DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — A leadership vacuum may have contributed to the troubled relationship between Miami Dolphins offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, which has left both players sidelined and the team in turmoil.
The ongoing saga has raised questions about whether coach Joe Philbin and his staff were negligent in allowing issues between Martin and Incognito to fester. Current and ex-players around the NFL say the situation reflects a lack of leadership because teammates of Martin and Incognito didn’t intervene.
NFL officials are trying to determine who knew what when, and whether Incognito harassed or bullied Martin. A second-year tackle from Stanford, Martin left the team last week and is with his family in California to undergo counseling for emotional issues. Incognito has been suspended indefinitely.
A senior partner in a New York law firm with experience in sports cases was appointed Wednesday by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to investigate possible misconduct in the Dolphins’ workplace and prepare a report that will be made public.
“If the review reveals anything that needs to be corrected, we will take all necessary measures to fix it,” Philbin said. “I believe in our players, I believe in our staff, I believe in our organization, the people around here. I know why I got into coaching, and I believe in the things that I’ve done.”
Two people familiar with the situation said Wednesday that Martin talked of quitting football earlier in his pro career before leaving the team last week. One person said Martin considered giving up the sport because of the way he was being treated by other offensive linemen on the team. The person added that Martin now wants to continue his football career.
Both people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the Dolphins have said little about Martin’s departure.
Incognito’s harassment of Martin included text messages that were racist and threatening, two other people familiar with the situation previously told the AP. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the Dolphins and NFL haven’t disclosed the nature of the misconduct that led to Incognito’s suspension.
The team built by Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland has undergone heavy roster turnover after losing records each of the past four years. Of the 53 players on the squad, 20 are new to Miami this season.
“That’s the one thing I’ve heard from every single former player ... there’s a lack of leadership,” said Jimmy Cefalo, a former Dolphins receiver and now their play-by-play announcer. “They might step in with Richie and say, ‘Look, this has got to change.’”
The Dolphins’ oldest player, 34-year-old John Denney, is a long snapper who sees little action. The second-oldest, 34-year-old Bryant McKinnie, has been with the team less than three weeks. The third-oldest, 31-year-old Tyson Clabo, joined the Dolphins this year.
In 2012 the team’s player leadership council included Reggie Bush, Karlos Dansby and Jake Long, all of whom left after last season. Their replacements were second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, newcomer Dannell Ellerbe — and Incognito.
“It’s easy to attack a locker room for a lack a leadership when we as players voted on our leaders for leadership council, and he was one of our leaders,” receiver Brian Hartline acknowledged.
An assertive veteran might have prevented any problems from escalating, said former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson, now an analyst with NFL Network.
“In every locker room there are jerks; we all have them,” Tomlinson said. “But at the same time, there are always guys that can go and talk to that jerk and say, ‘You’re going overboard.’ My problem is Miami doesn’t have that guy. ...
“If you’re a player in that locker room, there has to be someone there to be able to step up and help that guy. You know the personnel of the guys in your locker room a lot of times — the leaders do — and if a guy can’t defend himself and isn’t capable of standing up for himself, it is up to the guys in that locker room to say, ‘Hey man, let’s not go there’ or ‘You’re going too far.’”
Such comments annoyed Dolphins players. Defensive end Cameron Wake, a fifth-year pro, said the criticism unfairly undermines the integrity of the organization.
“It’s unfortunate, it’s wrong, it’s ridiculous and it’s hard to hear,” Wake said. “Coach Philbin has done nothing but turn this organization in a positive direction from top to bottom.”
New York attorney Ted Wells was chosen by the NFL to investigate. He has conducted special investigations into the Syracuse basketball sexual harassment case, and the NBA players union leadership dispute. In the latter case, his report led to a change in the head of the union.
“He is on the job as of today and will undertake to complete his work as promptly as possible,” Goodell said in a statement. “Consistent with doing a thorough investigation, we have not imposed a specific timetable on him.”
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, commenting publicly on the case for the first time, applauded the appointment of Wells.
“He has an impeccable reputation, and we look forward to fully cooperating with the review,” Ross said in a statement. “We take this situation seriously.”
Among the issues to be examined will be the role of offensive line coach Jim Turner, a former Marine Corps infantry officer who is in his first NFL job. It was his job to groom Martin, a second-round draft choice from Stanford who won a starting job as a rookie last year but developed a reputation for lacking toughness.
Indianapolis Colts tight end Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz, a tight end with the Philadelphia Eagles, played with Martin at Stanford. Both disagreed with characterizations of Martin as soft for leaving the team rather than standing up to Incognito.
“That’s a stupid statement,” Fleener said. “I would dispute that and I’d debate anyone on that.”
“For people to kind of throw out that he’s soft for doing what he did I think is completely wrong,” Ertz said. “What do people want him to do, go fight him? I don’t think that’s going to solve anything. I think he did what he had to do.”
Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood, who briefly played with Incognito in 2009, said he has kept up with developments because they share the same agent.
“I’ve kind of known, been one step ahead of what was coming just through communications with everybody,” Wood said. “The language was a terrible misjudgment. In today’s society, you just can’t use racial language. ... You’ve got to have respect for a guy. And when a guy’s kind of down, which I’m assuming (Martin) was, you’ve got to know when to pull off. And I think he really used some really bad misjudgment.”
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner, AP reporter Tony Winton and AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., Michael Marot in Indianapolis, Ind., Rob Maaddi in Philadelphia and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.