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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

From Incognito to Infamous

Usually I try to keep my writing light-hearted.  Lists, ranking, and shouting about how much I hate Alabama dominate the text throughout my blog.  Today, however is going to be a little different.  For the first time in seemingly ages, the Miami Dolphins are the center of sports media attention, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.

Today, I put on my serious face and give my perspective on the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin debacle that is unfolding.  If you are not familiar with the story, check it out the link below.

I spent the majority of the morning listening to ESPN Radio, listening to every show my app could find that touched on the subject.  Mike & Mike, Tony Kornheiser, Chris Carter, Ron Jaworski, and Tim Hasselbeck all gave some insight to the story throughout the morning, but the best commentary I heard came from someone I'm usually very critical of: Colin Cowheard.  Cowheard described Richie Incognito as a sterotypical "tough guy."  A guy who pushes others down, tells anyone who is hurt, emotionally or physically, to just get over it.  A bully that that takes what he cans from others and uses his size and demeanor to stop others from standing up to him.

As Colin stated, the good news about guys like this is that they are dumb.  They eventually pick a fight they can't win, or wear out their welcome in whatever environment they are a part of and fall down the proverbial societal ladder.  Simply put, the bad guy eventually loses.

A nice sentiment but Incognito being the ultimate loser assumes that Martin comes out as the winner.  The problem here is that this situation has no winners.  Someone "winning" assumes that they come out from the situation in a better position than they were previously in.  I challenge anybody to find a party that comes out the better for this.

The easy answer is that Jonathan Martin is the winner but let's take a closer look at the situation.  Did Martin get Incognito out of his locker room?  Yes, it appears that he has, but Martin has perhaps an even bigger challenge left at this point.

You see football is not a great career choice for a player that struggles to stand up for himself.  Martin plays right guard and there are expectations that teammates have for any player on the offensive line.  The expectation is that you stand up and be a human wall.  Whether you are forcing a defender in a specific direction to open a running lane, or more frequently in the current landscape of the NFL, you are protecting your quarterback while he prepares to throw the ball doesn't matter.  Your job is to be a force that protects one or two specific players on your team.

As an offensive lineman in the NFL, you are looking down the barrel of a smoking gun at all times.  The biggest, strongest, meanest, and baddest men on a football field line up six inches from you.  They stare you down in silence waiting for that ball to snap and then they explode at you.  Whatever anger they are holding from their personal life, any issues with their role on their team, or even simple frustrations from the flow of the game, as a lineman you have to survive whatever motivation they have to be a force of destruction every time that ball leaves the center's hands.

Jonathan Martin will have a long fight in front of him to prove to anyone that he is up for that task again.  Offensive linemen, at all levels of football, know they have to trust the brothers by their side to do their job.  They know that the armor is useless with a single chink in it and the quarterback behind him knows that he may be the difference between a touchdown pass and a season ending injury.  Simply put, Jonathan Martin's job is to stand up and hit every big man coming his way, harder than they hit him.  To fight through hostilities and pain, to man up and protect the guy behind him.

The situation with Martin says to me that he is not ready to play football in the NFL.  Not because he is in the wrong, he isn't.  Not because he should have to put up with grief from other players or buy their meals, he shouldn't.  Not because he isn't talented enough to play, he absolutely is.  The reason is because a right guard has to be able to stand up and protect all the guys behind him and right now Jonathan Martin does not seem to know how to even protect himself.

Martin is six feet, five inches tall and weighs 312 pounds.  If a player is pushing him to far, stand up, punch him in the face during practice, and survive a shewing form your head coach.  For 100 years now, this has solved most conflicts on a football team.  Martin is a physical monster, he is physically capable of defending himself when necessary, and has chosen not to.  What is even more alarming to me though is not Martin's inability to defend himself physically but mentally.  Martin is a graduate of Stanford University, the best school West of Illinois at least, and was in the right, why did he not go to his coach or other teammates and resolve this.

