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Dolphins Scandal: Examining the Fallout of the NFL’s Investigation

How the Miami owner’s pursuit of Tom Brady, Sean Payton and Deshaun Watson impacts coach Mike McDaniel and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Plus, the fallout across the league and what’s next.

After a week like this, all we can do to keep from crying is laugh. So let’s try and do a serious breakdown of the NFL’s conveniently timed (what Deshaun Watson thing?) punishment of the Dolphins without shooting milk from our noses.

This investigation, understandably, has a great number of tentacles. Tom Brady is involved, and with Brady being involved, the Patriots, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft are involved. The Buccaneers, Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles are involved. Sean Payton is involved, which means the Saints are also involved. Brian Flores is involved. Owner Stephen Ross’s reputation has been seriously damaged. The team has been stripped of draft picks, which makes GM Chris Grier and new coach Mike McDaniel also tangentially affected or involved.

First, the particulars: The league stripped the Dolphins of their 2023 first-round pick and 2024 third-round pick, fined Ross $1.5 million and suspended him through Oct. 17, and fined limited partner Bruce Beal $500,000, in addition to banning him from all league meetings this year for one of the most blatant violations of the NFL’s tampering policy in league history. Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a release announcing the punishment that it was “unprecedented [in] scope and severity. I know of no prior instance of a team violating the prohibition on tampering with both a head coach and star player, to the potential detriment of multiple other clubs, over a period of several years.”

Sean Payton and Tom Brady

The Dolphins had "impermissible communications" with the agent for Payton and Brady.

The six-month investigation found that the Dolphins had “impermissible communications with quarterback Tom Brady in 2019–20 while he was under contract to the Patriots. Those communications began as early as August 2019 and continued throughout the 2019 season and postseason.”

It found the Dolphins “had impermissible communications with both Mr. Brady and his agent during and after the 2021 season while he was under contract to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Those discussions began no later than early December 2021 and focused on Mr. Brady becoming a limited partner in the Dolphins and possibly serving as a football executive, although at times they also included the possibility of his playing for the Dolphins. Both Messrs. Ross and Beal were active participants in these discussions.”

It found that “The Dolphins had impermissible communications with Don Yee, the agent for New Orleans Saints’ head coach Sean Payton, about having Mr. Payton serve as Miami’s head coach. Miami did not seek consent from New Orleans to have these discussions, which occurred before Coach Payton announced his decision to retire as head coach of the Saints. Following that announcement, Miami requested permission to speak to Coach Payton for the first time, which New Orleans declined to grant.”

The findings also downplay a stunning liner note, which we’ll expand on below. As you’ll remember, the Dolphins were accused by former coach Brian Flores of tanking games. The findings reveal that “on a number of occasions during the 2019 season, Mr. Ross expressed his belief that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record. These comments were made most frequently to Team President and CEO Tom Garfinkel, but were also made to General Manager Chris Grier, Senior Vice President Brandon Shore and Coach Flores.”

Let’s roll up our sleeves and dive in.…

Has Brady’s reasoning for his faux retirement collapsed?

A person with knowledge of the situation said Brady is not subject to any additional fine, investigation or suspension despite his role in the scandal. Moving on, we can safely say that the quarterback was right when he said he was lying to the media “90% of the time.” Brady said on his podcast at the time of his retirement: “I’m gonna spend some time [with my family] and give them what they need ’cause they’ve really been giving me what I need the last six months to do what I love to do,” he said in the interview. “I said this a few years ago, it’s what relationships are all about. It’s not always what I want. It’s what we want as a family. And I’m gonna spend a lot of time with them and figure out in the future what’s next.”

This, alongside a lengthy Instagram statement announcing his retirement plans, seemed to be a convenient shield blocking us from active talks that were happening between Yee, Payton and Brady (who all share the same agent) and the Dolphins. Brady’s father, Tom Sr., said at the time that it was the “media” forcing his son to announce a retirement when perhaps Brady was trying to walk the tightrope between colluding with another franchise and simply having exploratory talks about life beyond football.

Regardless, it feels like Brady has been pulled back into the mire a bit, despite being a supporting cast member here. After removing himself from the Patriots, a past that involved team scandals such as Spygate and Deflategate, Brady seemed to remove himself from a legacy that could be contorted into a somewhat controversial or marred career. The flagrancy with which he allegedly tried to exit the Buccaneers and reinstate himself into a rival franchise with a head coach of his choosing must be taken into consideration.

What will Brady say publicly about this?

What did the Buccaneers know, and when did they know it?

Now that we know of a secret back-and-forth between Brady, the Dolphins and Payton, it makes the performances from Bruce Arians and Buccaneers GM Jason Licht all the more fascinating at this year’s scouting combine.

