Joe Philbin: ‘Mentally, We’ve Got to Have a Tougher Team’

The Dolphins coach, a one-time prison guard, is known as a buttoned-up disciplinarian. But part of making his team more focused means he’s starting to cut loose. Just look at him gyrate in that white tuxedo
Publish date:

DAVIE, Fla. — Cameron Wake pointed at his head coach, who was standing about 15 yards away on the Dolphins’ practice field. “Look at him right now,” the most veteran player on the Dolphins’ roster said. “His shirt is untucked, which is not like him maybe three years ago. He’s starting to branch out a little bit. Swag is a new word in his vocabulary.”

No one would ever accuse Joe Philbin of having swag, especially after the recent revelation that he didn’t know who rapper Dr. Dre was before taking his team to see Straight Outta Compton. But that trip to the movies, and the changes that Wake pointed out, are all part of a concerted effort by the notoriously buttoned-up coach to, well, loosen a few buttons. Entering his fourth season in Miami, and still searching for his first winning record, Philbin knew something had to change. So he reduced the team’s practice load; he now starts every team meeting with music; he makes jokes; he even donned a white tuxedo and a white top hat and danced around the stage and rapped during the team’s variety show. (Maybe he does have swag after all? Just see below.)

Just like the head coach, the Dolphins also went through a makeover of sorts after losing three of their last four games to miss the playoffs last season. Receiver Mike Wallace, who was benched following a sideline altercation late in the year, was traded to the Vikings, and the team made a big free-agent splash by signing Ndamukong Suh. Miami also hired former Jets general Mike Tannenbaum as the executive vice president of football ops. But Philbin’s transformation could prove to be the most important.

With a three-year playoff drought under his watch, and a roster that appears to be loaded with talent, he knows what’s at stake. Sitting down with The MMQB in his office in mid-August, he admitted matter-of-factly, “I hope it works.”

VRENTAS: There seems to be a lot of optimism around the team this year. Is this the most talented roster you’ve had since you’ve been with the Dolphins?

PHILBIN: I do feel better than I’ve ever felt about our entire organization, and the locker room, the guys that we have down there. I feel confident with the guys we have. I’m convinced we have very good football players on our team. So I’m anticipating the season with a lot of confidence. But I haven’t really sat back and said, “Yeah, we’re much better than we were in ’13 or last year; we’re better here than there.” It’s really more about getting this group to come together as a team.

VRENTAS: The last few years, you have been a couple games away from the playoffs and then down the stretch…

PHILBIN: We haven’t played as well. Fair.

VRENTAS: How do you change that?

PHILBIN: We’ve looked into a lot of different things. We’re going to change our weekly schedule in-season. Part of it has been physical. Maybe we’ve done a little bit too much. Talking to some of our strength and conditioning people, and we’ve added a sports science department, and learning that everything is cumulative. Even what we are doing today can impact us six weeks from now, and so on down the road. We have probably sliced back a little bit the amount of work, the load that we are putting on players. You still have to go out and practice and work. We’re not going to eliminate that stuff, but we’re going to be smarter about what we’re doing from a physical demands standpoint. But I do think we have to have better mental toughness to finish the season off. Mentally, we’ve got to have a tougher football team. We’ve talked to the team about it.

VRENTAS: How do you create better mental toughness?

PHILBIN: We have hired a peak-performance coaching staff that we are now working with. And it’s more of an approach than anything. We’ve been talking to our guys about being a tougher football team and a more together football team. In my mind, those are the two things that are going to get us to the championship level. I think we have good enough players, I think we have a good staff, and I think we have all the resources that we need to be successful, but I don’t think we’ve been as tough, mentally, as we have to be. Our discipline, our execution when things get tough, has to improve. We’ve been practicing a multitude of situations, putting our guys on the field in practice in challenging, difficult positions from a game-situation standpoint. Hey, it’s fourth-and-2 with eight seconds left, or we’re down by 10 with eight minutes left, so let’s go practice that. One offense is playing two-minute, and the other offense is trying to protect a lead. So we’re trying to expose them to as many different situations we think are going to pop up during the course of the year and see them execute under fire a little bit. We’ve gotta be more together, better camaraderie, better chemistry, which I do feel like we have.

VRENTAS: When you say peak-performance staff, is that sports psychologists?

