For everyone to see, this Sunday is all about football for the Miami Dolphins. The team got special permission from the NFL to wear throwback uniforms and helmet logos again. The end zones have been freshly painted with the old “Dolphins” script from the Orange Bowl days. And, of course, the order of the day is to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars and continue the current desperate and improbable push to make the playoffs.
Dolphins football late in December … We still have a small chance!
And then there’s what you don’t see.
That’s owner Stephen Ross considering what to do next with this franchise. That’s people whispering in Ross’s ear to get him to move in one direction or another. That’s folks trying to solidify their power by crafting grand plans for the future, or at the very least, just trying save their jobs.
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This kind of stuff is happening throughout the football side of the organization but it’s mostly coming from way above the locker room level.
Sure, players are trying to play well to save their jobs for 2019, too, either in Miami or on another team. But the approach in the locker room is transparent, easy to understand:
Play well, you’re employed in 2019.
Play poorly, you’re in trouble.
Beyond the locker room is where this thing gets splashed with intrigue and agenda. Beyond the locker room is where it gets somewhat political.
For example: Multiple league sources say if Ross decides change is needed among his trio of top football people, executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum is the top target to lose his job.
Tannenbaum, completing his fourth season with the team, oversees and coordinates the effort of football operations and administration. He is general manager Chris Grier’s boss and answers directly to Ross.
And, generally, Tannenbaum is a facilitator of what the Dolphins have decided their philosophy will be, which is to build a good team in the next several years while not falling off the table with terrible seasons in the present.
Tannenbaum adopted that philosophy in 2015, in part, from Bill Parcells.
Except the Dolphins are a middling team. They’re not championship caliber. There’s no hint they’re going to be championship caliber for years if they remain on their current path.
The franchise that today is 7-7 has been nothing if not consistent throughout the past quarter century with a frustrating and increasingly unacceptable mediocrity. As I’ve been tracking in this space since October, the Dolphins are 199-199 since the 1994 season.
They are 23-23 during the 46 games the current leadership of Tannenbaum, coach Adam Gase and Grier has been in charge.
So the Dolphins have not progressed appreciably the last three seasons. Indeed, they made the playoffs in 2016 and have regressed from that (for multiple reasons) the past two seasons.
The philosophy of winning enough today while reaching for something really good tomorrow is not producing the promised results because tomorrow never seems to arrive.
But if Ross is going to decide Tannenbaum’s approach failed and Tannenbaum should go — a decision not yet made — he’s going to have to ignore the longstanding advice of one of his most trusted advisers.
Dolphins vice chairman Matt Higgins is the man most responsible for convincing Ross to hire Tannenbaum in 2014 and promote him in 2015. Higgins has been Tannenbaum’s most powerful ally and advocate within the Dolphins hierarchy.
Higgins is co-founder and CEO of RSE Ventures, a private investment firm that focuses on sports, entertainment, media and other areas. He co-founded the company in 2012.
The other co-founder?
Higgins is based out of New York as is Ross. And since 2012 Higgins has advised Ross on business as well as personal dealings.
So why has Higgins been such a big Tannenbaum advocate? What’s the connection?
Before he began to work for Ross, Higgins was an adviser to New York Jets owner Woody Johnson. One man who helped Higgins after he gained entrance into the Jets organization in 2004?
Higgins is affable. He is friendly. And if Ross is around the team, Higgins is always a step or two behind. He’s ever-present.
But although he appears on this season’s episodes of Shark Tank, a nationally televised show, Higgins has remained a below-the-radar figure regarding anything to do with the Dolphins’ inner workings.
He did not acknowledge a text when a Miami Herald reporter attempted to reach him this week.
The point is if Ross is going to paint Tannenbaum responsible for the Dolphins’ inability to rise above .500, he’s going to have to ignore the past advice of a close associate.
And what about coach Adam Gase?
He’s still owed millions of dollars in the future according to his contract. But that’s no guarantee against Ross going in another direction because Ross doesn’t much worry about the cost of something when it comes to the Dolphins — his best trait as an owner.
Gase has presented a stoic, unchanging approach to his situation and his team’s assignment. It’s always been about winning the next game. He doesn’t make excuses quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed five games this year after missing all 16 last year. He doesn’t publicly blame any real or perceived lack of talent or salary cap space for any problem.
But Gase lately has told associates the team’s mounting injuries — with 13 players on injured reserve — should matter in judging his work.
This is a private departure from the public stance Gase often takes when the topic of injuries affecting the team’s fortunes is raised.
“Nobody cares,” Gase often says publicly.
Gase hasn’t had the Higgins endorsement. Multiple sources actually believe Gase is getting the opposite of an endorsement from Higgins.
But Gase has strong allies in general manager Chris Grier and Tom Garfinkel, who as vice chairman, president and CEO runs the business side of the organization from Hard Rock Stadium. And Gase and Tannenbaum have maintained a good relationship.
No one has gotten an indication from Ross what he’s going to do. Everyone understands Ross wants a plan for changing the Dolphins’ course after the season ends.
The question is which, if any, plan Ross will accept as viable? Because in a year people are scrambling to keep their jobs behind the scenes, the person with the plan Ross likes probably will remain.