Opinions on the matter are numerous, whereas facts and evidence remain scarce and largely without context. Therefore, it is not the intention here to take a stance in favor of one party’s claim versus the other. Rather, we will focus on the final effects of the crisis, particularly as they concern general manager Jeff Ireland.
Many assume that heads will roll in the wake of the current scandal. The question remains, which heads? The NFL has appointed an independent special counsel to investigate the allegations of bullying, as well as the entire Dolphins organization, in an attempt to determine the best course of action.
It is assumed the results of the investigation will lead to terminations.
While fans seem distracted by questions of whether head coach Joe Philbin will survive the scandal, here we will discuss why Ireland has the largest bull’s-eye on his back.
Setting the Table, Part I
Part of a general manager’s job as the man with final responsibility over the roster is to put together a cohesive team filled with personalities that will mesh together. Jeff Ireland made the decision to carry into 2013 both Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito on the Miami Dolphins roster.
In hindsight, this decision proved disastrous. The question that must be asked is whether any foresight could have reasonably been expected, which may have prevented the current predicament.
Any claim of surprise at the misbehavior of Richie Incognito is disingenuous, at best. As reported by Jeff Darlington of NFL.com, Incognito came to the Miami Dolphins on a self-described “last opportunity” due a pattern of behavior at previous stops that included violence as well as the use and abuse of illegal drugs and alcohol.
The Dolphins approached Incognito’s history with caution at first, offering him a one-year contract for the 2010 season. After team president Bill Parcells left the organization, GM Jeff Ireland gave Incognito a three-year contract extension.
There are indications that Incognito continued to abuse alcohol. Recently, it was revealed that in May 2012 Incognito was involved in an incident at a Miami Dolphins charity event in which he is alleged to have committed simple battery against a woman working the event.
According to the police report, Incognito “used his golf club to touch her by rubbing it up against her vagina” and finished his antics by “emptying a bottle of water in her face.” According to the report, this led former Dolphins player and current team vice president Nat Moore to apologize to the woman on behalf of Incognito, who refused to apologize himself.
Despite Incognito’s continued bad behavior, Ireland chose not to replace him during the 2013 off season. Instead, he jettisoned several members of the team's 2012 leadership council, such as linebacker Karlos Dansby and wide receiver Davone Bess. He also allowed other members of the leadership council, such as left tackle Jake Long and tailback Reggie Bush, to leave via free agency.
The void in leadership created by Ireland’s offseason decision-making put Incognito, a charismatic veteran that had been with the team since 2010, in position to be viewed by the players as a leader despite his poor behavior. According to a recent report, Incognito's brand of "leadership" included holding offensive line meetings at a local strip club and fining players who refused to come.
Based on Incognito's pattern of behavior, it is difficult to imagine how negative consequences of his continued presence on the roster and elevation to a position of leadership could not have been foreseen.
Setting the Table, Part II
The decision to add Jonathan Martin to the Dolphins' locker room must also be examined for the simple fact that his allegations are driving the current crisis.
Football is a sport designed for one man to bully another. The very nature of the game requires a man to brutally dominate his opponent. To play this game, you must be incredibly tough. To play this game at the NFL level, you better be tough on nearly every level imaginable. Thick skin is a prerequisite.
We need to consider the possibility that Martin possesses a character and personality type that does not fit in the harsh world of the NFL. Furthermore, we should be careful with any attempts to make a uniquely demanding sport tolerable for those who struggle to thrive within it.
Former Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams shared similar thoughts in a radio interview with 95.7 FM "The Game", a transcript of which can be found in the above article authored by Riddle:
How is bullying something that's even mentioned regarding the NFL? Because that's kind of what we're taught to do—at least on the field—is to bully the guy across from us so we can win the football game.
It's kind of what we're subjected to on a day-to-day basis that most people will never be able to understand… What we're required to do physically, mentally and emotionally for the course of a season is astronomical—it's amazing. And I'm not saying that it's bad. I'm saying it just really speaks to what it takes to be a professional football player. And to me there's no room to play the victim or to be bullied or to even have that discussion when it comes to the NFL. If you're having that discussion, it just means that maybe you don't belong in the NFL.
The question is, were there warning signs that GM Ireland could have heeded in deciding whether to build the offensive line around Jonathan Martin?
