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NFL workplace dynamics take center stage

By By Jason Wilde
Published On: Mar 26 2014 09:27:27 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 27 2014 07:14:53 AM CDT
Green Bay Packers

ORLANDO, Fla. -

Mike McCarthy calls it “taking a lap.”

When the Green Bay Packers coach arrives each morning at Lambeau Field bright and early, he has a four-stop tour he has to make. He may make it before the first team meeting, he may make it at lunchtime, he may make it after practice, he may make it before his players head home for the night. He may make all four stops consecutively, or he may make a couple early and a couple later.

But he always – always – takes that lap.

“I always walk through the locker room, through the training room, through the equipment room, through the weight room,” the Packers coach said Wednesday during the NFC Coaches Breakfast – his ninth as the Packers’ coach, having started in 2006 – at The Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes resort. “There’s never been a day that I’ve been the head coach that I haven’t done that.”

Just 24 hours earlier, Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin had sat at the very same table – a different seat, and one that was much hotter, figuratively speaking – and endured a nonstop barrage of questions from reporters about the Dolphins’ workplace dynamics. In the wake of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal that rocked the Dolphins last fall and turned a promising season upside-down, Philbin spent nearly all 60 minutes of the breakfast taking responsibility for the environment that festered and eventually led Martin to leave the team because of the bullying he endured from Incognito and others.

The Wells Report, commissioned by the league after the situation exploded and embarrassed what was once one of the league’s signature franchises, didn’t come down especially hard on Philbin, who kept his job even though general manager Jeff Ireland and others lost theirs. But the report did reveal that, somehow, Philbin had let the situation spiral out of control in part because was unaware of just how bad things were in the locker room.

When asked if he was concerned about his job security, Philbin said his focus now is on doing the things he failed to do previously.

“I’ve been more focused on how I can do things better, so it doesn’t occur as we move forward as a football team and an organization,” said Philbin, who’d faced similar questions – although not as many, because it was in a 15-minute press-conference setting – at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last month. “I’ve been focusing mostly on myself. What do I have to do better?

“I think the visibility factor can be a difference. That's one of the things I'm going to do. It's not that I've never been [visible], but I think what happens sometimes to coaches is you're conflicted with, ‘Should I watch that blitz tape?’ [Or], ‘Gosh, I got to get that third-down film watched.’ And sometimes, it's better use of a head coach's time to walk through the training room, walk through the locker room, walk through the hallways.

“It's not that I've never done that stuff, but it's fair to say I'm going to do it more.”

Although the regular-season grind can make it hard for head coaches – even two guys as close as McCarthy and Philbin – to connect during the year, McCarthy did reach out to his friend in the wake of the scandal. They saw each other again at the Combine, and at the NFL Meetings this week, they got together again. They even stood next to each other for the group photo the league takes each year of all of its coaches.

While McCarthy didn’t absolve his friend of everything that happened, he was adamant about one thing: If someone of Philbin’s character could have such a situation occur on his watch, no coach is immune.

“If something like that can happen to Joe Philbin, it can happen to any of us,” McCarthy said. “It’s a hard, hard lesson that we all need to learn and grow from.

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think the greatest compliment you can give another man is the fact that you’d trust him with your children. I’d trust Joe Philbin with my own children. So I know what he’s about on a personal and professional level. So with that in mind, clearly the intent of doing it right 24/7 is there [with him]. And I’m sure it’s very apparent inside their organization. But I think it’s a hard, hard lesson that we all need to learn from.”

One of the other lessons Philbin said he learned was about communication. A 31-year coaching veteran but a first-time head coach at any level, one of his mistakes might have been trusting his guys to act like grown men and be professional.

“I mentioned visibility. I think accessibility also is important,” Philbin said. “They're a little bit tied together. In the NFL, everybody doesn't want to be the bearer of bad news. [There’s a feeling of], ‘The head coach is busy. Don't bother him. He's watching film. He's doing this or doing that.’

“We’ve got to get away from that. I frankly have to be a little more vigilant in my enforcement of policies and procedures that I want to have in the locker room and the program. That falls on me. There has to be better communication both ways. From them to me and me to them. Players to me. Me to players. That's something I felt, as you have a little bit of time to reflect on things, certainly needs to improve.”

The Dolphins scandal was the topic of conversation during the meetings, with virtually every coach facing some question about workplace dynamics and locker-room culture. Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who read the Wells Report and called its contents “appalling,” said he has a leadership council that includes one veteran member of each position group, plus the team’s elected captains. When the Dolphins appeared on HBO’s Hard Knocks during Philbin’s first season in 2012, he had a council as well, but that might’ve been part of the problem, since Incognito was elected as a captain last season by his teammates.

“They are your lieutenants,” Lewis said. “I think you have to have leadership in place throughout your team that understands what our focus is: To win football games. Our focus is, [with] our starting tackle, to have him feel as good about himself as he can feel each and every day because that is a big, strong man that has to go and block big, strong men. So we certainly don’t want to tear him down and expect him to go out and battle with us on Sunday. This doesn’t work. You can’t belittle him and expect him to do things he does.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who’s yet to hand down punishment for Incognito and the others named in the Wells Report, spoke at length about the workplace environment as well, and there was a clear emphasis among the image-conscious league leaders on trying to undo some of the damage the Dolphins scandal did to the brand.

“I think this is going to be a collective effort,” Goodell said in his post-meetings press briefing Wednesday morning. “You’ve heard some of the coaches. We’ve had several different sessions discussing this with executives, owners and coaches. We are going to talk with our players on April 8 and that’s the focus of the [NFL Players Association] meeting. We’ll talk about what we can do to ensure a professional workplace.

“I met with 40 players from nine different teams over the last three months to discuss this. They want a professional workplace and we owe it to them. We are going to work with them to try to create that.

“You guys have all been there. Locker rooms are unique. There are unique things that we have to think about. We want them to be professional. We want them to be comfortable – everyone in that locker room – so they can focus on doing their job. That’s what we all owe them.”

That’s what McCarthy strives to deliver in Green Bay, although it’s not always easy. To McCarthy, a father of five, there is a fine line between monitoring what’s going on in the locker room and being the coaching equivalent of a helicopter parent, always hovering and not showing faith in your guys to do the right thing when you’re not watching.

“It’s critical for the head coach to be on point with every person that has the opportunity to touch the locker room. That’s something we’re very, very conscientious of,” McCarthy said. “[At the same time], they’ve got to have their place. I think you also have to be conscientious of not making them feel like you’re looking over your shoulder all the time.

“It’s real important, particularly with a younger football team, that the older players are showing them the Packer Way. I think it’s like anything. You’re developing behavior, the best behavior that’s going to sustain and be long-term is something that comes from within the group and is not always coming from the guy in front of the room dictating what he’s looking for.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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