PHILBIN: Yeah. We dabbled in it a little bit the year before, but now we have a staff. Somebody is here full-time working with the players. Some of it is individualized, some of it is group, and sometimes we’ve done team things together. We’ve invested in that, and I think it’s paid dividends already.

VRENTAS: How will you change the in-season schedule?

PHILBIN: We’re going to go back to Tuesday as the off day. Last year we had Monday off, and practice Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. We had a couple days that were harder than others, so we weren’t killing ’em, but I think it added up. Mondays we’re going to come in and we’re just going to watch the film and lift, and we’re going to have Tuesday off, so there are going to be two days when they are not on their feet. I’ve done a little bit of a comparison between the schedules for this year and last year, and it’s probably about an hour less on the field this year than last year, per week. So again, that should add up over time to hopefully get them to be fresher. Part of it is mental, too. The players’ mentality and mindset was that they were in the building a lot more. They’re going to be in the building a little bit less this year.

VRENTAS: You talk about the team being more together. What were some of the times last year when you felt like the team wasn’t together?

PHILBIN: When things went south a little in December. We played some decently good games in December, but we just didn’t follow through and finish things well enough. There were some minor distractions we had that hurt us inside—guys who I didn’t think bought in the whole time from start to finish. We had good guys on the team, they weren’t bad people or anything, but when it got tough, we just didn’t buckle down together and see it through. As a coach, that’s really the thing that was the most frustrating.

VRENTAS: Did you start to question yourself as a coach?

PHILBIN: Not question, but it’s hard to be as confident as you’d like to be. Because I don’t think football is overly complicated. I know there’s blitzes, and there’s this and there’s that. But it’s still a team game, and you’ve got to get guys that care about the team first and foremost, and you start from there. I just think at various points, at some of those difficult points in December, we had some guys straying off on their own a little bit. That makes it hard to be confident in the direction of your team at a very critical point in the season. I didn’t necessarily question myself, but I was questioning if we had the toughness to make a real serious run. We were in position to make a real serious run, but we didn’t.

VRENTAS: There seems to be a lot more big-picture talk around the team this year. You’ve talked to the team, and you’ve talked publicly, about coming to the Dolphins to win championships.

PHILBIN: Going back to my assistant coach days or my coordinator days, one of the strengths I had—if I had any—was the ability to relate to the players, and I think maybe as a head coach early on I got too busy. There are 90 people right now. And you’ve got a lot of things you’re dealing with—the trainer, the this, the that—which you never dealt with when you’re coaching a position or coordinating an offense. So early in training camp, I just told them why I was here. I’m here to win championships. I didn’t come here to be 8-8. [Team owner Stephen Ross] didn’t hire me to be 8-8. The fans deserve better than 8-8. And every decision I make is based on us winning a championship. Now, you might not agree with every decision I make, but that’s part of being in the position you are in. Mr. Ross and I talk about a lot of things, and I don’t always agree with everything he says, but if he says, “Hey Joe, I want this done,” then it’s done. Because I respect the chain of command. I just told them more about me, I told them all about my background, growing up as a kid.

In the past, when we went on the road, I used to go through every little detail. This time, and that time, and do this and this. But when we went on the road to Chicago, I just told them, look, there are four or five things that are important to me when I travel. Use please and thank you. Please be on time. We’re going there for one reason, to win a football game. You guys have the itinerary, and you can figure the rest out. You’re a pro. If you can’t get to the meal on time, you’re probably not going to play Cover 2 right. I’m trying to simplify things for these guys, and trying to give them why we’re doing the things we do, which I think is important. When I was more involved in the teaching of football, the nuts and bolts of it, I always felt I did a good job of telling the players why, so then maybe they understood better. So as a head coach now, I’m trying to get a little bit better connection with the guys and give them the why, and try to simplify their job a little bit, too.

If you can’t get to the meal on time, you’re probably not going to play Cover 2 right. I’m trying to simplify things for these guys, and trying to give them why we’re doing the things we do.

VRENTAS: Your reputation as a coach is that you are very serious and unemotional. Is that accurate, or is there a side we don’t see?