Vic Eumont, Martin’s former high school football coach at Harvard-Westlake, seemed to express a remarkable lack of surprise at his ex-player's current plight. In statements made to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post, Eumont said that, “Bullies usually go after people like him...With his background, he’s a perfect target.”
Eumont goes on to say, “I can see where somebody that’s a bully will take advantage of him, and rather than him say anything would just hold it inside.” He added, “I can see where if somebody was bullying him he would take that to heart and be concerned and think it was his fault.”
For the sake of transparency, in the piece Eumont clearly does not blame Jonathan Martin for his being victimized by bullies. He rather blames the bullies themselves and expresses hope that Martin can get past the whole episode. However, his lack of surprise at Martin's vulnerability is relevant.
Even if Ireland could not possibly have sensed this vulnerability prior to drafting Martin, the question must be raised whether he could have observed that Martin was not fitting in well after drafting him.
On that topic, former Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Lydon Murtha recently weighed in. Murtha trained and practiced with Martin during his first training camp, as a rookie in 2012. He offered his opinion about Martin’s demeanor coming into the NFL:
From the beginning, when he was drafted in April 2012, Martin did not seem to want to be one of the group. He came off as standoffish and shy to the rest of the offensive linemen. He couldn’t look anyone in the eye, which was puzzling for a football player at this level on a team full of grown-ass men. We all asked the same question: Why won’t he be open with us? What’s with the wall being put up? I never really figured it out. He did something I’d never seen before by balking at the idea of paying for a rookie dinner, which is a meal for a position group paid for by rookies. (For example, I paid $9,600 for one my rookie year.) I don’t know if Martin ever ended up paying for one, as I was cut before seeing the outcome.
The signs pointed to Martin possessing a domitable personality. However, some might argue that such a personality trait could be overlooked if Ireland found that Martin displayed indomitable characteristics on the gridiron itself.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. Ireland ignored another potential warning sign that Martin may have not been fit for the sport: his on-field play. Simply put, Martin was a poor performer at the position in 2012, even for a rookie.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) compiles a statistic they refer to as “Pass Blocking Efficiency,” which tallies the sacks, hits and hurries allowed by offensive linemen on their quarterback. The metric is expresses these stats in a mathematical relationship with the number of snaps the player had in pass protection.
According to this statistic, Martin ranked No. 50 out of 52 tackles that took 50 percent or more of their teams' snaps at the position during the 2012 season.
Martin’s ability in run-blocking was also unimpressive. Pro Football Focus splits its run-blocking grades according to play type. On plays where Jonathan Martin was asked to run-block, he graded No. 55 out of 57 qualifying tackles.
Despite predraft and postdraft warning signs that Jonathan Martin might not be fit for the sport both on and off the field, Ireland made the decision during the offseason to feature Martin at the all-important left tackle position.
This put a tremendous strain on Martin to perform. It also put strain on teammates and coaches to do everything possible to ensure that Martin could handle the responsibility. His poor play and perceived personality traits made it unsurprising that this effort would revolve around the concept of inspiring more toughness in Martin.
The Miami Dolphins are taking on water from all sides this week as developments in the bullying case come on a seemingly hour-by-hour basis. The story has not only gone national, it has ventured out of the sports realm. Most recently, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart ripped into the Dolphins and Richie Incognito on The Daily Show.
The question that must be asked is, where is owner Steve Ross’ top lieutenant as his franchise undergoes daily and devastating damage? Has Ireland even been in the Dolphins facility this week?
Since the start of the crisis, Ireland’s voice has been curiously absent in the damage-control effort. His fingerprints remain undetectable on the team's handling of the situation. Head coach Joe Philbin has been marched out alone to handle the problem, while simultaneously being asked to prepare his team for football games every week.
Whether by direction or discretion, Jeff Ireland is sitting this crisis out. There may be good reason for that.
Joe Philbin showed a deft hand in his handling of the situation recently by green-lighting the Miami players to “stick up” for themselves. This action, which broke away from Philbin’s normal player-media policies, has endeared him to the players on the roster. It has potentially ensured that the coaching staff is included in the “us” portion of the locker room’s “us versus the world” mentality.
On the other hand, sources told Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com that when Jonathan Martin’s agent Ken Zuckerman called Jeff Ireland to complain about Richie Incognito’s treatment of Martin, Ireland’s response was to awkwardly state that Martin should physically “punch” Incognito.
While the initial reporting of the conversation stated that it occurred prior to Martin’s leaving the team, Florio buried a correction of the timeline on the ProFootballTalk.com website, stating that the conversation happened after Martin had left the team.
