ORLANDO, Fla. – If the NFL is drastically changing after the Miami Dolphins' locker room scandal and the ensuing Ted Wells Report, it was hard to tell from what many of the AFC head coaches said at a press availability Tuesday morning.
A canvassing of several coaches assembled at the Ritz Carlton for league meetings revealed few have read the report, which detailed a systemic breakdown of locker room culture in Miami.
"I didn't," Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
"I did not," New York Jets coach Rex Ryan said.
"No," said Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone.
Tennessee Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said."I'd be fibbing if I said I read the whole thing,"
"No," said Raiders coach Dennis Allen.
"There are other things higher on my priority list," new Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine said.
"No," said San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy.
Of the eight coaches asked, only one said he read it: Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.
"I was appalled," he said. "It was embarrassing."
On one side of the large ballroom, a head coach who was included in the report was bombarded by questions about locker room culture: Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. He got to the press availability a little after 7 a.m., placed a cup of black coffee on the table in front of him and was grilled about his leadership for the better part of an hour. He didn't take his first sip until nearly 7:30.
Philbin seemed chastened by the Wells Report and its fallout. He acknowledged it's a little easier for a coach to focus on third-down conversions rather than locker room behavior. "Sometimes it's a better use of the head coach's time to walk through the training room, walk through the locker room, walk through the hallway," he said. "It's not that I've never done that stuff, but I think it's fair to say I'm going to do it more."
He used buzzwords like "visibility" and "accountability." He said he knows he has to be "more vigilant."
The bigger question is whether his colleagues do.
The same aforementioned coaches were asked if they plan to make any changes in their leadership style based on the Miami situation.
"I don't," said Tomlin.
"No," Ryan said.
"If I see something I don't like, I'll act," said McCoy.
"I understand the importance," Whisenhunt said.
"I think we got a pretty good locker room," said Allen.
And Lewis, who did read the Wells Report, said, "I think we're in really good shape."
Maybe they're all right. Maybe what happened in Miami could happen only in Miami, with offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and the strange relationship they had, which ultimately was severely damaged. Maybe this was an isolated incident. It sure felt unprecedented from the outside.
But if the Dolphins debacle was a cautionary tale, it's fair to wonder how many others heard it. Commissioner Roger Goodell will be meeting with the NFL players' union on April 8, and one of the most important topics will be workplace respect. The NFL competition committee will be working with league officials and players to enforce a stricter version of the unsportsmanlike conduct rules. That will include flags for abusive language.
That only goes so far, though. The Miami situation started in the locker room, and has been laid at the feet of the head coach. It might be unfair to charge one person with workplace standards as well as winning standards, but coaches are control freaks and they won't have it any other way. It's hard to imagine a head coach intimately knowing what's going on between his players, but it's harder to imagine a head coach delegating locker room stewardship to someone else.
"That's part of being a leader," McCoy said. "To lay out a plan from Day 1."
The Chargers coach said he and ownership set the tone right away in his first season last year, and it's worked. The results on the field – a surprising 9-7 season and advancement to the divisional round of the playoffs – back him up. So does the fact that Manti Te'o, the rookie linebacker who became a national storyline before the draft because of a fake college girlfriend, appeared to fit in well and thrive.
But if locker room nastiness was easy to spot, surely Phibin would have stopped it. It's hard to believe Incognito was that much of an obvious outlier. He was, after all, on the notorious leadership council.
(Allen didn't balk when asked if the former Dolphin could fit in on his team. "It depends on what the situation is," he said. "It's about the right fit for your football team.")
The one word most of coaches used when asked about the Wells Report was "communicate." They all believe that better communication can solve these kinds of issues. "Communication has to be open at all levels," said Pettine, who is a first-time NFL head coach. "Players have to feel confident they can speak up."
That is certainly true, but Philbin is probably the least-imposing coach in the entire league. He's exceedingly pleasant, even when asked the same question about locker room culture over and over again while his coffee grows cold. Fear of Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin is one thing, but Philbin is not an ogre. His door seems to be open, in the common coach's parlance – and in fact we saw proof of that in HBO's "Hard Knocks" two years ago.
So the real challenge isn't communication, but how to read its various forms. If and when conflict emerges in the locker room, how will coaches understand and react to it? They are not evaluated on how well their players treat each other, and so their priorities can't possibly lie in calming the waters over winning games. Coaches have to address locker room issues when they're not trying desperately to prepare for the next opponent. There's hardly any time for that.
If there were, more coaches would have read Ted Wells' roadmap to disaster.
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