Mike Holmgren once famously said that as a head coach, you've got about 10 years with a team before your message starts losing its effect. Eventually, you're trying to solve different problems with the same solutions, and coaches tend to run out of gas. There are those who have transcended that theory—Bill Belichick is today's most obvious example—but it tends to rung true in most instances.
In the case of Joe Philbin and the Miami Dolphins, it's starting to look as if a decade might be far too long.
This offseason, the Dolphins engaged in a high-profile spending spree, adding former Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (and making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history), signing former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron and acquiring Saints receiver Kenny Stills in a trade. Adding those pieces to a team that already had a solid defense and a rising quarterback in Ryan Tannehill was supposed to help the Dolphins compete for the AFC East title against Belichick's Patriots, or least having a great shot at a wild-card berth. It would be the first playoff appearance under Philbin, who was hired before the 2012 season and became Miami's seventh coach in eight seasons.
So far, that has not happened. After a 17–10 opening win over a reeling Redskins team, the Dolphins were upset by the Jaguars in Week 2 and absolutely demolished by the Bills, 41–14, on Sunday. The problem wasn't just the lackluster play, but also the general sense that the Dolphins are not a united team—it seemed at times that the Dolphins' loss was predetermined. The Bills were looking to exact revenge after their Week 2 loss to the Patriots; the Dolphins appeared barely interested.
When you have that much talent and you're not playing up to it, the general response is to blame the head coach, and in Philbin's case, the blame is legitimate. When he was hired in January 2012, the former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator was riding high on Aaron Rodgers' brilliance, and moved to the top spot after Jeff Fisher turned the Dolphins down to head to St. Louis. Philbin had never been a head coach before, but the thought was that his player-friendly style would resonate, and that he'd work well with owner Steve Ross and then-general manager Jeff Ireland.
Instead, Philbin has appeared at times to conform into a common strain of coach—the great coordinator who's in over his skis when it's time to manage the big picture. He appeared oblivious to the bullying scandal that was happening in his own locker room, and when the Wells Report was released in February 2014, Philbin appeared to go out of his way to establish a gravitas he really didn't possess.
"We're going to look at every avenue," he said at the 2014 scouting combine. "We're going to uncover every stone, and we're going to have a better workplace. I promise you that. I'm going to make sure that happens... I have to do a better job. I'm going to look at the way we educate, they way we communicate, the way we talk to one another."
Philbin's tone then suggested a man who was trying with every fiber of his being to become an enforcer, but tough talk only goes so far. It's just not in his nature to be that, or do that.
After the loss to Buffalo, he sounded much more like a man who was out of answers.
"I’m the head coach—I told the team after it certainly starts with me, the accountability, and the responsibility to get the team to perform up to their potential," he said Sunday night. "It was not a good performance so certainly I take responsibility. We’re a team, so players and coaches, we need to do a better job, both of us. It starts with me. It’s really simple. We’ve got two ways to go. We can start saying, ‘You’re the problem, I’m the problem, he’s the problem, we’re the problem,’ or, ‘We’ll work together and come up with some solutions and play better football.’ That’s really where we are as a team. I don’t think it’s very complicated.”
But Philbin admitted that his options were limited when asked for specifics on how to turn it around.
"I wish we were playing better, but we are what we are right now. I’m going to take a look at the tape and look at everything we’re doing and make decisions that can help us become better quicker. There’s no magic potion. If there was a magic potion I would have brought it out earlier."
Last season, Philbin's "magic potion" was a vague threat to bench Tannehill after the third game of the season. The Dolphins had just been slammed by the Chiefs, and Philbin was trying everything he could to get things back on track. As it turned out, a trip to London to face the Raiders was the ticket—the Dolphins returned home after a 38–14 victory that was the impetus needed for Oakland to fire coach Dennis Allen.
This year, Philbin's team will head back to Wembley Stadium with the same hang-dog look, and no threats left in their coach's quiver. They're facing a Jets team reeling from their own embarrassment at the hands of the Eagles on Sunday, and if things don't go well, Philbin might very well be the coach looking to clean out his desk after a London trip.
“They have to travel across the ocean like we do,” Philbin said. “We’ve got to have a great week of preparation. It’s real simple—we’re either going to stick together or not. We’ll see what kind of a team we have. I don’t think it’s much more complicated than that. We’ve got good players, we’ve got a good staff, but we haven’t demonstrated that, certainly well enough in these first three football games for anyone’s satisfaction.
"We’re going to find out.”
Indeed they will, and the answer could lead to a lot of changes for a franchise looking for solutions just about everywhere.