The timing of the conversation does not detract from its inappropriateness. As the Dolphins ready their legal troops for what is sure to be a hard-fought battle with Jonathan Martin, the team’s GM apparently cannot stop himself from giving Martin’s legal counsel more ammunition. Ireland's comments potentially demonstrate a lack of understanding by the Dolphins of the seriousness of the bullying issue.
Inappropriate comments like these from Jeff Ireland are not surprising nor are they new. Ireland was once forced to apologize to wide receiver Dez Bryant for asking him if his mother was a prostitute in a predraft interview.
Ireland also called a Miami Dolphins season ticket holder an “a—hole” after the fan criticized him in an exchange that occurred in the concourse of Sun Life Stadium during one of Miami’s home games in 2012. While there is little doubt that the fan’s comments were rude, the incident demonstrated Ireland’s inability to handle tense situations with tact.
Speaking of tact and bedside manner, former Dolphins quarterback Sage Rosenfels also recently weighed in on the subject of Ireland. The rant came via Twitter. Per Rosenfels, when he signed with Miami in 2011, “It took about an hour to find out what everyone in that locker room thought of [Ireland]."
Rosenfels came down with mononucleosis while with the Dolphins. Two months after being put on the Non-Football Injury list, he had gotten healthy and wanted to play. Ireland refused to let Rosenfels off the NFI list because the Dolphins played the Raiders that week, and he did not want to risk the Raiders picking Rosenfels up in order to get any tips about the Dolphins offense.
Ireland waited until Friday to release the journeyman quarterback, presuming that it would be too late in the week for a team to pick him up. He did this despite the fact that the Raiders were the only team in the league at the time carrying four quarterbacks on roster.
Rosenfels concludes the story by tweeting, "I played for 5 teams and 9 GMs and Ireland is the only 1 I had a problem with. I was also traded 3 times and cut twice. Yes, I was average.
Former Dolphins offensive lineman Matt McChesney responded to Rosenfels’ rant. His tweeted response gave more credibility to Rosenfels’ assertion that others in the locker room also despised Ireland.
I 100% agree. Spent 1 season there & he was awful. Would love to open fld cut block the DB
This brings us back to the Dolphins’ current predicament.
Miami finds itself precariously positioned between an angry locker room expected to continue to play and win games, the representatives of a popular player the team decided to suspend, the representatives of a player claiming the Dolphins provided an unsafe work environment which damaged his mental state, a national media that is blistering the franchise’s reputation hourly, an NFL Players Association which has interests on both sides of the fence, and an NFL front office whose primary goal will be public-relations damage control.
To say that the franchise’s handling of the crisis will require a deft touch would be an understatement. Yet, Jeff Ireland’s historical and contemporary blunders suggest that he cannot sail the Dolphins safely through these troubled waters.
This may be why he has been curiously absent during the crisis.
Many will insist that none of the above matters, so long as the general manager can provide a quality base of talent which can be leveraged to win games. Unfortunately, Jeff Ireland’s record of talent acquisition does not necessarily outweigh his deficiencies in other areas.
For years, many including owner Steve Ross himself, have insisted that Ireland be granted a "clean slate" after the departure of former team president Bill Parcells. They believe Ireland should not be judged by Miami’s personnel acquisitions during the era which spanned the 2008-2010 offseasons.
Ironically, the rationale that was initially used as a shield in Ireland’s defense may now be turned against him.
The Miami Dolphins sit at 4-4. Under the weight of the current crisis, they have the chance to bond together as a team and potentially make a playoff run in the second half of the season.
However, an account of the driving forces behind the team's success shows that the most successful players were acquired well before the start of Ireland’s “clean slate.”
Standout performers such as Jared Odrick, Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, Cameron Wake, Brian Hartline, Chris Clemons and Brandon Fields were all acquired prior to Ireland assuming the role of GM.
Going back to the subjective grades given by Pro Football Focus based on an accounting of every play of every player on the roster, the Miami Dolphins’ offensive and defensive units have a collective “overall” grade of +68.4.
The 13 players that have seen action that were acquired prior to the departure of Bill Parcells account for +67.0 of that +68.4 grade.
This means that the 32 players acquired by Jeff Ireland during the time in which he alone was responsible for personnel account for only +1.4 of the cumulative grade.
Ireland came into the offseason with a lot of resources at his disposal. This led to a tremendous amount of turnover.