Arians, when asked about the finality of Brady’s retirement decision, said that Brady had “slammed the door shut to me” with emphasis on the last two words. He also joked (joked?) that Brady might be wavering “just to have his name out there.” Licht, meanwhile, said “I don’t have any information to suggest that he is coming back” but added “He’s Tom Brady. If he wants to come back, we’ll welcome him back.”

This was March 1, a month after the alleged communications took place.

Could Arians have been sore about his alleged role in confrontations with Brady? As we’ve heard in the months following Arians’ retirement, their relationship did not end well. Was Licht on stage sitting on this massive piece of information, or was he really in the dark about all of this happening behind the scenes? Do the joint practices the Buccaneers and Dolphins share this week turn icy at all?

Did Payton retire to coach Dolphins?

At the end of January, Payton said of his coaching future (emphasis mine): “I don’t know what’s next. That might be coaching at some point, but probably not this year. That’s not where my heart is. ... I don’t know what’s next, and it kind of feels good.”

I think it’s fair for the cynic in all of us to reup our initial stance on the Payton retirement, which was that he was leaving a team with a diminishing window of competitiveness in order to hit the free-agent market at a time of unprecedented broadcasting and high-end coaching salaries. Regardless of whether the Brady-Dolphins deal worked out, he was in a win-win position. The NFL found that discussions between Payton, Yee and the Dolphins began before Payton announced his retirement.

Payton is one of the best coaches in recent NFL history, but regardless of whether he “retired” in order to set up a coaching tenure with Brady and the Dolphins, or whether the timing and the alignment of the facts simply makes it look like he did, this is one of the biggest coaching scandals in recent NFL history as well. Here is a person who regularly asks players to give their health and safety for a greater good. Here is a person who, while asking those players to do so, is potentially engaging in a plot that leaves a roster he recruited high and dry while he absconds to Miami for a better situation.

So, what about the tanking?

Remember the whole genesis of this thing? Flores, who was fired as Dolphins coach Jan. 10, 2022, sued the NFL less than a month later. Among the explosive allegations, which covered issues of both racial discrimination and competitive integrity, Flores said Ross offered him $100,000 per loss back in 2019.

The league’s six-month investigation concluded, basically, that Ross was just kidding. From their findings: “One such comment is a claimed offer by Mr. Ross to pay Coach Flores $100,000 to lose games, as to which there are differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context. However phrased, such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer, nor was the subject pursued in any respect by Mr. Ross or anyone else at the club.”

Notice what it doesn’t say: Mr. Ross never said this.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross

The investigation concluded Ross' offer of $100,000 per loss wasn't intended to be taken seriously.

It would be interesting to hear how the NFL arrived at these conclusions, given that, in the same release, the NFL said that Ross “expressed his belief that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record. These comments were made most frequently to Team President and CEO Tom Garfinkel, but were also made to General Manager Chris Grier, Senior Vice President Brandon Shore and Coach Flores. These comments, which he took to be suggestions that he lose games, troubled Coach Flores and led him to express his concerns in writing to senior club executives, each of whom assured Coach Flores that everyone, including Mr. Ross, supported him in building a winning culture in Miami. After this, Mr. Ross no longer made any such comments to Coach Flores.”

Put yourself in the shoes of Flores. As a Black coach, you know with a fair amount of certainty that this opportunity will be your only chance to be a head coach. You have likely heard through the grapevine that your owner already tried to pilfer Brady from the Patriots and has a knack for getting involved. The owner fired the previous head coach because he wanted to rebuild, which was a sentiment well known in league circles at the time, and now he is making comments—jokes or otherwise—about how he’d really, really like it if the Dolphins had a higher draft pick next year.

Editor Gary Gramling and myself recently finished an investigation into the Browns under Hue Jackson’s tenure. Added on to Jackson’s contract was a bonus pool that awarded him additional compensation for a higher number of early round draft picks. It’s undeniable that these kinds of pressures, whether expressly written out or subtly joked about, create a complicated political environment for coaches who are terrified of losing their jobs. Coaches need to win to stay employed. They need to lose, in some respect, to appease their owners. They have no certainty that losing will keep them employed when the draft picks are good enough to help them win.

The NFL, in not punishing the Browns for the Jackson allegations, has essentially blessed this practice as O.K. It’s the closest place a team can come to tanking without crossing the line. That said, the NFL had to really strain itself here to chide Ross for making offhand comments about tanking while not actually accusing him of tanking.

What did the Dolphins tell McDaniel before he took the job?

