Published August 27, 2012
Let others debate whether the jinx even exists.
If I'm Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, I'm blaming "Hard Knocks" for the disastrous couple of months that lie ahead. The rookie coach inherited a team barely better than last season's 6-10 version and someone will have to take the fall once the NFL regular season ends unhappily, again, in Miami. And as all the coaches and quarterbacks who've had to do just that for several decades can attest, it's never too early to start pointing fingers at somebody else.
Admittedly, the curse attached to HBO's popular miniseries doesn't have the history or the cache — yet — that the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine and the Madden NFL video game do. The SI cover has enough documented cases for its own Wikipedia page and the game recently was featured in a Forbes magazine piece.
The "Hard Knocks" jinx got off to a similar start in 2001, when the network chose the fresh-off-a-Super-Bowl-win Baltimore Ravens as the subject for the show's debut. Training camp had barely opened when the team learned star running back Jamal Lewis was lost for the season after suffering an ACL tear and MCL sprain in his left knee. That effectively ended any chance the Ravens, who relied heavily on defense and a ground game, would repeat as champions. What the next few episodes of "Hard Knocks" became, beyond a launching pad for the TV career of then-Baltimore coach and current analyst Brian Billick, was the template for how NFL organizations attempt to cope with too much attention.
"Do I think this is going to help us win games?" Philbin asked the day after the first episode was aired, then answered his own question. "Probably not.
"Do I think this is going to cause us to lose games? I don't think so. Again," he added, "my focus is on the development of the team and not necessarily the TV show."
Yet there's a very good reason why teams like the Patriots, Packers, Giants and Steelers haven't volunteered for their turn in the limelight, and why HBO is finding it harder to convince even the needier owners and franchises to play along. The Cowboys tried it twice and both seasons began with promise and ended flat. The 2010 New York Jets, with coach Rex Ryan heading the most entertaining cast of characters on the show, appeared to defy the jinx by overcoming a raft of distractions and going all the way to the AFC title game before bowing out.
Two years later, the Jets are the only team so far this preseason to go without scoring a touchdown. Coincidence? I think not. Especially since the hapless Dolphins, winless in three tries, just happen to be the only team that has yet to even hold the lead in a preseason game. At that rate, there will plenty of blame to go around.
The Dolphins already lost veteran backup QB David Garrard to a knee injury, and wide receiver Chad Johnson (Ochocinco), who was expected to provide a big chunk of the drama, is out of a job following a domestic dispute. Also sent packing via a trade was former No. 1 pick Vontae Davis, whose spot in an already porous secondary will be inherited by a rookie.
Few fans will remember any of this between now and December and will pick on Philbin instead. It's easy to do in part because of his role in "Hard Knocks," where he comes off as a well-intentioned, but ultimately overmatched high school math teacher. He's seen wandering around the complex picking up gum wrappers and upbraiding players for not tying their shoelaces. In one unintentionally comic bit, veterans Reggie Bush, Karlos Dansby and Jake Long turn up in Philbin's office to ask the coach — on camera — to communicate more with his players. In the background, we glimpse the occasional sign touting that "Champions Train Here" and "Work Here" and "Play Here" when it hasn't been true in Miami, really, since the great Dolphins teams of early 1970s.
The reason why has little to do with Philbin, though you wouldn't know that from watching the first three episodes. If there's a real villain in this drama, it's owner Stephen Ross, who didn't buy his way into the front office until 2008, but can't resist hitting the reset button on his desk. His first plan was to give old NFL hand Bill Parcells total control. When that didn't produce wins or sell tickets, Ross tried to increase attendance by putting stars in the seats instead of on the field — selling off bits of ownership to Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Jimmy Buffett, Gloria Estefan, Fergie and Venus and Serena Williams. That didn't work any better.
One of the reasons Ross has tried desperately to raise the Fins' profile is because of increased competition from Miami sporting rivals, the NBA champion Heat and MLB Marlins, who were the subjects of a "Hard Knocks" copycat called "The Franchise" on Showtime.
Expectations were high at the outset, but despite a spending spree, a new ballpark and the arrival of manager Ozzie Guillen, the Marlins reside in the NL East cellar. Full disclosure, as the Dolphins are about to be reminded, comes with a cost.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.