PHILBIN: I’m very serious about what I do, but I don’t take myself too seriously, I don’t think. I was brought up a certain way. I believe in sportsmanship, I don’t believe in trash talking. If I don’t have something good to say about somebody, I try to say nothing. But I am very passionate about winning championships. Now how I demonstrate that? It might be a little more understated. I probably come from a family that’s understated. I just like to do my job. I was taught that if you’re good at what you do, you don’t have to tell anybody, you just do your job and contribute. The great teams that I have been on, that I was fortunate enough to be a part of, whether it was college or pros, that’s really how it got done. Good people, hardworking people, unselfish people. And you have fun. I have fun in a different way. But yeah, I can see why people say I’m maybe a little serious or understated. I do have a little bit of a sense of humor, though.

VRENTAS: Stephen Ross announced before last season ended that he would be bringing you back for 2015. Why do you think he had that confidence in you, even after three seasons without the playoffs?

PHILBIN: I think he believes in me as a person, as a coach. I think he believes in the things that I believe are important, the things I talked to him about when I got the job, why he hired me in the first place. He’s been very supportive of me. And I told Steve, “Look, I want you to bring me back not because you like me, but because you think I can win a championship here. This is not personal, this is business. Don’t bring me back unless you believe in me, and you want me to be here.” I only want to be coaching somewhere where somebody wants me. And I never asked him to—he actually told me well before he announced it, that he wanted me to come back. I never asked him for an extension. When I was in Green Bay, I think I got promoted three times, and I just kept working. Whoever I was working for came down to my office and asked me if I was interested in the job, so I said, “Yeah, sure.” I think your job should speak for itself. I was obviously delighted that he felt that way. Hopefully it will pay off.

VRENTAS: Ross announced publicly that you’d be back after a Week 16 victory over the Vikings at home. When did he tell you?

PHILBIN: I think it was right before we went to Denver [in Week 12]. He called me and told me. I was surprised, because I wasn’t even thinking about it. You’re in the middle of the season, and you’re not worried about it. Most of my career in colleges, I never had multiple-year contracts—you didn’t care about that stuff. I was really surprised. I said, “Wow,” and we talked, and we said we’d talk after the season and we’d figure something out and we’d go from there. [In March, the Dolphins gave Philbin a one-year contract extension through 2016].

VRENTAS: I was in London for your Week 4 game against the Raiders last year, and that proved to be an interesting week with Ryan Tannehill. He had struggled a bit in the first three games, and then in a press conference you didn’t explicitly say he would be your starting quarterback that week. But that game seemed to be something of a turning point for him and how well he played the rest of the year?

PHILBIN: He played a lot better starting then, and throughout the season. Again, I could have said it a little differently, perhaps better. I had communicated to Ryan right away that he was going to be the quarterback, but it really was a matter of semantics, because I didn’t want to get into: Is Koa Misi starting this week? Is Reshad Jones starting this week? Is this guy starting that week? I probably could have handled it better. My policy now is: if they’re on the depth chart, they are starting until you have been told otherwise.

VRENTAS: In retrospect, do you think it lit a fire in him, for whatever reason?

PHILBIN: It did work, because he definitely did play much better after that, but it did create a bit of a firestorm without a doubt. In fairness to him, it was a new offense, so our system had changed schematically, and that takes a little time. It wasn’t that he had played terribly or anything like that. We had not played well up in Buffalo [in Week 2], we had gotten beaten there, and then against Kansas City we had some opportunities in that game to win. We ended up losing it by 19 points, but we were in their territory in the fourth quarter, and we had a chance to take the lead. He and I had visited and I wasn’t really expecting the question. I don’t remember what I said after the game, but I was probably a little upset. It kind of took on a life of its own a little bit, to be honest with you.

VRENTAS: Entering his fourth season, is there one change in Tannehill’s game you have seen?

PHILBIN: I just think he’s more relaxed and playing faster. I just think maybe the game slowed down for him a little bit. I always talked to him about decision-making, accuracy and playmaking, making plays when we need him. He’s gotten better in all three of those areas since he’s been here, each and every year, and we’re obviously hopeful that continues this year. He’s a real hard worker; he’s serious about what he does and it’s paid off. All of the hard work is paying off for him.

VRENTAS: With some of the events of this preseason, including The Punch in the Jets’ locker room, we’re talking again about the role of NFL coaches in locker rooms. That’s something you’ve confronted in your career as a head coach.

PHILBIN: That’s fair.

VRENTAS: What you have learned about your role in the locker room over he past few years, since the bullying incident in 2013?

