SOMEWHERE IN THE EVERGLADES – Welcome to Project Florida where, from Jacksonville to Tampa to Miami, the state's three NFL teams are in the midst of a serious rebuilding phase.
Each has a new head coach. One has a new quarterback. And the other two have signal callers who have undergone extreme makeovers: quarterback edition.
All three teams are screaming for attention, be it with a flamboyant new owner in Jacksonville, a spending spree in Tampa Bay or Miami's willingness to do a TV show most of the league is now afraid of.
"I sort of have enough things to think about here," said new Jacksonville head coach Mike Mularkey, a Florida native who has now worked for all three of the state's pro teams. "But it's interesting what each team is going through."
These are desperate times in the Sunshine State, with each team trying to figure out how to fill the huge swaths of seats that sat empty last season. Before any of them can do that, however, they have to get better at what they do, and that's play football. Last season, the teams were a combined 15-33, posting three of the eight worst records in the league, and that tells only part of the story.
The Dolphins opened the season 0-7 under lame-duck coach Tony Sparano, whose authority was severely undermined the previous offseason when owner Stephen Ross tried to hire Jim Harbaugh.
Tampa Bay opened strong at 4-2, but then lost its final 10 as good-time coach Raheem Morris lost control of the players. Things were so bad at the end that Morris tried to claim his players hadn't quit even as they were allowing an average of 40.3 points over the final five games, four of which came against teams that failed to make the playoffs.
Jacksonville was both bad and boring. The Jaguars went 5-11 and scored fewer than 20 points in 14 games under defensive-minded coach Jack Del Rio. Enter Mularkey, a former offensive coordinator who is getting his second chance as a head coach.
To twist a phrase from new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano, the teams were a "collective vision" of awful. The question now is whether Mularkey, Schiano and Miami rookie coach Joe Philbin can change that vision.
Tampa Bay: Running a tighter ship
Schiano's voice rises through the steamy air of a May afternoon, commanding his players as if this was a Pop Warner practice.
"We run off the field," Schiano screams. "If you want to be great, you have to act great."
Schiano could easily be back at Rutgers University or even some high school in his native New Jersey. Instead, he's talking about hustle to professionals, guys who theoretically shouldn't have to be told to try harder.
If you don't work hard, guess what's going to happen when Drew Brees gets a shot at you?
For most of practice, Schiano watches his defense, paying particular attention to first-round pick Mark Barron, a safety from Alabama who the Buccaneers hope will be a multi-purpose star. The Bucs believe he will be a big hitter with the ability to cover a slot receiver or even an explosive tight end like Jimmy Graham of New Orleans.
That's a lot of roles for one man, but Schiano is completely assured that Barron can handle it.
"Mark is a very talented young man who loves the game," said Schiano, who chooses his words and emphasizes them carefully. Schiano, who sits up straight and listens intently to the most mundane questions, doesn't dole out praise easily, so "very talented" means more than you think.
Likewise, Schiano is carefully examining everything his team does, from how it handles coverages to the way players get on and off the field.
Sure, it's easy to say that Tampa Bay should be better after going on a free-agent spending spree to sign wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright. But Schiano is also about the details.
"It's becoming comfortable doing the uncomfortable," Jackson said, echoing a Schiano mantra. "These are small things that he wants us to get used to doing. Sprint and rest. You go from drill to drill by sprinting, then rest. Go full speed, then rest. When we go to work, we work hard and he's going to take care of us.
"It's just small things that build in you that it's going to be uncomfortable. In the fourth quarter, how are we going to react when it's uncomfortable?"
Even before Schiano's arrival, quarterback Josh Freeman knew change was necessary. It's why he lost approximately 20 pounds this offseason, doing it on his own after a season in which he struggled physically.
"I took some hits early in the season that hurt me more than I thought they should," said Freeman, who regressed from a promising 2010 season. "Partly I thought that I needed the bulk to take the hits, but now I feel like I'm in better shape, even a little stronger and more flexible."
