A CEO-type coach like the Dolphins’ Joe Philbin trusts in institutions such as the player development program and leadership councils to handle locker-room and other off-field issues. NFL players will tell you that approach will fail if those institutions aren’t strong
In the wake of the Ted Wells report on the Dolphins’ Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation, one of the most frequent questions seems to be: How did coach Joe Philbin not know what was going on?
We’ll get to the surprising answer provided by a former Packers player, but when I talked to five players around the league about what Philbin may or may not have known, I heard a surprising question in return from nearly all of them: “Where was the player development guy?”
Each NFL team has at least one person whose responsibility is player development. It’s a wide-ranging job that involves educating players, especially rookies, on what they will encounter on and off the field, lining up continuing education programs or internships to prepare them up for life after football, providing financial education and informing them about the player assistance programs available to them.
But according to the players I talked to, the best development directors also provide an even more valuable service: They serve as trusted friend and advisor when things are tough personally.
“Their job is to always check in with every single person,” said one NFL player. “And we know as players that whatever we say, nothing’s going to leave that room. That’s the guy we all go to when we have any problems. If they can’t help us [themselves], we know they’re going to get us the help we need with no repercussions.”
Some of the best player development directors are former players not far removed from the locker room. In Green Bay, former long snapper Rob Davis has been an integral part of the locker room—his office is right off it—since he retired in 2008. “Davis is vital in maintaining locker-room cohesiveness and overall player health,” reads the first line of his job description in his Packers bio. And according to a former player, that’s not just for show. “Rob is who everybody goes to,” the former Packer said. “Charles [Woodson] was always in his office, and so was Brett Favre. That’s what that guy is there for.”
In Seattle, the office of former CFL and NFL safety Maurice “Mo” Kelly is known to be packed with guys seeking guidance. Similarly, former standout tight end Marcus Pollard drew rave reviews even though he just completed his first season in the role with the Jaguars. “He’ll pull me into his office, he’ll shut the door and we’ll just have a talk,” one Jags player said of Pollard. “Coach Gus [Bradley] will even introduce you to him and say, ‘He’s the guy you go talk to if you have any issues.’ And he’ll tell Marcus, ‘I don’t want to know anything. I don’t need to know anything. You talk to him because he’s someone you should be able to vent to. He’s been in your shoes.’ He’s the guy we go to when we have any problems.”
Bradley, the former Seahawks defensive coordinator, addressed depression—which Martin admitted he suffered from even before playing for the Dolphins—with the players, and told them Pollard can help them.
“Football can be a job where you have anxiety, which can lead to depression,” the player said. “Coach Gus understands that's it's a process, especially when it comes to the art of competing. When you have anxiety, you can't compete, and the reason is you're so anxious you're so afraid to line up. When you mess up a lot and you keep trying to overcome that, it creates depression. When you have depression, you are not able to function. So it shuts you down performance-wise and as a person. Bradley learned that when he received the players from [former Jaguars coach Mike] Mularkey. He always stressed how we have to win, how we had to do this and that. That mentality didn’t allow us to function at our top capability.”
Not all respected player development directors are former players, or even male. Tina Tuggle’s department with the Titans has won two awards under her leadership. As with anything, background is not as important as how you perform your job.
Kaleb Thornhill, the Dolphins’ director of player development, was hired in 2010 when Tony Sparano was coach, and was inherited by Philbin. Thornhill (who could not be reached for comment), was a three-year starter at Michigan State but did not play in the NFL. He worked for the Lions in both football operations and player development before being hired by the Dolphins.
While Thornhill was certainly qualified to organize and provide assistance for the players, his role inside the Dolphins’ locker room is less clear. The first time he is mentioned in the Wells report is when Philbin instructed him to call Martin’s father after the player left the team. If Thornhill wasn’t keenly aware of the exploding situation, why not?
“It’s his job to check in and monitor,” one player says of a player development person. “ ‘How are you doing? Are you really doing good.’ They failed at that down there [in Miami].”
In a video posted on the team’s website, Thornhill was asked to explain his duties. He is obviously passionate about educating the players about life in the league and setting themselves up for after football—and he was praised by backup quarterback Matt Moore in the same video for that—but not once in the video does Thornhill say he is there to be a sounding board for the players or to assist them in dealing with the pressures that come with the job. From my discussions with players around the league, it seems that should be the first job in a good player development director. Another in a series of missteps by the Dolphins.
“It's his job to always check in and monitor,” one NFL player said of the personnel development person on his team. “’How are you doing? Are you really doing good?’ They do that all the time. That's their only job, and they failed at that down there obviously.”
So, should Philbin have known what was going on in his locker room?
When Philbin landed in Miami as head coach in 2012, his only NFL experience with the Packers under Mike Sherman and then Mike McCarthy.
NFL coaches basically come in two forms: the CEO-type, and the players’ coach. Both approaches can succeed. McCarthy, like Mike Holmgren before him in Green Bay, and Giants coach Tom Coughlin, among others, prefer to let the locker room be the realm of the players. They rely on their leadership council of six hand-selected players (captains are elected by the players) to give him the pulse of the locker room. Other coaches, like Andy Reid, John Fox, Gus Bradley and Bradley’s mentor Pete Carroll, think it’s just fine to be in the locker room with the players, trying to personally gauge the mood.
