This post is about the Miami Dolphins passing game, which is having problems right now, but it is mostly about accountability and the vastly different approach of two individuals to the same problem.
The Dolphins are struggling in the passing game. It was a struggle against the New England Patriots in a victory. It was a struggle against the Buffalo Bills in a defeat. I could share the litany of statistics to back up those facts but trust me on that so we can get to the greater point quicker.
In accepting that the problem exists, kindly compare how the team's head coach and offensive coordinator -- both responsible for the passing game's performance -- approach the issue.
Both coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor were asked about the passing game's woes at their press conferences Monday. It was the first question of both press conferences.
This is how Philbin answered the question:
“We watched the film. Obviously, I was at the game," Philbin said. "I watched the film of the game on the plane ride home. I sat down with the whole staff and watched the game this morning again, so it’s my third time looking at (the game). In the passing game, there are a lot of factors that go into a good passing game as you know. As we watched the film, the film says that we’re not detailed enough in any one area. In other words, there were pictures on the tape where the depth wasn’t quite the right depth. The angle at the top of the route coming out and separating at the top wasn’t quite right. There were times where the location of the ball wasn’t quite what it needs to be. There were times when the protection forced the quarterback off of some open receivers and into other options. So the answer is our passing game is not at the level it needs to be. Those are the facts, but it’s a unit issue. It’s not one player that is really causing all of the problems with the passing game. When I saw it three times, I thought I saw it the first time. I watched it myself last night. I watched it and talked about it with the whole staff. That’s what I see."
So Philbin's approach is to blame all the players. It's not one player. It's the quarterback not locating the ball right sometimes. It's the receivers not taking proper angles sometimes. It's the offensive linemen and backs and tight ends failing at their protection sometimes.
Then Lazor was asked about the Miami Dolphins passing game.
“There’s no doubt that the blame rests 100 percent on me," Lazor said. "It’s my job when the unit fails in an area, whether it be completing enough passes, whatever the area is, and I felt like, when you look at us right now, if my stats are correct, unless someone has a really terrible game tonight, we’ll probably be in the second week last in the league in yards-per-attempt, which I think is a pretty good indicator in the passing game of how you are doing offensively. That rests on the coordinator and just getting everybody to do it the right way and just getting everybody on the same page. You can count the number of throws you think are errant, you can count the number of drops, you can count the protection issues when there is pressure on the quarterback. They are all true, but in the end, when it’s all of that together, that’s on the coordinator."
So Lazor's approach is to blame himself. He addresses the problem by pointing an accusing finger at no players, no other coaches, no one but himself.
And this is a fascinating study in human psychology. One person who has the ultimate responsibility over the entire team doesn't mention that it is his or his coaching staff's responsibility at all while putting it all on the players.
One person who has the ultimate responsibility over the unit recognizes there is a problem with the entire unit and says so but doesn't mention anyone else but himself.
Now, I'm sure if pressed, Philbin would agree the offensive coaching staff, Lazor and ultimately he have a role to play in the struggles of the passing game. I'm sure if he was asked, "Do you take responsibility?" he'd do it.
But the thing is that's not something that comes natural to him. He has to be pushed to do it. It's not the place where he goes off the top of his head. He believes it is the players that have to perform and so, in his mind, it is on them first.
This, even as he's dismissing the idea that he's supposed to be the team's alpha dog, its leader, and leaders are the most responsible for everything good and bad.
I know a lot has been written about how Philbin has changed this year. And he has made a commendable conscious effort to be more approachable and communicative. But on the accoutability front?
I'm seeing the same guy whose answer in the Wells Report to the harassment scandal was, in effect, "I didn't know about. I didn't see anything. It was those guys doing bad things."
We saw this kind of approach from the coach at the end of 2013 when the Dolphins collapsed the final two games. Philbin blamed the players. It wasn't about him failing to get the team ready for the two most important games of the year. It wasn't about his offensive coordinator doing a poor job because, indeed, when ownership wanted Mike Sherman fired, Philbin resisted strongly.
It was about the players simply not performing, in his mind.
Lazor? His natural reaction is apparently to look inward. He may recognize the players are not performing, but he's going to lay under the bus first before he throws any of them under it.
Don't blame others, blame me.
That reaction is one of a leader, a guy who leads from the front no less. This is the kind of approach that wins hearts and minds in the locker room, rather than the approach that points to the hearts and minds in the locker room and blames them first.
The concern here?
A football team takes on the personality of its head coach and to a lesser degree its coordinators. When Dave Wannstedt would tell his offensive players, "It's no sin to punt," that unit took on the personality of not making a mistake was the most important critical factor to playing the game rather than the message from its coordinator Chan Gailey or Norv Turner who preached, "Let's go make a play and be aggressive."
My concern is that this Dolphins team, particularly the offense, will take the path laid out publicly by its head coach which is blame someone else but not myself. Instead of taking the path laid out publicly by its offensive coordinator which is to look in the mirror first and fix that.