Tannehill: “The team had his back.”
We forget sometimes that the people we cheer and boo in sports bleed and ache like all of us do. We hear a lot about people in sports getting trouble, doing wrong. We don’t hear as much when athletes or coaches deal with real life and the pain it can bring.
Paul Philbin used to coach Joe and his brother in Little League baseball and continued coaching for some 20 years after his sons outgrew the team. Last year, out of the blue, Philbin got an email about his father.
“It was in the midst of all the Richie Incognito stuff,” he said, meaning the Bullygate mess the coach and his team endured.
The email was from a man who had been coached by Philbin’s father around 40 years earlier, mentioning what a positive influence he had been and telling Philbin how proud he should be of his father. The team was called the Indians. Joe kept the email.
Late last week, a day before his Dad passed away, “I read him that email,” the coach said.
Some might recall that Philbin had arrived in Miami dealing with another loss in his family, this one more sudden, more tragic. The coach’s son, Michael, 21, had drowned in the Fox River in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in January 2012, just weeks before Philbin, a Green Bay Packers assistant, was hired by Miami.
It was impossible for Philbin to not recall losing his son when last he saw his Dad, the boy’s grandfather.
“There wasn’t a lot of frills in the room,” he said. “The one thing on my Dad’s bed was a picture of a his grandson Michael.”
Philbin always and consistently has preached family first to his team. Maybe that’s why the team rallied around him the past few days.
A pregame moment of silence Sunday for Paul Philbin showed the gentlemen on the stadium’s big screen, smiling and wearing a Dolphins shirt.
Afterward, his players dumped a bucket of ice water on their coach, the macho gesture of love. He entered his postgame news conference with his Dolphins shirt and khaki slacks soaked.
Club owner Stephen Ross had presented Philbin with a game ball in his father’s honor. Philbin held it in his left hand in his office.
“I’ll be going back this week and taking it with me,” he said.
Philbin will give the game ball to his mother at his father’s funeral on Thursday. He will miss a couple if more days of practice but be back before this coming Sunday’s game in Detroit.
“Two wonderful parents,” he said. “Still have one parent alive and well and another one up in heaven. I was so lucky to have two great parents. Nobody could have had better ones.”
Several players credited the emotion of supporting their coach with Sunday’s resounding performance.
“We dedicated the game to Coach,” defensive tackle Jared Odrick said. “We used that emotion. We channeled it. It motivated us all week. We were able to use that in the right way. We wanted to do this for him and his whole family.”
Said Tannehill: “We wanted to play well for Coach.”
That they played well would be an understatement.
Tannehill’s 125.6 passer rating was a career best, hauling his season figure above 90. The defense forced four takeaways and limited the high-powered Chargers to 178 net yards of total offense. The special teams played well.
It was the most complete victory we have seen in the Philbin/Tannehill era, one that put the season record at 5-3 at midseason, the playoffs very much a possibility.
Miami has now won three games in a row and is one play (the last-second loss to Green Bay) from being on a five-game win streak.
Not so long ago the Dolphins were 1-2 and coming off a bad home loss to Kansas City. There was speculation Tannehill might be benched. Philbin was on top of every media list speculating which NFL coach might be the first to be fired.
Now, everything feels different.
Tannehill’s progression seems to have hit fast-forward. The Dolphins pass defense is the best in the league, not “among” the best but statistically No.1 in terms of opponent passer rating.
“We’re kind of scratching the surface,” Philbin said. “We haven’t put it all together yet.”
Said tackle Branden Albert: “We can play with anybody.”
Safety Reshad Jones, whose return from a suspension has really boosted the defense, was asked if Sunday’s win made a statement to the rest of the league.
“I would hope so,” he said.
There was another statement going on.
It was about family. That means your immediate loved ones, but it can also mean your football family.
Joe Philbin needed time away to support his family.
On Sunday, his Dolphins found the best way they knew how to do the same for their coach.