Again, I have to point out that I fully believe that Martin is in the right here, but he should be ashamed of the way he handled the situation.  If you want to play football in the NFL, you can't solve disputes by saying nothing for 18 months, then deciding you need time to deal with emotional issues, state there are no issues with the team, and then wait for the league to come probing for an issue to admit that someone has been bullying you for almost two years.  No matter what consequences he feared could come from "ratting" out the treatment from Incognito, it would have been impossible for it to have damaged his team as much as this "solution" did.

Richie Incognito is certainly a loser in this situation.  He is suspended indefinitely, which means he is losing money, and regardless of what other news breaks one has to believe that his career could be done for.  Miami almost certainly will have to part ways with the veteran guard, for PR reasons at least, and based on on his reputation this would have to be strike three.  Three years of good behavior (supposedly) have helped many forget how problematic his career has been and it may be at a point where no one else will take a chance on him.  How this situation plays out is irrelevant, the NFL days are likely over for Incognito.

The entire Miami Dolphins organization is free-falling from this as well, they are not Penn State, but they have taken over Tampa Bay as the team that has the worst reputation.  There are reports of coaches being involved in asking Incognito to "toughen up" Martin.  Even if those are false, or the coaches are lower level and easily replaced, second year head coach Joe Philbin has egg all over his face and looks at the least painfully ignorant, if not completely dismissive.  Keep in mind that last year Sean Payton sat the entire season out despite limited evidence of any involvement in the "bounty" scheme.  Philbin may have to miss some time, even if he keeps his job.  Given the way that the NFL operates and how much your organizations public reputation has been made a heightened importance recently, I expect a "house-cleaning" to occur.

Philbin and the coaching staff are therefore also losers in the story.  What about the rest of the team?  Absolutely.  Perhaps the most concerning part of this story is the fact that Martin has absolutely zero locker room support right now.  Incognito is not believed to have been alone in this and keep mind that Martin plays right between him and the younger Pouncey, whose recent involvement with Aaron Hernandez will certainly gain him some accusatory looks as this draws on.  Keep in mind that Miami just acquired starting left tackle Bryant McKinnie in a trade less than two weeks ago.  If Pouncey ends up as part of this story, then only one starter on the Miami offensive line next week may have been starting just 14 days ago.

This is all happening on a line that led the league in sacks allowed when all the starters were healthy.  Ryan Tannehill is a young quarterback, that is only in the fourth season of his entire life playing the position. His pocket presence is sub par, he holds the ball to long, and is going to take a beating this season that may take years off his career.  The window for Tannehill to blossom is closing alarmingly fast.  There are defensive linemen being lumped into this story as well, so the defense might suffer as well.

The bottom line is that the organization is looking at an extraordinary loss of talent, general manager Jeff Ireland was already on the hot seat and seems assured to be fired by season's end once this team misses the playoffs.  The rebuilding process may be painful and slow if they lose all the talent as well.  The Dolphins don't draft well and haven't for years, and free agents don't typically walk into fires.  The fans are the biggest losers of this whole ordeal.

The NFLPA loses as well, they have to represent both players in the inevitable litigious process.  Veterans the league over are losing out as well, because you can bet your favorite team cap that the big meals on the rookie tabs and other initiations are going to be a huge center of attention this offseason and will be gone no later than the next time union agreements come up for bargaining again.  It's easy to overreact to stories but this one is going to linger and sting.

The real story here is that it may not pay to be a bully but being vindictive certainly is paying big dividends either.  I sympathize for stories about children that are bullied, the 40 pounder that gets beat down on the playground, the kid with a speech impediment that can't use his words to defend himself, but not behemoth that chooses to save voicemails and text messages in case he reaches a breaking point.

Bullying is a hot issue in our country right now but this is not bullying.  Bullying is when someone incapable of defending themselves is victimized by others who exploit that fact.  Martin chose not to stand up for himself, it's not bullying, it's just being weak, and hopefully players on both sides of issues like these can learn from the train wreck unfolding in front of us.