The Dolphins’ locker-room issues have spilled outside, becoming national tabloid fodder and spurring an NFL investigation.
Normally, team leaders would intervene before a player like offensive tackle Jonathan Martin quits at midseason and left guard Richie Incognito is suspended for allegedly harassing him.
Some say Miami, the NFL’s ninth-youngest team, lacks leadership.
“There is nobody who is highly drafted on this team who you can put in a leadership role,” said former Dolphins cornerback Sam Madison. “All the other guys come from some other place.”
Incognito, defensive end Cam Wake, defensive tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai and long snapper John Denney are the Dolphins who have made at least one Pro Bowl in Miami. Of that group, only Soliai was drafted by the Dolphins.
Receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Brent Grimes and offensive tackles Tyson Clabo and Bryant McKinnie are former Pro Bowlers who are in their first seasons with Miami, which has skidded to 4-5 after a 3-0 start.
“When we played you had guys like Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor who were drafted by the team who understood the culture. Even guys who had been here five or six years could go to them,” Madison said. “Half of these guys don’t know anything about the organization. They haven’t grown up here.”
Miami has a leadership council in place of team captains. But the team parted ways with all four members of last year’s council — left tackle Jake Long, running back Reggie Bush, receiver Davone Bess and linebacker Karlos Dansby.
This year, the players voted Incognito, Wake, Soliai, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and center Mike Pouncey to the leadership council. Only Incognito and Wake are 30 years old. And Incognito came to the team in 2010 with a reputation as one of the league’s dirtiest players. He also was investigated by police last year for harassing a female volunteer at the team’s charity golf tournament.
Former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, now a CBS analyst, said it’s tough to judge Incognito’s leadership ability until the NFL inquiry is complete. Martin met with investigator Ted Wells on Friday and other Dolphins are expected to talk to the league this week.
“Being down there and talking to (coach Joe) Philbin and some of the guys, they liked the fact that (Incognito) was a tough guy, a hard player and his teammates seemed to like him,” Gannon said.
One key issue in the investigation is whether Incognito was instructed by coaches to “toughen up” Martin and whether he went too far.
CBS analyst Steve Tasker, a former NFL receiver, said that what feels like harassment in a troubled locker room might simply be considered teasing in another locker room.
“In a healthy locker room,” Tasker said, “when a guy makes fun of another player it’s an invitation to make fun of himself. You’re putting yourself right in the line of fire. There’s 52 other guys in the same situation.
“Nothing is out of bounds because it’s private. Lot of stuff is completely out of bounds anyplace except a conversation in a locker room. Because everybody is totally naked, figuratively and literally.”
Former NFL linebacker Darryl Talley, who played in four Super Bowls with Buffalo, said team chemistry broke down because GM Jeff Ireland and Philbin built a flawed roster.
“They had no veteran leadership …” Talley said. “They want younger guys they can control. Pay them less money, and so they can tell them what to do.”
Receiver Brian Hartline, who was drafted by Miami in 2009, disputes the notion that the Dolphins lack leadership. He said that by the time a player reaches the NFL, he is the best of the best and learned leadership while playing in high school and college.
“When you’re playing in the NFL almost every single person is a leader,” he said. “Do you need certain guys to be the vocal leaders? Maybe. But there’s plenty of leaders in this locker room. How people can think an NFL locker room doesn’t have leaders is mind-boggling to me.”
Because there are 53 players on an NFL roster, Hartline said, each group — from the interior lines to the secondary — has its own leaders. He said having players who constantly speak out can be counter-productive.
“If you have a guy who keeps talking all the time, it becomes white noise,” Hartline said. “I listen more to the person who talks very rarely, because when he does talk, you should probably listen.
“Ricky Williams rarely talked, and every time he talked, it was like, ‘Wow.’ I’d listen to that.”
If there is one overall team leader, it’s often the quarterback. Tannehill is in just his second season and generally takes a low profile in public. But at his weekly press conference following Incognito’s suspension, Tannehill stepped up to defend Incognito, show empathy for Martin and back his teammates.
“Obviously we need leadership through this tough time,” Tannehill said. “Do I need to go do something drastic that’s not myself, that’s going to say, ‘Hey, what is he doing?’ No. But do I need to step up and be consistent, be a leader and hope to get this team on the right track? Yes.”
Cornerback Nolan Carroll said team leaders needn’t be older players.
“Ryan is a type of guy who leads by example,” Carroll said. “This event, it’s unfortunate but it’s positive at the same time because it’s let him step up and be the type of guy who he wants to be or we need him to be, and that’s a vocal leader.”
Gannon said Tannehill is in a tough spot because he has to lead such a young team.
“It takes a while for a guy to get his feet wet, feel comfortable and become more outspoken,” Gannon said. “The other thing, it’s hard to stand up in front of a group of guys and be critical when the guy can turn around say, ‘What have you done? How many Pro Bowls have you been to?’ You have to earn your stripes.”
Noteworthy: The Dolphins placed offensive tackle Will Yeatman (torn ACL) on injured reserve, ending his season, and promoted rookie center Sam Brenner from the practice squad.
Staff writer Brian Biggane contributed to this report.