Aside from the running, Schiano asked his players to stop talking to reporters away from the team's complex. No cell phone conversations, no texting, no communicating about what's going on with the team outside the confines of the training facility.
Schiano doesn't deny the point and it's part of what makes him decidedly different than Morris. For all of his energy and enthusiasm, Morris was too close to his players socially and couldn't put the hammer down when necessary. His attempts at discipline were met with indifference, if not contempt.
With Schiano, his demands are part of his attempt to build what he terms a "collective vision." In other words, if everybody buys in now, he won't have to do as much disciplining in the future.
So far, so good.
"He's not coming in pounding on the table demanding that people do it his way. He's asking that people buy in to what he's saying. Let's be part of something special, part of a great team," Jackson said. "You see that genuine desire to put something together great and you realize that it's not about him controlling you, but him trying to build something.
Miami: Fall from grace
There was a time when the mere thought of the Dolphins no longer being the big show in Miami was an absurd notion. Quarterbacked by Hall of Famers Bob Griese and Dan Marino and coached by the legendary Don Shula, the Dolphins were sports royalty when owner Stephen Ross was a young man.
Now, the only king in Miami is LeBron James, with Dywane Wade serving as the crowned prince. Even the Marlins have more legitimate stars (and just as many titles) as the Dolphins.
Since Marino's departure, the quarterback position has become a running gag, while season ticket sales have fallen to just above 30,000 – a record low since the team joined the NFL.
The situation is in such disarray that Tuesday's announcement that the Dolphins would participate in HBO's "Hard Knocks" series was met with chuckles throughout the league. Executives from at least two teams joked about how "desperate" both HBO and the Dolphins must have been to make this happen.
Worse, when coach Joe Philbin announced that Ross had no influence on the decision, few believed him.
Still, it's the low-key, dignified approach of Philbin, combined with the talent of first-round draft pick and quarterback Ryan Tannehill that gives the Dolphins hope that the end of the franchise's now decade-long malaise is near.
Philbin is considered a straight shooter by his friends around the league, a guy with a quietly forceful personality who is ready for the challenge. One friend went so far as to compare him to Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs.
"[Philbin] is a man of substance," said Green Bay Director of Football Operations John Dorsey, who has known Philbin for more than a decade. "You're not going to get someone who waffles on a decision or doesn't truly understand what he wants to get done. When he says something, he means it."
Of course, the HBO decision might call that into question, but Philbin is clearly a man of high integrity. At the end of last season, he dealt with family tragedy as Green Bay got ready for the playoffs. His son Michael drowned in January. Joe quietly returned to work a few days later and then kept himself together as he went through the interview process with the Dolphins.
Now he is expected to be the person to help change the image of the flagging franchise, even if Philbin doesn't want to acknowledge it.
"I think one of the things that stood out as we went through the process was clearly how Joe was going to be in front of the team, the media, the fans, our sponsors," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said. "You saw this dignified, quiet confidence about him. He wasn't going to be rattled by things or shrink from a challenge. He wasn't making himself out to be something different. He was really comfortable with himself and that rubs off on people."
In his comfortable, homespun approach, Philbin tries to deflect that responsibility. He talks about establishing a team approach to how the Dolphins will do business. It's not so much about him as it is a group effort.
"We're going to come up with a Dolphins offense, not one particular system that is just about me. It's not about a West Coast offense or an East Coast offense, it's about figuring out what works for us," Philbin said. "After more than 10,000 days as a coach, I think I have pretty well established who I am as a coach and what my identity is going to be."
Establishing what the Dolphins identity will be is paramount. That starts with getting Tannehill ready, whether that's by starting him now or waiting some period of time while Matt Moore runs the team.
While there are plenty of questions about Tannehill – his end-game performances at Texas A&M and overall toughness have been questioned by some football people – he impressed Ireland and Philbin during a January interview at the NFL scouting combine.
Sitting in the room with Ireland and Philbin was Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who had just been fired by Texas A&M, where he recruited and coached Tannehill. Prior to making Tannehill the quarterback, Sherman had used Tannehill at wide receiver for two years. Many believe that retarded Tannehill's growth.
