Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Staying the course with Joe Philbin the right choice

Miami Dolphins assistant coach Darren Rizzi reacts with head coach Joe Philbin during an official review in the third quarter as they play the Minnesota Vikings at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014.
Miami Dolphins assistant coach Darren Rizzi reacts with head coach Joe Philbin during an official review in the third quarter as they play the Minnesota Vikings at Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

One of the Dolphins’ most entertaining home victories in a long while Sunday was made Pyrrhic when Miami officially was eliminated from NFL playoff contention based on other results, and so the death watch on Joe Philbin’s coaching future continued into his postgame news conference.

“I’m not worried about that one bit,” he insisted.

He left the room having every reason to worry.

Less than a minute later, he did not.

Franchise owner Stephen Ross waited for Philbin as he left the room and privately informed the coach that he would be back next season, ending all of the doubts and the contrary speculation as suddenly and emphatically as their team had just beaten the Minnesota Vikings, 37-35, on a blocked-punt safety with 41 seconds left in regulation.

The conversation was brief. It ended with a handshake. “Thank you,” Philbin was overheard to say.

And that was that. All at once Dolfans clamoring for change were left to complain about the lack of it as the status quo was affirmed.

“You don’t have to ask me anymore,” Ross then told a jostling media throng. “There’s one year left on his contract, and he’s coming back.”

I give Ross credit for doing not what would have been widely popular but what he believed was right. It was a reasonable endorsement of modest progress rather than knee-jerk change for the sake of it. Rather than hitting the reset button and starting all over yet again.

“It’s frustrating we didn’t make the playoffs,” said the owner. “But what’s that they say? Patience is a virtue.”

It can be. Even when not popular, it can be.

At 8-7 the Dolphins’ record will have again improved under Philbin if Miami beats the New York Jets here next Sunday, a reasonable expectation. No playoffs is its own undeniable damnation, but I agree with Ross that Philbin merited a fourth season, and that firing him was not deserved. I’m told Ross endorsing Philbin’s return did not depend on the final two games of the season, but that Miami winning Sunday, and in dramatic fashion, might have hastened the announcement by a week.

I would make next year playoffs or bust and make clear to Philbin he will likely be coaching for his job in 2015. I think Ross will do just that, based on his several references to Philbin having one year left on his contract. But I also see enough progress in place to give him that opportunity.

First-year general manager Dennis Hickey has done a good job thus far, including a very positive draft. He deserves to be back but might have been unfairly swept away with Philbin in a house-cleaning as any new coach might have demanded to bring in his own GM or to have that authority himself.

The prospect of who might have replaced Philbin is another great unknown of too little concern to too many fans. There was no assurance that outgoing San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh would have wanted to come here; the opposite seemed increasingly true. I also get a kick out of the recent clamoring for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, as if getting him were a given as well, or would have come with a guarantee.

Philbin is not easy to embrace. He has the stoic effervescence of an actuary. But none of that means he isn’t a quality coach. Bill Belichick is a stone-faced winner. Rex Ryan is a gregarious clown about to get fired. Personality aside, somewhere between overselling Philbin or unfairly damning him, I’d simply suggest giving him a fourth season seems reasonable.

It was interesting to watch Ross on the sideline, near the Dolphins’ bench, late in the first half as the club prepared to honor 1970s defensive tackle Manny Fernandez at halftime as its latest Honor Roll inductee. I wondered what was running through his mind right then.

Behind him stood so much of the club’s history, former great players in aqua jackets getting ready to take the field for the ceremony. Larry Csonka was there. Dan Marino. Nearly a half century of better days he hasn’t been able to replicate stood behind Ross as he watched the current team.

Ross, 74, stood with his hands in his pockets. Those pockets run about $4.8 billion deep, but it hasn’t been enough to buy him a playoff team. Not yet.

The first half was expiring with Miami down 17-7, staring at its third consecutive December loss. Scattered booing kicked the Dolphins off the field. An anti-Philbin “Joe Must Go!” chant bloomed briefly then dissipated into the afternoon air.

I wondered if Ross heard it, or cared.

The owner knows how popular a coaching change might have been, but he also is aware that the unpopularity of “stay the course” sometimes requires as much daring, in its own way, as change. In any case, the obligatory noise and debate over Philbin getting another season misses the larger point that any NFL head coach ultimately is a passenger on a ride being steered by his quarterback.

The coach is riding shotgun, but it’s the QB with his hand on the trigger, capable with his performance of protecting or professionally killing his coach.

Miami didn’t rally to win Sunday because Philbin had a smart second half, just as it didn’t lose the previous two weeks because Joe got suddenly dumb. Miami won Sunday because Ryan Tannehill had what might have been his best game as a pro, throwing for 396 yards and a career-best four touchdown passes.

He led the Fins on scoring drives on every second-half possession.

He performed in a way that allowed even a skeptical fan to see not just a “game manager” or an OK quarterback, but rather one who is still ascending and who is capable of something close enough to greatness.

The Tannehill we saw Sunday is capable of making Joe Philbin look very good and capable of making Stephen Ross’ stay-the-course decision look a lot smarter in a year than it might look to many of you at the moment.

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