PHILBIN: The locker room, I tell the players all the time, is the most important room in the building. You guys are more important than the coaches. They’re not coming to see me; they’re coming to see you guys. You’ve got to have great communication with the players. It’s probably more important than it’s ever been. I do the bed checks, by myself. It’s something I started after last year. Some guys are snoring and they’re out, but it gives me a chance to see the guys in a different setting. Nobody wants to come up here and sit on the couch, because I’m the principal or whatever.  You have to have some discipline, some structure, some rules, but at the same time, you have to be able to relate to these guys and get them to do what you want them to do without having to use a hammer, you know what I mean? Like, one summer I worked in a jail as a correctional officer. There were a bunch of us, maybe six or eight guys in college at the time. One guy was always writing up these prisoners—this guy is a no-good S.O.B. And I never had a problem. It was, “Hey guys, it’s time to get in the cell.” (Pantomimes turning a key). There’s a way and an approach to it so hopefully you can alleviate some of those problems, if I’m making any sense. Like, some of the guys have thought I’ve been a little punitive over the years, because I’m kind of like, if you are two seconds late, you have to do this. I’m not turning a [blind] eye to anything, but I’m not as concerned about collecting as much of their money. It was always what the CBA allowed, it wasn’t like I was pocketing any money or anything, but on the first day of camp, I told them, “This is the money I could take from you, and I’m only going to take 10 percent of it the first time.” Now if you do something wrong again, as I said to them, repeat mistakes are a problem, so if you do something twice, don’t come crying to me. Just stuff like that. Look, guys, I’m not here to see if you are six seconds late, I’m here to win a championship. So let’s get on board and do things the right way, treat people the right way, say please and thank you, and be a good person, be a decent person, tell the truth, and let’s get going, let’s play football. That’s really been the theme, as opposed to you’ve got to be here at this point, and you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that. We still wear a coat and tie on the road, so they give me a little bit of a hard time, but I’m not changing that. I’m sticking to my serious side on that. On the way to the game, anyway. They got me on the way home. They can wear sweats or something.

You’ve also got to get the right guys in there. Like Greg Jennings is someone who I wish I had earlier as I look back on things. Because he knows me, and I know him. You’ve gotta have your kind of guys. And some guys can be successful other places, and that’s OK. And some guys aren’t my cup of tea, and I’m not their cup of tea, and that’s OK. Some guys want a coach that’s more active on the sideline, and I have no problem with that. But I know that I have been coaching for 32 years, and I’ve had some success, and I know how I can do it can work with the right guys. It’s not the only way to do it, but it’s the way I’m going to do it. I can’t be somebody else. I’ve got to be serious and boring and all that stuff. But it’s not going to work if I have to try to coach like some other guy. I can’t figure that out. It’s too hard. This game is not that hard, I really don’t think it is. I have to be myself, and I’m gonna be myself, and I think that’s good enough. I think it will work—with the right guys. Some guys it just doesn’t work with. And that doesn’t make them bad guys. They could be good guys for somebody else, they could be great for somebody else, and that’s OK. I’m fine with that.

VRENTAS: That speaks to some of the offseason moves you made, trying to build a roster with the guys you think it can work with.

PHILBIN: [Nods]. Yep.

VRENTAS: Even in your fourth year as a head coach, you’re still adjusting your approach. That has to be one of the hardest transitions, going from a coordinator to a head coach?

PHILBIN: It is different. Like in Green Bay one year, I was the tight ends coach, so I had four guys. The next year I was the offensive line coach, and I had 11 guys. Then I became a coordinator, and I had 27 guys. Now you’ve got all of them, and then you have to deal with all the other people. So it’s different. Like I always said, when you are an assistant coach in the NFL, you don’t even need a cell phone. You don’t have to have one. But when you are a head coach, you need a cell phone. Unfortunately.

VRENTAS: Where were you a correctional officer?

PHILBIN: That was back in Springfield, Mass., where I grew up. A long time ago. Just the experience of trying to get guys to do things the right way if you can get a starting point of why. Again, that starting point is totally different than it is for a football team, but it’s about getting people to do what you want them to do and getting a lot of people to buy in. That’s one of the things that we're talking about with being more together as a football team. We’ve all got to buy in. If we’re all wearing a coat and tie, I don’t really care if your coat and tie is going to be different from mine. I wore a blue blazer and a gray pair of pants. That’s what I do. But you can wear a fancy suit. I don’t care. What do they say, fresh, or whatever the guys say these days?