Joe Philbin struggling to maintain credibility in wake of scandal

Thursday February 20th, 2014

Joe Philbin vowed to fix the Dolphins' locker room, but he offered no details about those changes.
Michael Conroy/AP

INDIANAPOLIS -- In something of a surprise development, Joe Philbin took to the podium and spoke to the media to kick off the NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday morning. The beleaguered Miami Dolphins head coach talked, but said little, and he said it too late. Maybe months too late.

Philbin has survived with his job in the wake of the Dolphins' locker room bullying scandal, but his credibility problem remains. The facts are inescapable: He was either woefully unaware of what he called the "inappropriate and unacceptable'' behavior that was taking place in his locker room, or he was complicit in it. Both are damning in their own way.

Philbin can claim he was largely silent for the past three-plus months because the league's investigation into the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga was ongoing, and he didn't want to pre-judge the findings, which were released late last week. Ted Wells' report added some juicy details, but the basic facts of this sordid situation have been known since November. Philbin had a toxic locker room. Though he apparently never suspected a thing.

"Certainly I would have hoped that I would have noticed some of these things,'' admitted Philbin, when asked how he would handle the situation differently if he could turn back the clock. "If I had heard this type of language or these types of acts being done, I would have intervened immediately. ... I certainly wished I had seen some of it and I could have intervened quicker and perhaps it would not have grown to this proportion that it's grown.''

Philbin spoke for about 13 minutes at the start of the combine, making a three-minute the-buck-stops-here opening statement and then taking a volley of questions for the final 10. He was the first Dolphins official to entertain questions since the league's investigation was made public, and the music he faced from the media wasn't always pretty.

But the bottom line regarding Philbin's appearance was that the juxtaposition of him taking full responsibility for the Dolphins' workplace environment, and then in the next breath claiming he knew nothing that was going on in the locker room continues to make for a major disconnect. Philbin tried to strike a large-and-in-charge tone at the beginning of his press conference, but he seemed to almost shrink as the questions intensified and grew more specific.

Philbin said the Dolphins are "going to do things about'' their workplace environment, but he offered no details about those needed changes. He said he'd be "more vigilant, more diligent, more visible,'' with "a better pulse,'' but his words won't sound believable until his actions back them up.

His claims of having continued faith in his locker room and his coaching staff ring more than a bit hollow at the moment, just a day after Miami felt compelled to fire offensive line coach Jim Turner and trainer Kevin O'Neill, two members of his staff who participated in the offensive behavior toward players and at least one fellow trainer.

Even those dismissals apparently didn't come off smoothly or display a sense of organizational coordination, with O'Neill being allowed to accompany the staff to Indianapolis for the combine, only to be fired here and sent home. The Dolphins may not be in disarray, but they're still heavily in damage control mode.

"I don't know if there's a really good time to release somebody of their duties,'' said Philbin, defending the timing of Wednesday's firings. "Would it have been better maybe if he were not here? When we made a decision as an organization, we felt it was fair to communicate that decision as soon as possible and that's what we did.''

In perhaps his most candid moment, Philbin seemed to reveal some of his true feelings for Incognito, the Dolphins' guard and team captain who was at the heart of his team's locker room controversy. When asked how he could allow Incognito to be a leader on his team after a spring 2012 incident in which he sexually harassed a female Dolphins fan during a team golf outing, Philbin quickly corrected one detail.

"I didn't necessarily name him a leader,'' Philbin said. "There's a leadership council we have in place. The process is the players elect the players 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.''

Philbin's weakest moment came courtesy of the very same topic, when questioned about reports that he wanted to release Incognito after the golf outing incident, but was overruled by others in the organization. His answer tacitly admitted one of two things: He either didn't have the courage of his convictions to press the matter and make a strong enough case for Incognito's release, or he didn't have the power and pull as a rookie head coach to get it done. Perhaps since departed general manager Jeff Ireland blocked the move.

"I'm not going to pass the buck to anybody else,'' Philbin said. "I was part of it. That was the decision we made.''

And when I asked Philbin if he regretted not cutting ties with Incognito, he sidestepped the question and fell back on the organizational group-think that prevailed. "That was the decision we made at that point in time, and I stand by it,'' he said. "That's what we did.''

That's what they did all right, and the reputation and integrity of the Dolphins franchise has been tarnished in the aftermath of that decision. Going forward, you have to wonder how much damage has been done to the Dolphins' brand, and whether or not the team's recent locker room dysfunction will make it tougher to lure free agents. For a franchise that has been fighting to return to NFL relevance for more than a decade, Miami's task likely has been made more difficult by the controversy that engulfed its locker room, of which Philbin was glaringly unaware.

"I think we have work to do, like every other football team,'' Philbin said, going tone deaf toward the end of his session with the media. "I'm confident in the direction. I'm confident we're going to make changes necessary to improve the workplace of the Miami Dolphins and to improve our football team.''

Let's get real. Other football teams do not have the same work to be done as Philbin's Dolphins. Nowhere near it. In Miami this year, there's a rebuilding job of a whole different sort required. And it starts with Philbin regaining a sense of credibility, by keeping much closer track of what goes on in his own building.

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