Mistakes are difficult for everyone to admit, even more so when they’re attached to seven-figure severance packages. But it’s time for Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross to admit his biggest one yet.
It’s time to fire Joe Philbin.
In the three-plus seasons since hiring Philbin, the Dolphins have sputtered along, clanging their way to an uninspiring 24-27 overall mark, including a 1-2 start this year. A career coordinator before Miami, Philbin has often appeared out of touch and overmatched by the position, his even-keel demeanor instead coming off as bland and detached.
After the Dolphins were “outplayed and outcoached” in Sunday’s 41-14 trashing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, Philbin admitted to being out of answers. An offense that shed Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline in favor of DeVante Parker, Greg Jennings and Kenny Stills is averaging just 17 points per game through three weeks. Under pressure on over 40 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, quarterback Ryan Tannehill has regressed from his 2014 performance, forcing throws and failing to diagnose pressure before the snap.
On defense, the problems are fundamental. The Dolphins’ tackling against the Bills was anemic, highlighted by the olé technique used on Charles Clay’s 25-yard touchdown. The pass-rush is no better. Despite the offseason addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the Dolphins are dead last in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. Thanks in part to a total lack of push up front, a secondary that finished last season a respectable 16th in pass defense DVOA has slipped to 30th despite games against Kirk Cousins, Blake Bortles and Tyrod Taylor.
After an expensive and thorough offseason overhaul, the Dolphins entered this season with hopes of challenging the New England Patriots for the top spot in the AFC East. Instead, through three games this season the Dolphins have been outscored 57-17 in the first half of games, including deficits of 10-0, 17-6 and 27-0, a sure sign of a lack of preparation.
That sort of letdown is normally enough for coaches to land on a burning hot seat, but Philbin and the Dolphins have been here before. Two seasons ago, Philbin survived the Dolphins’ bullying scandal despite the Wells Report painting him as woefully out of touch with the happenings within his own locker room. Last season, the Dolphins were also 1-2 and reeling from an embarrassing 34-15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs with a trip to London on the schedule. Philbin vaguely threatened to bench Tannehill, a public-relations ploy which not even Tannehill took seriously. After a brief revival where Miami won four of five, the Dolphins cratered down the stretch, losing five of their last eight games. Still, Ross ensured Philbin would return for 2015, preaching patience in the face of prolonged mediocrity.
It’s not hard to understand why Ross would be reticent to fire Philbin. The former Green Bay assistant was Ross’ first major hire as the franchise’s majority owner. As the man largely credited with the development of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Philbin fit the mold of what Ross wanted in the team’s next leader – “a young Don Shula,” Ross proclaimed to be searching for. But in 51 games as the head coach of the Dolphins, Philbin has been closer to Dave Shula than his Hall of Fame father.
Maybe Philbin and the Dolphins will beat the New York Jets in London on Sunday, earning yet another stay of execution for their head coach. And perhaps there will be another mid-season run as there has been in years past, but the point of hiring a head coach has always been to find a person capable of leading a franchise to a Super Bowl. After three-plus years of evidence to the contrary, is there anyone that feels confident Philbin will suddenly meet that standard in the next 14 weeks?
If Ross’ answer to that question is “no,” leaving Philbin in place for the remainder of the season does nothing but prolong the inevitable. It’s simply time for the Dolphins to admit that Philbin was indeed, a mistake.
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Philbin is far from the only coach facing some degree of heat from the media, fans and his own team. The following coaches are also in trouble, although to varying degrees.
Gus Bradley – Bradley and general manager David Caldwell are in a tough spot. They took over a franchise with just three winning seasons since 1999 and a roster with little to no young talent. Then they bet it all on quarterback Blake Bortles, a project at the game’s most important position. A preseason dynamo, Bortles has struggled again in the regular season despite improved talent around him. Bradley likely deserves at least one more year, but a third straight season with fewer than six wins could make him Caldwell’s fall guy.
Jay Gruden – If Bradley deserves another year because of his quarterback, Gruden may deserve to go because of the way he’s handled his signal-callers. A strange hire in the first place, Gruden alienated Robert Griffin III from the outset then spent the next 19 games alternating between RG3, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy in deadly game of bad quarterback roulette. With the hiring of new GM Scot McCloughan in the offseason, Gruden’s clock is ticking – quickly.
Mike Pettine – Pettine is a good football coach. He’s smart, he’s sensible and he helped lead a below-average Browns team to seven wins in his first season despite alternating between Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer at quarterback. He also deserves credit for the maturation of Manziel from assured NFL washout to at least a serviceable backup. The only reason he’s even in this group is the unpredictable nature of owner Jimmy Haslam and his reportedly combative relationship with GM Ray Farmer.
Jeff Fisher – Of all the coaches on this list, not many possess the control within the organization that Fisher exerts. When he was hired, Fisher was allowed to hire his GM and given say over almost the entire organization. Fisher and the Rams showed continued belief in oft-injured former quarterback Sam Bradford, even passing on drafting a quarterback in the 2014 class of Manziel, Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr. Despite thoroughly mediocre results – 20 wins in his first three seasons and a 1-2 mark to start this year – Fisher appears safe, especially with his southern California roots and a potential move to L.A. on the horizon. Remember, Fisher has been through this before when Houston went to Tennessee.
Tom Coughlin – Under Coughlin, the Giants have made the playoffs just once since 2008, a startling fact when you consider that quarterback Eli Manning hasn’t missed a game in that time span. Some of the blame falls on the shoulders of GM Jerry Reese and his poor drafts, but Coughlin escapes a fair amount of heat because of his two Super Bowl rings. If 2015 goes extremely sour, don’t be surprised if Coughlin decides to “retire” at season’s end.
Gas is on, but the flame hasn’t clicked yet
Sean Payton – Maybe Payton should be in the group above, but it feels like the tide in New Orleans is slowly starting to turn on Payton. A major part of the decision-making process with GM Mickey Loomis, Payton helped destroy the Saints’ roster and long-term cap flexibility in hopes of a desperate Super Bowl run in 2014. He also has the bounty scandal and allegations involving prescription drugs in his past. With an aging Drew Brees careening toward the end of his career and the Saints likely destined for a second straight below-.500 season ahead in 2015, it’s only a matter of time before Payton feels the pressure.
Chip Kelly – This is probably the most obvious one, although maybe the least deserved. After back-to-back 10-win seasons, Kelly drew the ire of nearly everybody with his drastic offseason makeover and an 0-2 start brought the pitchforks to the gates of the Eagles’ facility. Still, owner Jeffrey Lurie isn’t known for rash decisions and he re-organized his entire franchise for Kelly this past offseason, something that can’t be understated in importance. Despite the public denouncements, Kelly is likely safe until at least the end of 2016.