TAMPA, Fla. – The Miami Dolphins didn't show up on Monday. But finally their leader did.
Stephen Ross, the team owner, was the star and maybe the savior of what was otherwise an ugly night in team history. Miami lost 22-19 to the NFL's last winless team with a listless performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on national television, and yet there's more hope now for the health of the franchise than there has been in many days.
Amen. That should have been said a long time ago about the offensive lineman who was allegedly bullied by teammate Richie Incognito and other players, and finally the owner said it publicly. There was way too much defense of Incognito and a football culture that too often lends itself to immaturity and insensitivity. Ross said he was "appalled" at the culture in his team's locker room. And to show it wasn't just lip service, Ross named a committee to help him fix it.
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So after Monday's loss, hovering outside the Miami locker room were former Dolphins great Jason Taylor and former Jets star Curtis Martin. They looked like bodyguards, and without saying a word, they stood like sentinels for change. They each know what a professional locker room is like, and they will each help Ross create that where there hasn't been one. Along with Don Shula, Dan Marino and Tony Dungy, Martin and Taylor will be charged with building a "code of conduct that suits the 21st century."
It's about time. And it's appropriate that after a week of national discussion about how football players are supposedly a breed apart, understanding of their own needs in a way outsiders can't ascertain, it's a bespectacled businessman who is finally taking charge.
Inside the losing locker room Monday, the Dolphins seemed calm and resolute. There were no rants or raves or lashing out; rather disappointment at the loss and eagerness to figure out what comes next. Asked what he has learned from the last two weeks, defensive back Brent Grimes had perhaps the best answer:
"It's about being a pro," he said. "We gotta be pros."
A lot of that comes from above, and it wasn't coming from above for way too long. (That may explain why Ross praised coach Joe Philbin in his remarks but not general manager Jeff Ireland.) The fact that open consideration for Jonathan Martin was lacking for so many days shows that whatever the Dolphins said about sticking together, they weren't truly doing it. Defensive tackle Jared Odrick believes it when he said "we call ourselves a tribe," but a healthy "tribe" wouldn't let someone suffer even if they didn't believe the reasons for the suffering were valid.
Building a better tribe will take a while. It will cost the team on the field, which was evident Monday as Miami was shoved back at the line of scrimmage by a Tampa Bay team that has shown almost no teeth in its pass rush all season. The Bucs held the Dolphins to 2 yards rushing, a franchise record. Linebacker Lavonte David burst through a gaping hole in the Miami offensive line in the second quarter for a safety to make it 12-0, and it was impossible to miss how much Incognito and Martin were missed as football players.
It was also impossible to miss how lethargic the Dolphins were overall. They made a strong comeback to take the lead in the second half, but they fizzled at the end as if gassed. Perhaps they were. Distractions are a media creation in almost all cases, but here you have players clearly concerned about what they will say, what will be said about them, and whether the inevitable change will force them out no matter how well they play.
"I'm worried about doing my job," Odrick said. "I'm worried about winning football games."
That's an understandable feeling. Surely everyone in the Miami locker room is watching his back and real team-building doesn't usually flow from that. That reality only further underscores the need for people outside the locker room to lead the change. The Dolphins have a young team, which shouldn't be overlooked when trying to figure out what went wrong. They can't police themselves – not when trying to stay relevant at 4-5 heading into late November.
"In Pittsburgh we had a lot of older guys," receiver Mike Wallace said. "It was more settled down."
It will be more settled down in Miami too, over time. There just may be more growing pains that show up on the field. "The more adversity," Odrick said, "the closer we get. You'll see a different team next week."
More important, and more accurately, you'll see a different team next year and the year after. Ross realizes better players and more wins won't solve this. The rest of the season will likely bring more distractions and detours, but that's so much better than more defiance and denial.
Wallace left the locker room after all the media had vanished and he turned the wrong direction. He found himself lost in the concrete caverns of Raymond James Stadium. He smiled sheepishly as he asked for help getting to the team bus. Then he was on his way.
There is a path out of this for the Dolphins. They just need someone outside the locker room to lead the way.