Dolphins' Jeff Ireland fights off perception team lacks plan

Ask Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland how he's doing these days in the wake of a tumultuous month that included an unsuccessful courtship of Peyton Manning and subsequent public scorn, and he'll shrug his shoulders.

"I was a kicker in college," said Ireland, who was keeping it casual during a social event at the NFL Annual Meeting in Palm Beach this week. "At that position, you learn a lot about being the hero and the goat."

Those lessons at Baylor in 1991 -- from the high of a game-winning, 58-yard kick against Colorado to the low of three misses against Rice -- were all plenty helpful. But these days, he might be better suited if he'd also learned how to play some defense.

Over the past two months, public comments from Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn and former Dolphins linebackers Joey Porter and Channing Crowder have painted a rough portrait of Miami's general manager and the state of the organization as a whole.

Tack on a low-key March -- along with the departures of Brandon Marshall and Yeremiah Bell -- and there's now a local perception that Dolphins camp is a place where dark clouds hover above and overgrown vines crawl up the sides of paint-chipped walls.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross bought controlling interest in the franchise in 2009.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross bought controlling interest in the franchise in 2009. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

"You're always going to find somebody that's going to say something [negative] for whatever reason," owner Stephen Ross said. "Players might say that because they didn't make the team. Other players came here and we didn't meet their salary demands. People always want to say something because they like being in the spotlight often times.

"I wouldn't go with what one or two people might say."

To some, Ross makes a point. To others, he is ignoring a growing sentiment that is starting to create a wonder in league circles what exactly is going down behind those Dolphin walls. Ross, though, is standing firm behind his man.

But does the problem really stem from Ireland's ways, as some are suggesting? Is his style of recruiting -- which multiple agents have described as borderline degrading -- keeping free agents away? Earlier this month, after Flynn signed with the Seahawks, Clark even took to Twitter and said "no one" wants to play for the Dolphins.

Well, there are two sides to every story. And a little transparency on the part of Ireland has shed enough light on the situation to provide some answers from the Dolphins' side.

"I've never been degrading," said Ireland, when told by NFL.com about the sentiments shared by several anonymous agents and players. "I'm abrupt. I'm brutally honest. And I'm not going to lie to anybody. I don't try to tell them something to get them in the door and tell them something different after they sign. That's not me.

"I haven't missed out on too many players I've gone after. Peyton Manning? I'm a small piece of that situation. Matt Flynn? That was half his decision, and it was half our decision."

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Ireland wouldn't disclose details of those negotiations, but a Dolphins source said the team only was willing to offer Flynn nearly $4 million per year because they weren't convinced he was a franchise quarterback. Seattle ended up paying him more than double at nearly $8 million per year on a three-year deal.

Ireland did note, however, that he's only offered one contract this offseason that was not signed -- and that was Flynn. During his tenure with the Dolphins, which began in 2008, he can only recall one other instance (Clark) when he didn't get a player he was actively and aggressively pursuing.

"Sometimes you bring in guys to get to know them," Ireland said. "Just because you bring him in, it doesn't mean you're absolutely going after him. Sometimes, you bring him in to see if there's chemistry between him and the coach. Sometimes, I bring a guy to take a physical. Sometimes, they don't pass a physical. But I'm not able to disclose situations like that.

"It's a perception that I think is wrong, that I'm losing out on guys."

Of course, the three players signed by the Dolphins this year -- Jamaal Westerman, Richard Marshall and David Garrard -- all described a pleasant recruiting process during conference calls with the media.

That's not to say the negative sentiments about Ireland quickly will evaporate. Some, like Crowder, still believe Ireland's attitude toward players has worked against him with his own locker room and within league circles, whether it directly impacts free-agent visits or not.

"Bill Parcells messed Ireland up," Crowder said. "He tried to teach Jeff to have that aura, but it doesn't work for him. It doesn't work for everybody. Bill Parcells is a unique individual."

Jeff Ireland (left) and Bill Parcells worked together in Dallas before joining up in Miami.
Jeff Ireland (left) and Bill Parcells worked together in Dallas before joining up in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)

The sentiments expressed by those around the league, though, could not be more opposite than those expressed by those who know Ireland outside of the Dolphins' facility. They see a committed father of four, who balances a brutal schedule to help care for his twin daughters -- both of whom deal with the difficulties of autism.

Last fall, when Ricky Williams went to Baltimore to play for the Ravens, the Ireland family invited Williams' wife and children to live with them for several months while dealing with a housing situation.

It is a reality far different from the one he deals with at work, where many outsiders know him only as a person who conducted an inappropriate interview with Dez Bryant and a general manager who has dealt with criticism from some vocal players about his people skills.

"I'm not a recruiter; I'm an evaluator," Ireland said. "I tell them exactly what the position is. From what I understand, I told Matt Flynn the same things Pete Carroll told him. There are so many different things that go into why you bring a player and why you don't sign him. I have a strong record on the guys I've brought in and wanted to sign."

His defense in nearly every capacity actually make very good sense, particularly since it isn't the GM's job to become too close to the players on the roster. But fans, no doubt, did not protest his personality when they stood across the street from the Dolphins' facility a few weeks back.

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That can be pinned on a perception that Miami doesn't have a plan. Ireland remains equally adamant that he does, leaving others to sit back and see how it unfolds. But no, he says, the ability to recruit players has not impacted that plan to this point.

Ireland had a surprising advocate come to his defense Wednesday in agent Drew Rosenhaus, who expressed distaste last week for the team's decision to cut Bell (his client). Rosenhaus, a lifelong Dolphins fan, said on WQAM in South Florida that his discussions with Ireland in the wake of Bell's departure have helped him better understand the team's direction.

"Just hanging around Jeff Ireland and Joe Philbin, you get the sense that they're very confident despite all of the negativity perhaps in the media and surrounding the club this offseason," Rosenhaus said. "Those two guys in my opinion are operating with a lot of confidence and are executing the plan that they have."

When Ireland was a kicker back in college, his success or failures could be quickly deciphered. The kick was good. Or it was no good. It was success. Or it was failure. So while the highs and lows might have prepared him for this, he's now dealing with a very different situation. Now, his legacy will take time to play out.

"We are right in the middle of the process," Ross said about Ireland. "It's an unfinished product. And I think to judge him at this point in time is not the right thing to do by anybody."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington