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Without prodding, without the slightest hesitation, Joe Philbin rattles off the dates as if he will never forget them.
“December 22nd and December 29th have been sticking in my craw for a long time,” he said.
Those were the dates of the season-ending losses to the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, two games that changed the complexion of the 2013 season. The Dolphins were 8-6 and had a real shot of making the playoffs. But it all came apart in those two losses. A season of real hope quickly turned to average, an 8-8 record leaving its second-year head coach frustrated, disappointed and searching for answers.
“We spent a lot of time this offseason trying to examine everything that happened in those games,” Philbin said. “It wasn’t the way any of us wanted the season to end.”
Joe Philbin sits in his office on this late Sunday afternoon, briefly looking back at what could have been, but far more intent on gazing straight ahead toward his third season leading this franchise. Philbin will tell you that this is the most talent he’s had on the roster since he arrived, that the upgrade in depth is evident at every practice.
“Things can change in a hurry in this league, but I feel good about this roster,” he said. “I believe in these players. We made some incremental improvements last season. It wasn’t as much as I wanted or as sudden as I wanted, but I am convinced we are heading in the right direction.”
And Joe Philbin feels he, as the head coach, is heading in the right direction as well. He readily admits that he’s a better coach today than he was three training camps ago. He understands his players better. He communicates with them better. He has a better feel for the demands and challenges of his job.
“I loved this job when I took it,” he says, “but I love it even more now.”
What he doesn’t love is losing. He doesn’t love remembering dates on a schedule that bring back sour memories. He doesn’t love a 15-17 record in his two seasons here. That the Dolphins were in position to make the playoffs after 14 games last season showed promise. But those two losses only underlined how much work remained.
“To get as close as we did shows a lot about our guys,” Philbin said. “But when you look closer you’ve got to ask: Why didn’t we? What are some of the things we didn’t do? More than anything else, it showed me we still have a lot of room for development.”
I truly like and respect this man. He is committed to this organization, committed to the people around him who he praises from his top assistants to the guy who cuts the grass on the practice field at night. He is so even keel, so calculating, so unbelievably organized. And, yes, so passionate, even though his calm, low-key demeanor might suggest otherwise.
“It has been a privilege to serve as head coach of the Dolphins,” he tells me.
“I try to connect with our fans as much as possible. You can feel their passion. I listen when they say to me: ‘Coach, we are going to do it this year. Coach, we have a lot of confidence in you. Coach, we’re going all the way.’
“You love to hear people who are as passionate as that. I share their passion and enthusiasm for this season. I want them to rest assured I am as passionate as they are and I’m going to work tirelessly to help that dream come true.”
The events of last season, both on and off the field, led Philbin to take a closer look at himself. He realized he needed to communicate better and to have a more thorough feel of the mindset of his players. So he scheduled one-on-one meetings with most of his players and he listened intently. But that’s not all: He’s personally even handling bed check every night in training camp to stay close to his players. Yep, that’s Coach Philbin making sure the lights are out.
“I asked the guys a lot of questions,” Philbin said of the one-on-one meetings. “What is your favorite thing about being a Dolphin? What is one thing you would change about the program and it didn’t matter the cost? It was interesting to get a perspective from the guys. The more information you have the better decisions you can make.”
But communication is one thing; performance is another. Philbin expects to be a better coach this season just as he expects his players to be better players. He has outlined to them his expectations, his goals.
“You always want to improve in your coaching,” he said. “I tell my players I want them to be a better football team in November and December than they were in the opening week. As a coach, you want to get better. I feel good about where I’ve come since year one.”
But Philbin will be the first to tell you it’s all about winning. He knows that’s how he’ll be judged. He embraces that. He talks of the great Dolphins teams of the 70’s and how he would love nothing more than to help write a new chapter.
This is an important training camp, an important time. There is so much to do, so many decisions to make and so many pieces to craft together in forming the fabric of this football team.
Joe Philbin is clearly ready for the challenge.
(On Tuesday, AC in the AM takes a close look at two of the team’s most versatile players.)
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