By now the Miami Dolphins’ season was supposed to be over, with little left to do but make sure quarterback Ryan Tannehill still had all his body parts and the NFL had an answer for what really went on in the locker room.
But something happened on the way to another losing record. Something clicked just when everything seemed to be falling apart after a 300-pound offensive lineman left the team saying he had been bullied.
Columnists, opponents and fans questioned the team’s leadership, saying the coaches had ceded control to guard Richie Incognito and his bad-boy antics. But instead of imploding, the Dolphins came together. Instead of tanking, they found ways to win.
“Kind of a blessing in disguise,” tackle Bryant McKinnie said.
Now the Dolphins are squarely in the playoff hunt, a surprise team peaking at just the right time. With two very winnable games left they control their own destiny in a season when they couldn’t even control the locker room.
Players say coach Joe Philbin’s calm response to the November crisis put them on the winning path.
“Adversity is either going to make your team strong because the leader is going to rally and pull everyone together, or make you disintegrate because the leader is panicking,” said Patrick Lencioni, who writes on leadership and team building in business. “Clearly he did not panic.”
The team was floundering even before Jonathan Martin walked out and Incognito was sent packing. The Dolphins had lost four straight games to fall to 3-4, and the uproar over bullying threatened to further fracture a fragile team.
Owner Stephen Ross expressed his outrage.
“Changes need to be made,” he said.
But changes weren’t made, at least big ones. Replacements were brought in for Martin and Incognito and they proved capable. The coaching staff remained intact and general manager Jeff Ireland still has his job.
But as NFL investigators traveled to Miami to interview everyone about what Incognito said or did to Martin, other things began to change.
Miami started to win. The line, with backups replacing Martin and Incognito, gave up fewer sacks and opened up more room to run.
And on Sunday, a fill-in safety playing his first NFL game intercepted a pass in the end zone to seal an upset over New England and put the Dolphins in the driver’s seat for their first playoff appearance in five years.
“With all the distractions, everybody still wanted to win,” McKinnie said. “We found a way to remain focused.”
No stranger to adversity, Philbin was still mourning the accidental death of his 21-year-old son days earlier when he was given his first head coaching job in the NFL in January 2012.
His total focus became rebuilding the Dolphins. A four-game losing streak this season didn’t shake his plan, and neither did the scandal.
“He laid that plan out from the very first day he was here, and he never wavered from it,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. “Amidst all of the peripheral things that have been going on here during the course of the season, he just stayed the course each and every day and provided the leadership to the players in the team meetings and to the staff in the staff meetings about, ‘Hey we are doing things the right way. We are going to continue to move forward and try to build the best organization in the NFL.’ Nothing has ever changed.”
In the process the stoic Philbin has gone from being on the chopping block to being mentioned as a possible coach of the year candidate.
“I haven’t heard any of that,” Philbin said. “Again, we are all concentrating as a team and an organization. This is important. We talked about the fourth quarter and playing well in December. These guys have been hard at it since July 21st. We need to finish this season strong.”
Lencioni, who wrote the book “Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” said it could be that the bullying and team leadership was not as bad as thought. That’s certainly the perception of Dolphins players, who stuck up for Incognito.
“If the media is tough on them and they’re sticking together, that’s a unifying force,” Lencioni said. “But it requires credibility on the part of the coach. If the coach is a jerk with no credibility then the whole `Us against the world’ thing probably implodes.”
With four wins in the last five games, the Dolphins have a chance to be remembered for more than having a bully in the locker room. It could be the rare team that becomes unified in the face of controversy.
Instead of worrying about the loss of Martin and Incognito, players have embraced the personnel they have. That includes safety Michael Thomas, who was picked up off the San Francisco 49ers practice squad and made his NFL debut on Sunday against the Patriots.
Many of his new teammates said they didn’t even know who No. 31 was until he picked off Tom Brady with seconds remaining to seal a game that the Dolphins of old would have probably lost. That didn’t stop them from embracing Thomas in celebration.
“Teamwork really is a huge competitive advantage when you can actually make a team play like a team. They may have less talent on the field now but they have a better team,” Lencioni said.
“And that may be the real story of the Miami Dolphins of 2013.”