While the disturbing story of Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin revolves around their incredible differences, if you talk to enough current and former NFL personnel executives, you find the pair shares a common trait.
Both Incognito and Martin were taken off draft boards because of their personalities. Now, the question is whether their respective roles in an ugly harassment story will ultimately undermine their futures in the league.
For Incognito, who has been regarded as out of control from before he entered the league, the consensus is that he will be suspended for an extended period by the NFL. He is already under indefinite suspension from the Dolphins. The general view is that Incognito’s transgressions, which include leaving a voicemail with a racial slur and threats against Martin and his family, are way past unacceptable.
“This is very different and very much over the line from things that happen in the locker room that you would prefer stay in the locker room,” former longtime NFL executive Bill Polian said. “This goes well beyond anything like that on a number of fronts. We’re talking about potentially violating the personal conduct policy. There are claims of extortion and potentially even IRS implications.”
Or as former Cleveland general manager Phil Savage said: “This is about the ugliest thing I’ve ever heard.”
At the same time, the problem for Martin is that while he is clearly the victim, the NFL is not a place that has much sympathy for victims. In a game built on aggression and toughness, compassion is in short supply.
Right or wrong, retired running back Ricky Williams made that clear in a Tuesday radio interview on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game when he discussed his own decision to walk away from the game in 2004. Williams eventually returned and dealt with numerous issues. But those issues were of his own making.
“I was at a point in my career when I needed to take a break,” Williams said. Like Martin, Williams is an exceptionally bright and sensitive person.
Still, Williams didn’t have much compassion for Martin’s plight.
“Unlike Jonathan, I didn’t have to find a scapegoat or somebody else to blame,” Williams said.
Among seven current and former NFL personnel men who were contacted about Incognito and Martin, two of them said that they took one of the players off the board when they were being evaluated for the draft. The reasons were vastly different, but the bottom line is the same.
“I kind of thought he was a train wreck as a person,” a former NFC general manager said of Incognito, who was a third-round pick by St. Louis in 2005. “I’m surprised he has gone along this far without something like this happening. He was a misfit. He was a mess coming out. A bit of a bigot. I tried to talk to him about it and he didn’t get it.
“You didn’t have to dig too deep to find this stuff. I’ve never seen a kid with a background quite like this one.”
Or as another NFC personnel man said: “Richie got kicked out of Nebraska. That’s hard to do. Now, he’s a tough guy and his teammates love him because he’ll fight like hell and have their backs. I bet that if you polled that locker room, 99 percent of the players would love to have him back because of how he is as a player.
"But you have to know things about Richie if you’re going to have him on your team. He is potentially going to have drug issues. He’s going to drink. He’s going to chase (women). He’s going to have anger management issues.”
The second personnel man also said he was not surprised that Incognito used a racial slur. Incognito has a long history of aggressive behavior, penalty issues and has been voted the dirtiest player in the league.
“He’s the kind of guy you might find in Mississippi with pickup truck, a (Confederate) flag on the back of it and proud of it,” the source said.
Savage was a bit more polite in his assessment of Incognito, although the former GM referred to him as “a lightning rod” during the draft process.
“You were either one way or the other on him,” Savage said. “That was our first year in Cleveland. We were trying to have a really clean (draft) board. We don’t ever really take someone off the board. But sometimes you put people at a point where you know you’re just not going to get to them. With him, you loved everything he did from snap to whistle. That five or six seconds, he was great. It was the rest of the time that you were concerned with.”
By the same token, Martin presented different problems.
“You’re really talking about the opposite end of the spectrum (from Incognito),” Savage said.
Martin, a second-round pick in 2012, is the son of two lawyers, both of whom attended Harvard. Martin played collegiately at Stanford and attended the exclusive Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles.
“I interviewed Jonathan and I wrote up the reports on him,” the NFC personnel man said. “He’s a really nice kid. He’s quiet and very polite. But as a football player, he’s not tough. He’s not going to fight and he’s not going to have his teammates’ backs. That’s just not who he is. He’s going to do his own thing and worry about himself.
“I don’t dislike him for that, but that’s what he is and you have to accept it. If you’re going to bring a guy like that into your locker room, you have to know that. I knew that he would never fit with our guys. Our offensive line coach would have run him off. Our (offensive line coach) would rather have tough guys with less ability than Martin, who has all the size and football ability, but isn’t tough. So I took (Martin) off our board.”
Savage was quick to point out that Martin is likely to get more chances in the league because finding 6'5", 312-pound human beings with the ability to move quickly is hard. At the same time, Savage admitted this situation has potentially exposed flaws in his character, such as whether he likes football enough and whether he's tough enough to get through the rigors of the game.
Those flaws might not matter in the normal working world. They matter greatly in the NFL.
“Those are questions that will have to be asked and answered,” Savage said, referring to whether Martin had enough passion for the game.
Six of the seven NFL personnel people said they would consider signing Martin, if for no other reason than that he is a gifted player who can play an important position which requires rare skills. However, all expressed concern about how he handled his interactions with Incognito and would want to know all the specifics of his departure from the Dolphins before making such a move.
"I would want to contact the league and see how much they could tell me about what happened and then I would want to talk to the player to see if the stories matched up acceptably," Polian said.
“If the kid quit, you have to wonder,” an AFC general manager said. “In this case, you can maybe understand that things got out of control and he didn’t know what to do. But he also wasn’t playing well. He got moved from left tackle to right tackle in the middle of the season. Was that the real reason he was upset? You wonder because this stuff (with Incognito) came up afterward. I’m not saying I wouldn’t take a chance on (Martin), but I would have a lot of questions first.”
When contacted about the situation, Martin’s agent, Ken Zuckerman, said he was not yet thinking about the consequences of Martin leaving the team.
“I don’t know,” Zuckerman said. “My only concern right now is Jonathan’s well-being.”
Beyond that, there is the issue of Martin's camp having aired the problems to the media rather than going to the coaching staff more aggressively. Martin did miss two voluntary workouts in the offseason after problems arose. But according to sources close to Martin, the Dolphins never contacted Martin’s family or agent about the issues to see what the problem might be. Asked about that Tuesday, the Dolphins had no comment.
Rather, according to a story in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, members of the Dolphins coaching staff had instructed Incognito to “toughen up” Martin.
“That’s an odd combination,” Savage said. “You have to know that those two aren’t going to get along or at least they have to be managed. Incognito is not a person you want to put in a leadership role because now he’s going to think that everything he’s doing is OK.”
Incognito was voted by teammates to the team’s six-man leadership council that communicates directly with head coach Joe Philbin.
“I like Joe and he’s a good man, but you really have to wonder about his judgment on that one. You have to know what Richie is and that Richie is not going to change. He might get better, but he’s not going to change,” the NFC personnel man said.
With a pending league investigation looming over the situation, all seven personnel men said this could lead to severe consequences for the team.
“The NFL is not going to take this lightly,” the NFC personnel man said, noting that this is the second time a white NFL player has been caught using the “N” word in less than six months. “You’re going to have serious consequences because this looks really bad for the league. I can see already what’s going to happen for Richie. He’s going to be out the rest of the year, at least, and they’re not going to let him back until he has done diversity training and anger management, at least.”
And what happens to Incognito is probably just the start.
Jason Cole has covered the NFL since 1992. He has won numerous awards for his work, particularly for investigative stories on Reggie Bush and on financial crime against athletes. He's on Twitter @JasonPhilCole.