INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been on the mind of every NFL coach, whether they admit it or not. With the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal in full viral mode for months, and the recently-released Wells Report painting a picture of full-on, multi-level franchise dysfunction, other NFL teams have looked to reinforce their ideals regarding the right of players to feel that they're in a safe and sane environment.
During Thursday's media crunch at the scouting combine, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin obviously had to address several questions about his role in, and lack of knowledge about, what was going on in his own locker room for two years. Philbin alternated between talking tough and giving vague answers about how he was going to change a culture that coaches can't really alter. Any real change in a team has to come from the players themselves, and even some of the most control-freaky coaches understand that.
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has had to deal with his own share of disasters from a personnel sense -- after all, nothing that happened between Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito rose to anywhere near the level of the Aaron Hernandez story -- said that when it comes to maintaining an environment where people feel they can grow and develop, communication between coaches and team leaders provides the bridge between two disparate worlds.
"I think the way we’ve done it is... we’ll continue to do it the way we’ve done it. I’ve been in constant communication with our team on a daily basis, our captains and so forth we address any things that come up. Obviously this isn’t a new story. This has been out there for quite some time along with a lot of other ones. What we feel is appropriate to talk to the team about, we’ll talk to the team about."
New Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell comes from the Tony Dungy tree. He's a thoughtful, quiet man who thinks of his players as people, and expects them to act accordingly. It's a different enforcement level, and some see Caldwell as a bit of an empty suit from a personality perspective as a result. But when it comes to things breaking down like they did in Miami, Caldwell is pretty sure his paradigms will prevent that from happening.
"I don't think it'd be right for me to draw direct parallels," he said Thursday. "Now if you ask me what my philosophy is on certain things, hazing and things of that nature, since I've been coaching... one of the things that's extremely important to us is that we understand that the guys that come into our locker room that are there to help us and to help us win, first and foremost. So we really make certain that we try and make certain that hazing does not exist in that atmosphere.
"So that's the thing that we look at and talk about and profess early on. When I have an opportunity to meet with our team on April 7 will be the first time that I see a great majority of them together, that'll be something obviously that we will emphasize just in terms of our philosophy overall."
That said, what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room... unless it festers to the point where it blows the whole team apart. Coaches are not generally welcome, unless they're celebrating with their players following victories. Locker rooms are the ultimate player sanctuaries, so to assume the responsibility lies with the coaches alone is a foolish (though popular) conceit.
"Ultimately, we're responsible for everything in that sense," Caldwell concluded. "We're responsible for our wins and our losses. We're responsible for the conduct of our staff. We're responsible for our players as well. Obviously, that's how we're judged so we have to make certain that we understand that and therefore do everything that we can to make sure it's going in the direction in which we like."
Denver Broncos head coach John Fox has it easy in one regard -- when you have a player as universally respected as Peyton Manning, players will follow his lead, and the only time Manning is going to want to embarrass you is when you've just run the wrong route. Still, Fox sees the human side of the equation, which is the best thing any coach can do.
“What I try to remind our staff ... this is somebody’s son, and if you have children and understand that, you do try to create that environment. It’s combative game, a tough game, there’s been some correlations sometimes to the military, [but] you are dealing with young people. You’re trying to help them grow as people, as well football players, that’s the way I approach it. You’ve always had to remind yourself you are dealing with people and that’s not easy. It’s a challenge, and you just do the best you can and take the most respectful approach.’’
In the end, respect is the optimal term in this discussion. If the coaches create an environment in which players respect what the franchise has built enough to defend it, things like what happened in Miami won't happen. If coaches respect players enough to listen, and respect their own intuitions enough to override what may be going on, a tone is set.
One thing's for sure -- as Fox said, whatever happens in that locker room will eventually come out... if there's anything even remotely noteworthy about it.
“I think one things that’s happened is … it’s become way more public," Fox said. "I’m not pointing fingers [at the media], but kind of. I think that’s really the difference. Twenty years ago there wasn’t nearly the coverage there is today. Right, wrong or indifferent, I think workplaces are different. You try to create ones with respect, understanding, people come from all over the place, I don’t care what kind of work you’re in.
"So I think it’s just become more public, and we have to be aware of that. Questions you ask in the draft process, how guys talk to each other, some 'do's' and 'don’t's'. We’re just trying to evolve and get better as organizations and people, I think that’s a challenge to all of us.’’ And in that case, the public eye may be the best and most valuable mirror.