The Miami Dolphins are a truly storied franchise.
In the early days, under head coach Don Shula, with quarterback Bob Griese at the helm and running back Larry Csonka powering through defenses, the Dolphins were the first team to win 3 straight AFC Championships. They won two of these three Super Bowls from 1971-73, and in 1972 became the first and still only team to go undefeated for an entire season.
Next came the famed Dan Marino years. During Marino’s 17 Hall of Fame seasons, he led Miami to the playoffs 10 times. While he was never able to take home a Super Bowl ring, this era of Dolphin football is probably looked upon by Fins fans as the peak of the franchise, even more so than during the Championship years.
Miami’s plummet over the last decade has led most NFL followers to believe that the team’s demise swiftly began after Marino’s retirement in 1999. In truth, Jay Fiedler took the Dolphins to the playoffs in the next two seasons with a pair of (11-5) performances.
But since 2001, the Dolphins have enjoyed a mere 4 winning seasons, making the playoffs only once, in 2008 with Chad Pennington under center.
Every time the Fins seem to be on the verge of breaking out of their decade-long slump, some sort of drama tears the team apart.
2013 appears to be no exception.
Ryan Tannehill has been the buzz word around Miami since showcasing a very impressive rookie season that had his name tossed around with Luck, RGIII, and Russell Wilson as the young QBs of the future. But it takes more than a quarterback to make a great team.
The Dolphins are still very much in the playoff hunt at (4-4), but the Jonathan Martin spectacle is the type of thing that can send a season into a tailspin. Martin left the team citing an emotional break-down, and has now come out and filed a grievance stating that he was bullied and hazed by Dolphins teammates.
In the wake of the controversy, the team has suspended (without pay) Offensive Lineman Richie Incognito for behavior detrimental to the team. Recorded voice-mails and text messages handed over to the NFL by Martin reportedly contain Incognito directing racial slurs at Martin amongst other things; including a claim that he coerced Martin into pitching in $15,000 to pay for a Las Vegas trip that he didn’t even attend.
Who is guilty or not guilty, and the ramifications of any decision made by the league office remain to be seen, but without question, the issue has created a storm in the Fins locker room and undoubtedly this will affect their on-field performance.
NFL history is littered with talented teams that never found success due to a lack of team chemistry (for example, any of the underachieving Cowboys’ teams that didn’t feature Aikman, Irvin, and Smith). And on the other side of the coin, we see less talented teams making it work because they’ve gelled together with a strong family bond. As recently as 2012 the Ravens took home the Lombardi, playing as a team unit against far more talented opponents.
Some want to point the finger at coach Joe Philbin, and in what appears to be more of a face-saving measure, Philbin accepted a great deal of the responsibility before suspending Incognito, but the reality is that in the NFL it is not the responsibility of the coach to manage locker room behavior.
Quite a few players have commented on the issue and one theme that comes up regularly is that the locker room belongs to the players, and that on most NFL teams the coach leaves locker room management up to the team leaders.
This makes sense really. While having a great coach is paramount to having a successful team, there is still a huge disconnect between players and coaches when it comes to non-football issues. Players respond better to other players as coaches can often be seen more as father figures than peers.
So where does Miami go from here?
Veterans on the team need to step up and get the locker room under control. It’s one thing to razz your mates and give a hard time to the rookies, but those who have been around the league for a few years surely know when a line has been crossed.
Midway through the campaign it’s not too late for Miami to get these problems ironed out and sneak into the playoffs, but it would be foolhardy for the club to toss aside Martin’s allegations as outliers.
The issue is not that a player (or potentially several players) broke the rules; the issue is – even professional athletes need to know that the guys to their left and right have got their back. While it may sound juvenile, it’s difficult to lay your heart, soul, and body on the line for a guy who calls you names and bully’s you past breaking point.