[Related: Dolphins agree to do HBO's 'Hard Knocks']
"I put him right on the spot in our interview and asked him what he thought of the decision to play him at wide receiver," Ireland said. "Here he is sitting in front of his coach talking about it. He didn't flinch. He said, ‘I thought it was a mistake. I thought I should be at quarterback, but I was going to do what was best for the team.' He said that repeatedly and forcefully. He wasn't angry, he wasn't being critical, but he was stating what he thought in a very professional way."
To Ireland, that type of powerful personality is critical to success at quarterback. Any defect in terms of work ethic, leadership or maturity can be deadly to a quarterback.
Or a coach, if you think about it.
Jacksonville: Rotten attitude
Wait long enough and everything in Florida rots. From vegetation to morals, nothing causes decay like the steamy mix of heat and water that defines the state.
So went the career of Del Rio, the departed Jaguars coach. Although Del Rio had some great moments, he failed to develop a quarterback. Worse, his mercurial attitude put the team in a constantly uneasy state, from both players to coaches.
He frequently fired his assistant coaches and twice cut the perceived starting quarterback on the eve of opening day (Byron Leftwich in 2007 and David Garrard last season).
While Del Rio wasn't always wrong in his evaluation, the constant ups and downs created chaos.
"You didn't know which Jack you were going to get on a given day," said one member of the staff. "When Jack is in a good mood, it's great. When he's not, it's hard to get anything done. Look, there are times your coach has to light a fire under people. But most of the time, you have to have a really consistent approach. Unflappable is the best way.
"Jack is highly flappable, if that's even a word."
[Other NFL news: Terrell Owens cut by Indoor Football League squad]
Enter Mularkey, a man who has the countenance of an actuary.
"There are not too many times you're going to see me lose my temper. Pretty much unless somebody is not giving complete effort … that's about the only time I'll really get on somebody, really lose my cool," Mularkey said.
For now, Mularkey is keeping a close eye on who's giving what.
"I spend a lot of time at practice really just watching people, reading their body language," Mularkey said. "I really study people very closely that way, read them very carefully. Are you the first one getting through a drill or are you last? Are you doing something to the best of your ability or are you holding back?
"We have one player right now – I'm not going to say his name – but he's the last guy in every drill. While the rest of the guys are running up to get something done, he's jogging."
The real concern with the Jaguars is the development of quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the second-year starter who was thrown to the wolves last season after Del Rio cut Garrard. In many ways, Gabbert simply wasn't ready to play last season.
Worse, he didn't have much help. The Jaguars featured a receiving corps that was, at best, hollow with the likes of Mike Thomas. This season, the Jaguars have upgraded with the selection of Justin Blackmon in the first round and the signing of Laurent Robinson as a free agent.
"You see the commitment of the team to make the offense better and it makes you understand that so much is on you," Gabbert said. "That's fine, I want that. I want this to be on me to fix. I want the responsibility to be on me to turn this around."
Gabbert, an unusually bright kid even by quarterback standards, is taking his leadership role more workmanlike. Last year he came to camp with long hair and his usual post-practice attire featured a baseball cap worn backward, evoking an image of Jason Mewes from Jay and Silent Bob. This year, the hair is clean cut.
Moreover, Mularkey is pushing Gabbert to call the plays from the new offense without the help of a wristband. He wants Gabbert to get to the point where he has full command of the huddle and Mularkey believes part of that command comes with announcing your presence.
"If you have a quarterback staring down at a wristband and not really knowing the play, I think it has an effect on the huddle. Guys are looking at each other and thinking, 'Does he know the play?' " Mularkey explained. "If you have the other guys thinking that, how confident are they that the play is going to work. I know that when I played, I felt that way. If the guy didn't know what the call was supposed to be, it made me worry that it wasn't going to work."
True or not, it's what Mularkey believes. Just as he expects of his quarterback, Mularkey is confident in what he's teaching.
Now, we'll see if that confidence ends up working in Jacksonville.
Or anywhere else in Florida.
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