What many might have expected to be a humdrum Monday Night Football broadcast between two struggling NFL squads – the Dolphins (4-4) and the Buccaneers (0-8) – has now become a high-stakes, can’t-miss game after last week’s Richie Incognito bullying imbroglio in Miami that led to the loss of two key QB protectors.
Even as they’re reaching for a possible wild card into the playoffs, the Dolphins, a team that already led the league in sacks-allowed (35), will take the field without veteran offensive tackle Incognito and second-year man Jonathan Martin. Their vacuum will be filled with speculation about where the Dolphins organization goes from here, both on the gridiron and as a broader organization.
The team suspended Incognito for team-damaging conduct after the release of a racially-tinged voice mail where Incognito taunted, harassed, and threatened Martin. Martin left the team after a mental breakdown last week, and his agent said he’d been the target of harassment and abuse over a span of 18 months.
Monday’s game was in fact already important, at least for Miami, because it’s pretty much a must-win scenario for the Dolphins against a Tampa Bay team that has yet to win a football game this season.
But what many fans will be looking for is not only how the Dolphins respond to the controversy swirling around their locker room, but also for insights into whether bullying played a role in corroding the South Florida squad.
“Forget the Xs and Os in this one for Miami, this is all about [Miami Coach Joe] Philbin's leadership and whether this team can stick together with the national media spotlight shining brightly,” according to commentary on SportsNetwork.com
With the Incognito-Martin O-line duo responsible for 10 of the team’s 35 sacks-against, some suggest the bullying, which reportedly extended back to Martin’s rookie year, had already failed to motivate the men protecting quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
To be sure, the controversy and the missing starters may yet inspire Miami’s players to prove themselves on the field, although handicappers suggest the Bucs, coming off a good effort against a strong Seattle Seahawks last week, have a grand opportunity to take advantage of a Dolphins team in turmoil.
"Right now we're focused on sticking together as a team, having each others' backs as a team, and getting ready to play a football game," Mr. Tannehill said. "At the end of the day, we're playing a Tampa Bay team on the road on Monday. So we have to deal with this, yes, but we also have to get ready to play a football game."
Some Dolphins players have defended Incognito, with some calling Martin “weak” for not standing up for himself and going outside the organization for help. The problem for Martin was that Incognito, a nine-year veteran with a history of misconduct, had been voted a member of the leadership council, and that other players might have piled on with tacit approval by at least some coaches.
And while Dolphins players largely circled the wagons in defending Incognito, nearly 80 percent of other NFL players polled by ESPN said they wouldn’t want him as a team mate. (A not quite as large percentage said they wouldn’t want Martin as a teammate, either.)
Indeed, the Dolphins are a franchise in transition, with lots of young players, a new coaching staff, and high turnover, all of which could have contributed to problems in the locker room. Some experts say troubles on the field could also have led coaches to lean on the offensive tackle pair, ratcheting up what had already become a pressure cooker relationship.
"The recent developments in the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito situation [have] shown us one thing: Joe Philbin is to blame for the turmoil in the Miami Dolphins' locker room," writes Gil Alcaraz of rantsports.com. "First and foremost, an NFL head coach needs to know what's going on within his own locker room. If there's a player bullying another player, sending him threatening voice mails and text messages while making him feel uncomfortable on a daily basis, the head coach has to be aware of it."
Coach Philbin, who has denied knowing about any problems between the two men, took responsibility. "I am in charge of the workplace atmosphere," Philbin said at a press conference this week.
Whether or not coaches directly had asked Incognito to “toughen up” Martin, as has been reported, may be addressed by a special counsel appointed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to look into what happened in Miami, and whether the NFL’s locker room culture is more broadly out of control.
As Monday’s game could underscore, “the challenge now is to deal with the overarching culture and strengthening locker rooms and leadership in locker rooms,” says Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist at Boston University. “The problem for teams is to find the line between tough and aggressive and divisive and bullying. Some coaches are great at putting their foot down, others turn a blind eye a little bit. We all mean good, but sometimes we don’t end up doing good.”