It’s no surprise, given his background, that Philbin worked his job in a similar fashion to McCarthy, right down to forming a leadership council with veteran players. One of the problems Philbin encountered in this mess was that he allowed the leadership council to be voted on by the players, possibly because Philbin was new to the organization and didn’t want to make a misstep in identifying leaders. Incognito was the elder statesman on the Dolphins’ offensive line last season, so he was effectively elected by default.
“I didn’t necessarily name him a leader,” Philbin said. “There’s a leadership council that we have in place. The process is that the players elect the players that they want to be on the leadership council. Out of respect to the process that’s how the votes came in, and he was on the leadership council.”
A former Packers player explained the leadership council dynamic with the CEO-style coach, and how it relates to Philbin and the Dolphins.
“McCarthy's theory was, ‘You have your leaders in the locker room, and if it's not that serious, then I don't need to hear about it; you guys deal with it,” the player said. “Obviously if somebody really had a problem or things really got out of hand, you could bring it upstairs. But in the meantime if there's an issue, we handled it, and [McCarthy] never had to address it because he never heard about it. For [Philbin] to not know about these things is very, very valid. The coach is on the field with you during practice, but you don’t really see them after practice. And guys aren’t going to let things get out of hand in front of the assistant coaches either. It’s up to the players to police themselves.
“McCarthy was hands on [in the locker room], until he and Charles [Woodson] resolved whatever issues they had and leaders were formed. Then it became [the leadership council]. I can see where [Philbin] didn't know about it. Something goes on and you try to keep it away from your coach. It's not a code, but nobody really [complains] to the coach if it's not that serious. What's worth telling? I can't really imagine a player saying, ‘Jonathan Martin says he's being picked on’ to the coach. If [Martin] comes to you about being picked on, then obviously we will handle it in the locker room. [McCarthy] always said conflict is good because it gives you a chance to handle some stuff and grow.”
The biggest mistake Philbin made may have been allowing Incognito to be on the leadership council. It was basically letting the fox into the henhouse.
1. Raiders coach Dennis Allen was asked if the team’s 2014 starting quarterback was on Oakland’s roster. “I don’t know the answer to that yet,” he said. Translation: Hell no. If the coach can’t tell you after a full season with Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin whether either has the job heading into this offseason, he’s admitting that he’s waiting for the next guy. Allen is an extremely talented defensive coach. He knows what a franchise quarterback looks like. He knows he doesn’t have one.
2. Packers coach Mike McCarthy provided one of the more honest answers in Indianapolis when asked about the recent performance of the Green Bay defense. “We have to do a better job of utilizing our personnel," McCarthy said. "We’ve had a situation with our defense where there’s a lot of change, a lot of moving parts, and we have to do a better job of planning for that and training that way starting in April. [Rookie end] Datone Jones needs to be on the field and being utilized. We have a lot of creativity in our defense and a lot of schemes, but the reality is we didn’t get to a lot of it this past year. We’re taking too much home with us after we’re playing games. At the end of the day, coaches are responsible for building a plan for players to be in a position to be successful and we have to make sure that we are emptying our guns each and every week.” With his words, McCarthy basically put defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff on alert. Even if the Packers are again beset by injuries, McCarthy wants that planned for in April and for the defense to continue to be attacking even when the roster is thinned.
3. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert brought up a point about this draft class that related to something we wrote about last month, the dramatic rise in the number of underclassmen. “Even though it is the most talented group that I have seen, I am also worried that it is probably the most immature group,” Colbert said. “A lot of young players aren’t ready for this. I don’t think they understand until they are on the field. It’s easier to go from senior year [in college] to the pros than as juniors.” Since the new CBA in 2001, the number of underclassmen in the draft has gone from 56 to 102.
4. Want to know why the Cowboys are one of two teams (along with the Steelers) already over the projected $130 million cap, and consistently dealing with cap issues? This quote from Stephen Jones says it all: “Our philosophy over time has been that what you know is better than what you don’t know.” That means the Cowboys would rather retain their more expensive veteran players who may not live up to their salary than just go with cheaper younger players. That may have been OK in previous years, but it’s burned them with the flat cap since ’11. No wonder the Cowboys haven’t finished better than .500 the past four years.
5. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier fanned the flames of character concerns about end Jadeveon Clowney when Spurrier was asked by NFL Network about Clowney’s work ethic. “He was okay,” Spurrier said “It wasn’t like Marcus Lattimore [the former Gamecocks running back whose work ethic Spurrier apparently admired]. You know, every player is a little different. His work habits are pretty good. They’re not quite like Lattimore, a Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys, but when the ball is snapped he’s got something no one else has.” No one questions Clowney’s talent. And his work ethic may still be good enough to harness that talent. But this is the type of stuff the NFL will be digging around about, especially for a potential top overall pick.