By his own count, Joe Philbin was an assistant football coach for 10,061 days before landing a No. 1 job.
In the blink of an eye, his life changed forever.
Not that Philbin needs any more reminders about the loss of his 21-year-old son, Michael, who drowned in a Wisconsin river in January. But they are there in his office at Miami Dolphins headquarters.
“I look at the picture of my children and our son that’s behind the desk to start every day,” Philbin said. “There’s a lot of other great pictures of him and our whole family.”
Philbin is sitting in a chair surrounded by those portraits featuring six children and his wife. When speaking with the media about his sonl shortly after Michael’s death, Philbin fought back tears.
Philbin was asked Wednesday whether he’s in a better place now that several months have passed. The question caused a momentary pause before he answered, “Yeah — sometimes.”
“It’s tough,” Philbin said as his blue eyes softened. “But it’s been better.”
Making the Dolphins a winner will help the healing process for Philbin and the club itself.
As the 50-year-old Philbin carves a new chapter in his life, Miami is attempting the same in a football sense. The Dolphins are reeling from 11 years without a playoff victory. Season-ticket sales are reportedly in the 30,000 range, which represents a drop of almost 50 percent from a decade earlier. There is a widespread perception in South Florida that team owner Stephen Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland are grossly overmatched in trying to build a winner.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning both steered clear of Miami when Ross and Ireland made their pitch. Philbin himself is a second-choice hire after Jeff Fisher instead chose St. Louis.
The fact Fisher would rather work for the Rams — a franchise that has won 15 games in five years — reflects just how far a marquee franchise from the days of Don Shula and Dan Marino has fallen. But the Dolphins are banking on Philbin to lead the organization back to the prominence now enjoyed by his former employer — the Green Bay Packers.
“I’ve always looked at my job as developing the potential of the players that I have the good fortune of being around,” said Philbin, Green Bay’s offensive coordinator the past five seasons. “To some degree at some places more than others it’s worked at every single level. Hopefully, it will work as a head coach.
“That’s what gives me confidence I can do the job.”
Philbin has plenty of internal support. He was able to assemble a coaching ensemble that includes three long-time friends — Mike Sherman (offensive coordinator), Kevin Coyle (defensive coordinator) and Ken O’Keefe (wide receivers). Having a personal relationship and sharing similar football philosophies should help Philbin avoid the unfamiliarity that can plague new staffs.
Philbin spent part of Wednesday in a quarterback meeting with a group featuring prized rookie Ryan Tannehill. But unlike the hands-on relationship that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has with Aaron Rodgers, Philbin plans to serve as more of an overseer to Tannehill’s development and future game-plan implementations.
That reflects Philbin’s trust in Sherman and assistant quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor as well as the approach he used in Green Bay toward the offensive staff.
“I used to tell the position coaches, ‘You guys are the head coach of your position,’” said Philbin, whose forte is handling the offensive line. “Every guy I hired in this building, I told them the same thing. So if I have to be in their room a lot, that’s not a good sign.
“You want your staff to feel accountable for the players their developing and coaching. When you become a head coach, you have to have faith.”
The Dolphins have placed their faith in Tannehill to become the quarterbacking answer the squad has sorely lacked since Marino’s retirement following the 1999 season. Tannehill didn’t play the position until midway through his junior season at Texas A&M, but that doesn’t mean he will automatically be sitting as a rookie behind incumbent Matt Moore or free-agent pickup David Garrard.
“I don’t think you ever want to say, ‘Geez, this guy is not going to be ready until midway through his second season,’” Philbin said. “If you do that and you get injuries, now you’ve given the guy a built-in excuse if he has to play: ‘Oh well, don’t worry about it. You’re not going to be ready for another year and a half.’
“You have to trust what you see on the practice field and preseason. It’s usually not that complicated. You look at (the video) and say, ‘He throws pretty well. Look at where his completion percentages are on a daily basis.’ It usually plays itself out.”
The Dolphins have spent this offseason overhauling the roster and implementing new offensive and defensive systems. Philbin’s personable approach is considered a contrast to that of predecessor Tony Sparano, who was fired in December after four-plus seasons.
“The positive atmosphere he has going on right now inside the locker room, (Philbin) definitely has guys believing,” Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith told me and co-host Gil Brandt on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “We are very young on defense so when you have a coach who comes in and is excited and all about positivity and getting better, it makes guys more comfortable. You’re able to relax and go out there and play instead of always having to worry, ‘Does the coach like me?’ or what not.
“He’s very interactive with the players. It’s definitely going to be a fun year for us.”
However, it may not be a winning one. Besides the unsettled quarterback position, the Dolphins have major questions at wide receiver and safety as well as depth issues at other spots.
Philbin, though, is prepared to handle any criticism that comes his way. He learned some valuable lessons watching McCarthy handle the Brett Favre controversy in 2008.
“Do what you believe in and don’t worry about all the outside pressures that can maybe impact your decision-making and how you deal with the team,” Philbin said. “Mike is very passionate about his job but had great balance. He had great relationships with people in the building and community. He had a way of getting the players to play hard but not uptight.
“We all know winning is what we get judged on. But I don’t think he focused on that a lot. He focused on the development of the individual and then the unit and then the team. He kept the team pretty well-balanced that way. He was very serious, but at the same time, he kept things light, too.”
Philbin is starting to see the light in his personal life once again. Philbin and his family have already integrated themselves into a South Florida church. Some of those parishioners have expressed their support as the Philbins continue trying to move past Michael’s death.
“Sometimes because of what our family has been through, we’ll walk out of church and some 70-year-old lady will come up and say, ‘Coach, I’ve been praying for you and your family,’” Philbin said. “You’re touched. That part has been just fantastic.”
It’s now on Philbin to have the Dolphins described in the same way.