The Dolphins have put 11 veteran players on the field this season who were not on the roster in 2012. On the other hand, there are 11 veteran players who were on the team at the end of the 2012 season and were able to switch teams in 2013 either due to trade, release or contract expiration.
The veteran players acquired by the Miami Dolphins in the 2013 offseason have a collective minus-3.0 “overall” grade in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cumulating the data from several areas of the Pro Football Focus website, we see that the veteran players that left the Dolphins have a collective plus-20.8 “overall” grade on their respective new teams.
The Dolphins also entered the draft in 2013 with extra picks in the second and third rounds. Miami leveraged these picks into the selections of Dion Jordan, Jamar Taylor, Dallas Thomas, Will Davis, Jelani Jenkins, Dion Sims, Mike Gillislee, Caleb Sturgis and Don Jones. All of the above players remain with the team.
However, there are criticisms to be made about how much the Dolphins have been able to extract from the draft, especially considering the extra resources at the team's disposal. Respected former NFL executive Gil Brandt recently pointed to the Miami Dolphins as having the most disappointing draft class in the NFL, at least as judged by the early returns.
Indeed, evaluating the drafts for which Ireland is solely responsible yields few gems. The only true standout from any of the classes is center Mike Pouncey. That in itself is telling, in several ways.
According to data put together by Cork Gaines at Business Insider, the center position is the lowest-paid offensive or defensive position in the NFL. The average salary cap figure among top 10 centers was $5.8 million, the lowest average for any position on either side of the ball. The highest-paid center in the game is paid $9.1 million, which is also the lowest among offensive and defensive positions.
Does salary correlate with impact? Free-market principles would certainly seem to argue in favor of the notion. The data suggests that taking a center all the way at No. 15 overall in the draft was essentially a layup for Ireland.
Furthermore, Pouncey himself has potentially become a problem player. He is now under federal subpoena for potential involvement with alleged murderer Aaron Hernandez in a gun-trafficking ring. Pouncey has also been implicated in the latest circus surrounding Jonathan Martin’s accusations of bullying.
If Mike Pouncey, a player playing arguably the least valuable offensive or defensive position in the game, with the recent controversies that have surrounded him, is the crown jewel of your drafting effort, that is not a good sign.
In the end, the personnel decisions that could get Ireland fired before the 2014 offseason center on the offensive tackle position.
Ireland provided head coach Joe Philbin with arguably the least talented offensive tackle position in the NFL and asked him to not only win games but groom a young franchise quarterback into stardom.
The results have been disastrous. Second-year QB Ryan Tannehill has taken a league-leading 35 sacks through half the season. Despite the additions of receivers Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson, Tannehill’s passer rating has risen only from 76.1 in 2012, to 80.8 halfway through 2013.
As explained in a previous column, the Dolphins had a chance to offer Tannehill some relief at the position during the 2013 season.
However, Ireland remained ignorant of left tackle Eugene Monroe’s availability via trade from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and he stubbornly refused to trade for left tackle Bryant McKinnie until after the team lost to the Buffalo Bills in Week 7.
McKinnie has performed head and shoulders better than Martin had been at left tackle in the two games he has played since being acquired. Miami had a chance to acquire him prior to its Week 6 bye. One could easily argue that delaying his acquisition cost the Dolphins the game against Buffalo.
The recent turmoil created by the bullying allegations of offensive tackle Jonathan Martin has put the Miami Dolphins into a unique situation.
The failings of roster management made the Dolphins a mediocre football team in the first half of the season, however the potential "us versus the world" mentality inspired by the recent allegations may be able to be harnessed by head coach Joe Philbin to produce better results in the second half of the year.
The unique events taking place create a counter-intuitive situation, wherein winning games could be considered much more a testament to the coaching staff's ability to navigate the team through disaster than to the quality of the roster built by the general manager. And if the team misses the playoffs by a single game, the focus will naturally shift to marginal roster moves that could have yielded the necessary incremental improvement.
Both the struggles on the field in the first half of the season as well as in the press highlight the failings of the man that has held the title of general manager since 2008. In only five seasons, Jeff Ireland has presided over four of the nine losing seasons in the franchise's NFL history.
Eventually, enough headlines will run, enough banners will fly and enough opportunities will be missed for owner Steve Ross to be convinced that the team needs a new direction in its personnel department.
Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland will not survive to see 2014.