When Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin spoke at the Combine yesterday, he did so publicly for the first time since the Ted Wells report was released last week documenting the depth of the dysfunction in his locker room, and the abuse directed at Jonathan Martin. What he did right away then was equal parts required and predictable: he took full responsibility.
“Some of the facts, the behavior, the language that was outlined in the report is inappropriate and it’s unacceptable. I’m the one that’s in charge of the workplace. … We’re going to do things about it.
“We’re going to make it better. We’re going to look at every avenue. We’re going to uncover every stone and we’re going to have a better workplace. I promise you that. We’re going to make sure that happens.”
The head coach is the grand overseer of all. In the culture of the NFL locker room he’s the boss and the top brass to everyone there other than, you know, the actual top brass. But he can also become whatever you want him to be in a specific situation: he can be the dictating Big Brother, the screaming motivator, or the laughing father figure. He determines what approach is best suited for each player and each situation, and morphs as needed.
But on a fundamental level another responsibility comes with that connection a coach has with his players. Since he knows each player intimately after spending so many waking hours with them each week and throughout the offseason, he’s aware of their personalities, and their flaws. By extension then he should also be aware of how they’re conducting themselves within his castle, the locker room.
Even as he accepted responsibility yesterday and spoke frankly without notes while facing the media barbs, a glaring mistake of ignorance on Philbin’s part remained, one that was confirmed by the Wells report. He didn’t know about the behavior of Richie Incognito and others until after the crumbling began and Martin walked out.
This is where Philbin’s words yesterday become, well, words. He seemed genuinely shaken as expected, but when a workplace supervisor (he’s a head coach, but in this case that’s the more appropriate title) promises to change a culture and eradicate a problem he wasn’t aware of to begin with, believing in the power of his influence is difficult.
No, it’s more than that. Right now it’s not possible, and it’s even harder to comprehend that Philbin — a man who, again, should know the unique personalities and idiosyncrasies of his players — didn’t see that the notoriously brash and dominant Incognito had taken his Alpha act too far. Apologizing for something you were completely ignorant of seems hollow at best, and negligent at worst.
Or maybe we’re being a little unfair. A coach’s primary task is to simply win football games, and in doing so during the season he spends an unhealthy number of hours each week massaging every ounce of talent out of his players while studying game film and installing a hopefully winning approach. That’s his drive and where his mental energy is directed, as if it strays elsewhere for long and losses compile, a coach isn’t a coach for much longer.
The job of workplace manager and overseer isn’t secondary, but it’s not something that’s likely given much thought often. It just sort of happens, and for example, it’s happening right now to John Harbaugh in Baltimore for a different reason while he deals with the fallout of Ray Rice’s disgusting off-field behavior. That’s a different circumstance, though, because it’s an isolated incident away from the team, and not a festering problem which grew over a period of time.
Which brings us to the grand question here, and what should now become the major talking point: can a coach ever really, truly know everything that’s going on between his players? He can try. Oh, he can try, but an NFL roster consists of 53 men, and it’s even larger during the offseason. As Broncos head coach John Fox said yesterday, while overseeing those men is indeed in the job description, it’s not entirely realistic.
“Being the head coach as it relates to the football team, the buck kind of stops there. You try and you need to be on top of it. But is it totally realistic? I can’t honestly answer that, because it’s hard. You try to set a good culture in your building and hope for the best.
“Whether you’re a position coach or a head coach, you’re gathering information. You rely on other people. One guy can’t do it all. I don’t care who it is. You rely on your assistant coaches. You rely on people in your staff in the building, and that relates to a lot of different areas, because these buildings are pretty big now.”
You rely on other people.
Philbin hired those other people thinking that they were both good football coaches and good, sensible humans. In at least two cases he was wrong with the latter assumption, as the now dismissed offensive line coach Jim Turner was an accessory to Incognito’s harassment, and the also fired head trainer Kevin O’Neil joined in the laughter when an assist working under him was taunted too.
Of equal importance was O’Neil’s failure to report the locker room conduct he surely saw to Philbin. As PFT noted, Michigan State’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said that trainers and equipment managers are often leaned on as the locker room “pulse guys“.
“And I’ll tell you why. When we’re up [in our office] working and [the players] are down in the locker room, the trainer is there, the equipment man is there. They give me better pulse than even my staff.”
Predicting and controlling human behavior is difficult, especially when it involves football players who are inherently aggressive and hyper competitive. But that challenge becomes infinitely harder when those tasked with it join the neanderthals.