On Sundays, NFL teams play the game, and they play to win the game—the Raiders and Chargers proved that to us Sunday night. But on every other day of the week, NFL teams—and coaches especially—don’t play the game; they play the Game. The Game is one of politics, of connections and networks, of knowing the right guy, and of knowing the guy who knows the right guy, and wondering how his son’s college baseball career is going—he’s at Brown, right? To play the Game, you don’t scheme and scout and coach; you glad-hand and schmooze. You scramble for job security, for upward mobility, for increased power. The NFL coaching ladder is a rat race, and there’s only one job at the top of each of the 32 molehills. Brian Flores just lost one of them.
Statement from the Miami Dolphins. pic.twitter.com/Lh1WaAIRY9— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) January 10, 2022
He lost it because of the relationships he struggled to make and maintain. That message has been delivered, loud and clear. NFL Network’s Steve Wyche said that “coaches don’t often get fired for coaching reasons.” ESPN’s Jeff Darlington said Flores’s “relationship with [Dolphins GM Chris] Grier and Tua [Tagovailoa] had deteriorated to a pretty bad place.” And Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said “an organization can only function if it’s collaborative and works well together.” If anyone would know why Flores got fired, it’s that guy. He did it.
That Flores’s coaching approach rubbed some people the wrong way is unsurprising. Flores is an intense dude. He came up in the coaching ranks under the most intense of dudes: Bill Belichick. He once tried to fight the entire Cincinnati Bengals bench. But even though coaches may not get fired for coaching reasons, we on the outside often evaluate coaches for exactly that: how well they coached. And Flores coached well. Flores won games.
As the Dolphins so shrewdly put it in their announcement of Flores’s firing, he ends his stint in Miami just a game under .500: 24-25. But we cannot forget the teams with which Flores was saddled during his short-lived Dolphins tenure. That 2019 team was one of the worst we’ve seen in a while. The offensive roster didn’t have a single All-Pro or Pro Bowl player on it entering the season—the Dolphins were the only such team in the league. The team’s leading rusher was Ryan Fitzpatrick who, early in the season, was benched for Josh Rosen. After opening the season with a 49-point loss to the Ravens and a 43-point loss to the Patriots, they were 21.5-point underdogs to the Cowboys—they did not cover—which spurred oddsmakers to set hypothetical lines for a game between the Dolphins and the Alabama Crimson Tide, who were led at the time by rising junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (more on him later).
In Year 1, Flores was the captain of a sinking ship—but that was always the plan. The Dolphins had traded away offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil in the preseason and defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick after two games, accruing three extra first-round picks in their fire sale. With each loss, they inched closer to the first pick, the ultimate prize for every self-respecting rebuild. But then, something unexpected happened: Flores’s ship started to sail.
The Dolphins started winning, taking on the character of their head coach: unblinking, gutsy. They won five of their last nine games, including a 27-24 season finale over the New England Patriots that knocked their bitter rival and Flores’s mentor out of the AFC’s no. 2 seed. They climbed all the way to the fifth pick, but more importantly, foretold the success that was to come. The Dolphins’ rebuild looked strong—heck, it was ahead of schedule!—because Flores had proved he could win, even with a bad roster. As The Miami Herald wrote in 2019, Ross was “thrilled that he has a coach, in Brian Flores, who can extract the most out of his roster and put together a team whose performance is greater than the sum of its parts.”
That Flores worked with and won with that roster is a testament to another thing he did well as a coach: develop relationships with his players. Now, not every player loved Flores—again, Flores’s demeanor is clearly not for everybody. Minkah Fitzpatrick wanted a trade for a reason, believing Flores “had no clue who he was as a player and didn’t care to find out,” as Ty Dunne of Bleacher Report would report. But current Dolphins players reacted with shock to Flores’s firing Monday morning.
Reaction to Brian Flores' firing is starting to roll in from Dolphins players. pic.twitter.com/F0jTfciDzb— Doug Kyed (@DougKyed) January 10, 2022
I won’t pretend to know how every Dolphins player feels about Flores. Nor will I pretend that every player accurately empties their heart on social media. But those players who reacted—an undrafted free agent turned starting nickelback; an ex-Patriot; a small school offensive lineman who won a starting job—are the sort of players that would gravitate to Flores’s style. Nik Needham needed that open competition to win the job he did. Jason McCourty saw the tough approach win Bill Belichick championships. Robert Hunt recognizes the underdog mindset as a two-star recruit with one college offer. Flores connected with these players well; their spirits were kindred.
These are not the relationships that Darlington referenced. This is not the collaboration that mattered to Ross. Connecting with players is great, and winning games sure is nice, too. But that’s the game. Flores lost the Game. And that Game had three players: Flores, Ross, and Grier.
Owner, head coach, general manager. That’s the nucleus of every NFL team—and Ross is right to say that, without collaboration between these three bodies, it’s tough to get the job done in the NFL. Particularly, without collaboration between head coach and general manager, it’s tough to get the first and biggest job done in the NFL: finding the right quarterback. Ask Vic Fangio, a defensive savant and grandfather of the most popular defensive system in the league today—he just got fired as Denver Broncos head coach because, despite all of their defensive success, their talented receivers, and their improved offensive line, the Broncos couldn’t find the right quarterback. Ask Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman in Minnesota, both fired on this Black Monday despite the quality work they did for the Vikings over the course of a decade together, because four years and $115 million in cap space spent on Kirk Cousins produced one playoff berth. The NFL, for all of its complexity, is really a binary proposition: You either have the right quarterback, and you are good; or you don’t, and you aren’t.
