Throughout my experience watching and rooting for the Miami Dolphins, there were always clear cut leaders on the team. Don Shula was undoubtedly the supreme leader throughout the 80s and 90s, to be succeeded by a fiery Dan Marino. Fans would routinely see Marino’s face burning bright red during sideline confrontations. Supplementing these icons were Richmond Webb, Keith Sims, John Offerdahl, Trace Armstrong, and OJ McDuffie.
Jimmy Johnson took over the team in 96 and solidified the defense by drafting bona fide leaders Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas. Johnson also drafted Daryl Gardner, Tim Bowens, Sam Madison, and Patrick Surtain. (Can’t you feel the nostalgia running through your body?) And it doesn’t get any tougher than Rob Konrad. The former Dolphins fullback swam for 16 hours to shore while being circled by a shark after being ejected from his boat.
Needless to say Dave Wannstedt inherited a very good football team when he took over for Jimmy Johnson in 2000. Coach Wannstedt stopped by the Finsiders during Super Bowl week in Phoenix and had this to say about his former players,
“Off the field there would be something going on in the locker room and I’d say, “Sam (Madison) we gotta get this stuff squared away or something. Between Sam and Zach (Thomas) if we had a bad series on defense and they’re coming off I would start walking the other way. They wanted to change coverages… but it was all good because they knew. They really knew what we were trying to do. This is how you define a good player.”
Wannstedt had enough trust in the leaders of his team to just get out of their way if things went bad. He trusted that they knew the reason for the mistake and that it would be corrected. From the outside looking in, I don’t see that trust between players and coaches on this team. All of the leaders have been removed; like class clowns that have disrupted the classroom. I honestly cannot name one true leader on this team. Where are the future Hall of Famers? They may share the same number but Koa Misi is no Junior Seau.
The Dolphins last future Hall of Famer, Jason Taylor, stopped by the Finsiders as well during Super Bowl week. He had some words to say about the team’s intensity last season. He said bluntly,
“It’s been flat. We were a little different. I think we had a different make up; our mentality. A lot of it is mental. I’m not a coach. I’m just gonna say it. Sometimes you take the penalty. You know what - I’m gonna take a shot at somebody. I’m gonna do something to get us going. At some point someone has to be that spark to light the fire.”
Translation: There are no leaders on this team.
The only game that sticks out to me in which the Dolphins showed toughness was the first game of the season. The Dolphins overcame three turnovers and rode Knowshon Moreno’s wave of intensity for a come-from-behind win. Moreno pounded the New England defense for 134 yards in that game and was on his way to becoming a leader of this team. Once Moreno was gone due to injury he took the intensity with him. At the time I called it the Moreno Effect.
When Branden Albert went down for the year with the knee injury, his leadership followed him right to IR. Before Albert’s injury the Dolphins were 5-3. After the injury they went 4-5.
Mike Wallace has shown leadership qualities. His work ethic and willingness to work after practice caught Coach Philbin’s eye early in the year but after his perceived behavior during the final game of the season, he might have ended his career with the Dolphins.
Even a member of division rival and Super Bowl champions New England Patriots had a take on the incident involving Wallace and Philbin. Armando Salguero from the Miami Herald reported that during a Patriots media availability at the Super Bowl an unnamed player from the Patriots offered his two cents.
“’Miami Herald, huh? What up with your boy Mike Wallace?’" this player asked.
When Salguero asked the player what he thought about Wallace’s discontent with his number of targets the player said, "To me, that's mental toughness. When things ain't going your way you got two choices in my mind. You can bow up and get tougher and fight through to try to change the situation. Or you can complain. Even if you got cause and complaining is what most people would do, if you take that road that makes you mentally weak in my book."
So if one of the Dolphins’ perceived leaders is seen as “mentally weak,” what does that say about the rest of your team? If your team is mentally weak it can’t handle adversity and can’t close out games.
When asked how close the Dolphins are to being a playoff contender Jason Taylor had this to say.
“I think they’re close. It’s easy to sit there and say look at the Green Bay game, the Detroit game and several other games where they had a chance to win at the end. It’s some-what deceiving to say we’re a couple of plays away. Well those plays are hard to make," he said. "That extra step is hard to take. Sometimes it’s more mental than it is physical. And that is the most difficult thing to change is that mentality; that expectation to win. The fans can be a little more optimistic than [people] in the building. You need to take a real hard look and a true assessment of where we are and what we need to do mentally, physically, and schematically to get better.”
Those are strong words about your team from a perennially Pro-Bowler and future Hall of Famer. The truth hurts. Starting with the head coach all the way down there are no leaders on this team. That is why the Dolphins are not a mentally tough team. There may be a few mentally tough individuals but as a whole they just are not. Taylor sees it; the Patriots see it; even Wannstedt sees it. On the Finsiders, Wannstedt wondered aloud how crazy it is that the Dolphins have fallen so far, noting back to his days when it was Super Bowl or bust in Miami.
This team doesn’t expect to win. They try not to lose because of lack of leadership and mental toughness.
This column was written by Carlos Hernandez. Follow him on Twitter: @LosDez