As Kyle Shanahan’s top run-game designer, McDaniel was going to have opportunities in the coming years. The 39-year-old is still relatively young for the role but chose the Dolphins in a move that ultimately could define his coaching career. McDaniel was hired in February 2022, a month after the NFL found the Dolphins were having impermissible contact with Payton.

It’s fair to wonder whether a highly sought-after coaching candidate would have agreed to the job if he’d known he’d be stripped of critical draft picks that could ultimately help him fix a potentially complicated situation at quarterback (a situation made even more complicated now that Tua Tagovailoa knows with absolute certainty his franchise was hunting for a high-profile replacement). It’s also fair to wonder whether McDaniel would have wanted to sign up for being the daily spokesperson to the media of a franchise engulfed in scandal. Ross has emerged with a brutal reputation from this investigation as a desperate, over-involved owner whose henchmen will conduct business how they see fit, inside or outside the scope of the rulebook. While some of this was already known in NFL circles, will the magnitude of it all bother McDaniel?

Would Tagovailoa ever demand a fresh start?

Think about the quickest ways to destroy a promising young quarterback’s career, and think about how the Dolphins have approached Tagovailoa. They paired him with a coach who swapped out offensive coordinators as if they were bad Tinder matches. They created an environment where Flores was so concerned about competitive balance that he would regularly bench Tagovailoa during his rookie season. They regularly made attempts to find his replacement, which Tagovailoa and his connections undoubtedly got wind of during the process (we’re also downplaying Miami’s trade-deadline pursuit of Deshaun Watson, which involved Ross’s desire to have Watson settle his lawsuits before coming to Miami). This is a playbook on quarterback mismanagement, had the playbook been given several cycles of anabolic steroids and beefed up to the point of unrecognition. Never in the NFL has a player’s career been so artfully and grandiosely mismanaged. We’re not saying Tagovailoa would have turned out any differently, but how are the Dolphins supposed to reasonably expect him to give his health and safety for them? What a monumental ask that is for McDaniel to manage.

Tua Tagovailoa

The Dolphins regularly made attempts trying to replace Tagovailoa, including with Brady and Watson.

Brady is a free agent after this season and could walk right into Dolphins headquarters and into a full-time position as a starting quarterback and GM-type player, and Tagovailoa knows that.

What did the Dolphins think was going to happen?

Here’s the most fascinating aspect of this: The Dolphins tried to aggressively pursue the greatest player in NFL history and one of the greatest coaches in recent history, who were both under contract with other teams. What would a trade package involving Payton, who is under contract with New Orleans through 2024, have even looked like? In addition, would they have had any remaining capital to pry Brady from Tampa Bay?

Arians had joked at the combine that it would take “five [first-round picks]” to get Brady out of Tampa Bay. Would the Dolphins have had the means to acquire Brady and Payton? Were they using the ownership position for Brady to subvert the process? It seems like an incredible risk for Ross.

Now he winds up without the coach he wanted, without either of the quarterbacks he wanted and he has righteously pissed off the greatest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick, whom Ross was sick of getting beaten by for so many years already. Sometimes, in a game of three-dimensional chess, you win. Sometimes, you wind up suspended, down a cool $1.5 million and exposed as the closest thing to a cheater as the NFL is willing to admit publicly.

How does Goodell calm a band of uncontrollable billionaires?

Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam signed and fully guaranteed a contract for Deshaun Watson, who, according to NFL arbitrator Sue L. Robinson, had a pattern of conduct “more egregious” than any before reviewed by the league. The Dolphins tried to subvert league rules to steal Brady from both the Patriots and the Buccaneers. The Saints and owner Gayle Benson should be upset. The Kraft family in New England should be upset, too. We haven’t even tapped into the wild card, Raiders owner Mark Davis, and the broiling Jon Gruden lawsuit. And Daniel Snyder hid from congressional subpoena in international waters.

To be a fly on the wall of the next gathering of owners.

It’s moments such as these that I wonder if even Goodell himself knows how impossibly huge his job is. He has to be the public relations face of a band of rich people who don’t feel hemmed in whatsoever by any rule assigned to them, be it by the league, the FBI, the constitution or congress. At what point do all these wildly divergent interests and egos clash in a way that ultimately hurts the product? What does Goodell do when that happens?

Has the NFL figured out a better way to dump news?

We used to point out how, without a hint of irony, the league would drop major, unflattering news deep into quiet summer Fridays with the hope that it would disappear. As one smart agent pointed out to me in a recent conversation, the start of training camp is a far better tool for diminishing the seriousness of these findings. The NFL is generating tons of training camp story lines, ones which arguably interest its fan base more than information about its moral decay. It can effectively launder the bad news into breathless updates of the Mitch Trubisky–Kenny Pickett–Mason Rudolph quarterback battle and appear transparent. 

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