The trouble with phrases like “unprecedented scope and severity” and “integrity of the game violations,” in the NFL’s report against Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross is they don’t get to the bottom-line issue more than a decade in making:
How can someone so smart be so dumb?
Every owner knows how to tamper without being a league-wide conversation. Every team knows how to tank without having to float a bribe to the coach to lose games. This is Ownership 101, folks. This isn’t anything close to the heavy lifting of winning.
But the Dolphins, being the Dolphins, lost a future first- and third-round pick to highlight various suspensions and fines on Tuesday as this once-proud franchise remains a beacon of embarrassment.
The league crammed game-fixing and tampering charges against Ross into a one-stop press release that didn’t just condense the comedy to one day. It shows Ross got off lightly.
He offered money to coach Brian Flores to fix games in 2019, the league investigation found. But Ross was joking, the league concluded. Ha-ha! Maybe Ross’ delivery was all wrong to Flores?
What part of a line like, “I’ll give you $100,000 for every loss,” didn’t Flores find funny that the league lawyers did? And will the Justice Department find it as much a knee-slapper if they open an investigation for game fixing?
“I strongly disagree with the conclusions and the punishment,’ Ross said in a statement “however, I will accept the outcome because the most important thing is that there be no distractions for our team as we begin an exciting and winning season.”
The good news about those distractions: Ross is suspended until Oct. 17 and owner-in-waiting Bruce Beal is suspended, too. So those distractions won’t be distracting the team.
The bad news: Other distractions don’t just remain in place, but are bigger and more central to the “exciting and winning season.” That’s because the NFL investigation made it official. Mike McDaniel and Tua Tagovailoa weren’t supposed to be the Dolphins coach and quarterback this year, according to Ross’s bold plan. Sean Payton and Tom Brady were contacted.
Ross began talking with Brady two years ago, during his New England time, the league report said. It kept up through December 2021 when he was with the Bucs, the report said. Payton was the New Orleans Saints’ coach when the Dolphins contacted him in January. To spin this as a positive: Ross thinks big!
Dumb. But big. Clumsy. But big. The simple truth is if the league didn’t find that the Dolphins tampered with Brady and Payton their credibility would be mush. This was an open discussion inside the league for months.
It was so open I wrote three columns on it that many Dolphins fans refused to believe in the same manner they refused to believe Ross negotiated a trade for Deshaun Watson right to the trade deadline last year. Or that poor team management led to the Bullygate scandal in 2013. Or that Ross flew across country with general manager Jeff Ireland and tried to hire Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh while Tony Sparano was coach, after the 2010 season.
Do you detect a pattern of dumb ownership? Ross is a multi-billionaire genius in real estate. So maybe he’s just dumb as a sports owner in thinking everyone else is dumb.
Back to this season. McDaniel and Tagovailoa will have this question of Payton and Brady hanging over them all year. It’s not exactly fair. It won’t help during those bad stretches every season has. But the owner put the question there.
It was a bold plan by Ross, too. If Brady and Payton are running the Dolphins right now, you’d need a division of security guards at the ticket gate and the TV networks are fighting over them for prime-time games. It was a strategic show-stopper except for one thing: It fell apart when Flores filed his racial discrimination lawsuit against the league and the Dolphins.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called it “unprecedented” that the Dolphins tampered with two people in two organizations. His penalty was hardly unprecedented for the Dolphins. They have been fined a first-round pick for tampering with a coach previously.
Don Shula was the coach. Shula was forever furious about the league’s ruling, because Dolphins owner Joe Robbie asked Baltimore Colts president Steve Rosenbloom for permission. The league ruled he needed to talk to his father, owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who was in Asia on business in that stretch.
Here’s the larger point: Robbie got his man. He hired Shula. It was the best first-round pick spent in team history.
Ross didn’t get Payton and Brady. Did he try saying that was a joke, too? That Payton and Brady didn’t get the punchline just as Flores didn’t?
Ross runs a first-class organization everywhere, except for the one place people notice. The team is a regular mess. He hasn’t won a playoff game in 13 years as owner. Maybe this is the year? Maybe McDaniel and Tagovailoa are a winning team?
If not, Brady and Payton will be out there next winter for Ross to chase again.