The Dolphins got the quarterback position wrong. After Flores’s strong finish to the 2019 season, they were positioned to take one of the three premier QBs in the 2020 draft: LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert. Two are now the fastest-rising superstars in the league; the third is the guy the Dolphins took. Burrow was already off the board when the Dolphins turned on the clock with the fifth pick, but after months of smokescreening and debating, the Dolphins took Tua over Herbert.
The Dolphins got the quarterback position wrong, and while there are a lot of different ways to get that wrong, disagreement between the people drafting the quarterback is a terrible place to start. Reports have it that Flores preferred Herbert over Tua, while Ross had no interest in Herbert. A fracture between head coach and owner, with the general manager (understandably) siding with his boss come draft day, makes the following trainwreck in Miami more easy to parse.
In 2020, Flores started Ryan Fitzpatrick over Tagovailoa until the bye week, when he named Tua the starter shortly after discussing a cautious, slow onboarding for Tagovailoa’s NFL career. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Dolphins’ strong projected position for the 2021 NFL draft increased their urgency to evaluate Tua, in case they needed to select another early quarterback in consecutive drafts—something Flores, who presumably didn’t want Tua, would be pushing to the front office and ownership. Flores further pushed that envelope when he benched Tua not once, but twice during his rookie season, facing fourth-quarter deficits that he hoped Fitzpatrick could eliminate—a move that worked in Week 16, magically keeping the Dolphins’ playoff hopes alive.
Then the offseason came, and Deshaun Watson was available for trade. The Dolphins were central in every Watson rumor, but again, it seemed that the priorities of the nucleus were not in line. Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Flores was one of the biggest things drawing Watson to Miami—and that without him, Watson may no longer be interested; Peter King reported at the trade deadline that Ross was not interested in making a push for Watson. During all of this, Tua was suspended in uncertainty as the team scrambled to slap together an offense that would work for him. The Dolphins passed on the 2021 quarterback class, instead drafting one of Tua’s top college targets, Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Flores hired his third (and fourth?) offensive coordinator in three years on the Dolphins job: promoting running backs coach Eric Studesville and tight ends coach George Godsey to co-offensive coordinator roles. The Dolphins deployed the heaviest RPO offense of any team this year, maximizing Tua’s quick release and shrewd decision-making while protecting him from long dropbacks behind their suspect offensive line and deep throws with his average arm strength.
It worked in the sense that, if you squinted real hard and only looked at a few friendly metrics, things looked better; it didn’t work in the sense that Tua and the offense still weren’t good. In Week 17, facing the Titans on a wet Miami day, their playoff hopes still alive with a win, the Dolphins scored three points. Tua went 18-for-38 for 205 yards with a pick and four sacks. There was no Ryan Fitzpatrick to Superman off the bench this time.
That Tua and the offense didn’t work for the second year in a row is Flores’s fault, in the sense that he is the head coach, and the Sunday product is his responsibility. Flores’s abrasiveness has made it tough for him to attract offensive coaches to work under him. Of his four offensive coordinators over three years, he hired two ex-Patriots positional coaches who had a combined total of one year of previous experience as an offensive coordinator, and two who were already on his staff. The only outside hire he made was luring Chan Gailey out of retirement, which was almost exclusively because Ryan Fitzpatrick was on the team, and which nobody else was trying to do. The head coach is responsible for the team, and Flores’s offenses never worked.
But while there were issues with coaching and execution, the first bad apple was the Tua selection, and it spoiled the whole bunch. Flores wasn’t fired for his failures to get the Tua offense working—Ross told us that. He was fired because he struggled to collaborate with Tua, whom he reportedly never wanted, as well as with Grier and Ross, who were the architects behind Tua’s drafting.
Of course, relationships go two ways. Ross could have also fired Grier for not getting on the same page with Flores and for struggling mightily in recent drafts, with perhaps no greater miss than Tua over Herbert; or he could have moved on from Tua, prioritizing a new quarterback in the upcoming offseason that he, Flores, and Grier all agreed on. But on the seminal topic of finding the right quarterback, Flores didn’t agree with the owner, and he didn’t like the quarterback who was selected. He was, it seems, cast out of Miami for his dissent.
In a vacuum, it isn’t necessarily the wrong move. An owner should strive for a collaborative nucleus, of course—and in the event that his head coach has open, seeping disdain for his starting quarterback? Yeah, he should fix that pretty quickly. But with their cards on the table, it sure is difficult to rate Tua above Flores as an asset for a growing young team. Flores won a lot of games he had no business winning, given the roster Grier handed him and the way Tua played. Firing him for the sake of those guys feels backward. Now, Ross is tasked with hiring a head coach willing to hitch his wagon to Grier’s shaky roster and Tua’s marginal talent—with the clear message that even consecutive winning seasons will not be enough to keep the job. The NFL head-coaching pool is always full of fish, but I’d imagine those pickings will be more slim than Ross hopes.
Ross might learn his lesson too late—Flores has the opportunity to learn it now. For as unjust as it may seem that Flores was fired despite winning plenty of games, he couldn’t win the Game. He pissed off the owner of his franchise. If we want to measure NFL coaches by their ability to win championships, we must by proxy measure their ability to retain jobs—and suddenly, not pissing off the franchise owner becomes a critical skill. The Dolphins lost a good coach in Flores on Monday, but plenty more teams will pass on that same good coach if Flores is unable to round out the rough edges on his résumé. Like Tua, Flores is young and still has time—but with every season passed and every bridge burned, that developmental road becomes steeper and narrower.
The NFL’s Black Monday always holds some ugly surprises—the firing of Flores is (hopefully) the toughest one we will see this season. This year, it serves as a strong reminder: What we see on NFL Sundays is only a sliver of the story for coaches and general managers, as they look to please and appease the owners of their franchises. The games are over; the Game has just begun.