Senior Bowl Day 2: Ireland Flying Virtually Solo

Posted Jan 24, 2012

MOBILE, Ala. – Two different fronts in the team building process are simultaneously active for the Miami Dolphins, and General Manager Jeff Ireland definitely wore his game face on the Senior Bowl front.

Sitting high atop the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium this morning, Ireland held court with a handful of reporters following the North team’s practice and addressed everything from whether or not the Dolphins have settled on a 4-3 defensive scheme as opposed to the 3-4 they have been running to the health of Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long. He did so without his new head coach Joe Philbin at his side, just like he did back in 2008, as Philbin is busy on the coaching front putting together his staff.

“Joe’s taking care of some things back in Green Bay today and he’s got some guys coming in tomorrow,” said Ireland, who’s beginning his fifth season as a general manager. “We spent two days interviewing some of our current staff and getting to know some of those guys. I think Joe spent most of the day on Sunday and Monday doing that, so we’ll probably attack it pretty strong here in the next 2-3 days.”

Ireland and Philbin seem to have developed an immediate comfort level with each other and appear to be in lockstep when it comes to player evaluation and what type of player they are looking for. That has made this trip to Alabama for Ireland a little less stressful in terms of watching the practices and conducting player interviews.

Every team approaches the Senior Bowl with the same level of importance but with differing strategies in terms of who’s on hand in person and who stays behind. Three years ago, Ireland sat with former head coach Tony Sparano and then Executive Vice President of Football Operations Bill Parcells, while this year he was all by himself in the stands. Some of his scouts were working the stadium from other vantage points.

“The one thing I miss with not having a coach sitting next to me is just talking football and being able to kind of educate the coach about certain players and really kind of finding out what he likes in players,” Ireland said. “But we’ll have a chance to do that. Through the two interviews we had with Joe I kind of know what he’s looking for and we have a lot of similarities when we’re looking for players and philosophical things about fundamentals, technique and execution. I think it’s going to make it pretty much a seamless transition.”

Speaking of transitions, the million-dollar question since the season ended and the team embarked on its coaching search was what will happen to the defense. This was a unit that finished the season strong and for the last two years was near the top of the league against the run and in points allowed as a 3-4. The departure of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan to Atlanta put more of a spotlight on that side of the ball, but Ireland pointed out assuredly that Miami is prepared for whatever direction Philbin decides to take.

There are players currently on the roster with a versatile enough skill set to play in either scheme – a 3-4 or a 4-3 – and of course there has been an increasing trend of late involving college prospects fitting the hybrid mold of either a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end.

“I do think if we had to go 4-3 or if we stay with the 3-4 I think we certainly have personnel that we could make a pretty good transition,” said Ireland, who was quick not to rule out keeping both Kendall Langford and Paul Soliai. “I think there would be some pieces that we’d need to find but I think we have good personnel to do either one. I’ve prepared our scouts early on in the process, especially in December when we made the change that we need to be looking at 4-3 personnel just if that was to take place. So we’ve been looking at it for a while and it’s mainly linebackers and defensive line that you’re really looking for so we’ll make that transition if we go that route but it’s not going to be that big of a transition.”

As opposed to 2008 when he came onboard with Sparano and Parcells to a team coming off of a 1-15 season, Ireland doesn’t view this as another rebuilding process. Back then his regime ended up turning over 29 players on the roster and making wholesale changes to the type of personnel this team was going to target.

During last week’s introductory press conference for Philbin, Ireland was adamant that his coach would have 100 percent autonomy over who he will hire as coaches and reiterated today that the two of them will work side by side on the look of the team. As Ireland put it, “it’s a collective effort,” but one thing he was not shy about claiming was where he perceives the Dolphins are in terms of closing in on their goal to return to the playoffs and legitimately compete for a Super Bowl.

“Are we rebuilding? I do not believe so. Are we continuing to build? Yes,” Ireland said. “We are building. We are continuing to build. We’re going to build around what Joe Philbin’s vision is with some collaborative effort with what I’m looking for and we’re going to continue to build this roster. I do like some core pieces of this roster but we’re going to make some changes because we’re trying to put together a championship football team for the future of this franchise.

“We were 6-10 so obviously you’ve got to do a better job of putting wins together. I think we’ve got a nucleus and a foundation on this football team that has a chance to be good and we’ve got to continue to build the roster to be better than good because good’s just not good enough. We’ve got to be great and we’ve got to work on getting the pieces together to make a much bolder statement in South Florida. We want championships. We want wins and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

As to the question regarding Long’s health, Ireland cracked a smile and said with confidence,” Jake’s going to be fine.” The four-time Pro Bowler is rehabbing a torn biceps that landed him on Injured Reserve for the first time in his career at the end of this past season.

So as Ireland and his scouts watched the seniors from across the country perform on the field at Ladd-Peebles, he was well aware of some of the positions he would like to address. One thing Ireland insists he learned under Parcells and the other coaches and GMs he worked with is how important it is to constantly look for upgrades, especially with the possibility of losing players to free agency.

“I think (quarterback) certainly is something that we’re going to look at,” said Ireland, who reiterated what Philbin said about bringing an up tempo offense and about bringing more speed onto the field. “We’re going to look at free agency, we’re going to look at the draft obviously and I’m keeping my eye on all the quarterbacks that are out there. This is a quarterback league, so we’ve got to do our best to make the position better.

“We were 6-10 and we won six out of our last nine, which was a good start and I think we’ve got a quarterback on our roster (Matt Moore) that certainly did a nice job last year. But it’s a continuing process. Whether it’s tackle, guard, center or corner, we’ve got to do better. We just did not do a collective good enough job of putting wins together and the quarterback position is going to be a big part of it.”

Ireland described the difference between acquiring a quarterback through the draft as opposed to free agency as the drafted quarterback being a developing player and the free agent being an established player. He and Philbin will put together a plan on both fronts, cognizant of the fact that Miami’s current draft position (No. 8 or 9 based on a coin toss with Carolina at the Combine) lends itself to the need to trade up in order to get one of the elite quarterbacks, but Moore certainly remains in the mix.

“The staff has to be put together and we’re going to start evaluating all of those things,” Ireland said. “Matt did a great job. It just took him a little while to get doing but once he got a grasp of the offense and what we were trying to get him to do I thought he led the team great. I thought he was tough. I thought he took a beating back there and just kept on ticking and I though he did a great job.”

This week typically is Ireland’s favorite week of the offseason because he gets to go back to his scouting roots and really look at the talent in the proper environment. That explains the disappointment in his voice as he admitted that he arrived a day later than he would have liked to and will leave a day earlier than usual to help Philbin.

When he does leave Alabama, Ireland will take with him miles and miles of film that he will covet as if it were made of gold. This to him is more valuable than the Combine.

“This is football,” Ireland said. “I think this is probably one of the most important exposures you’re going to get to evaluating because it’s the last time you’re going to get to see them in pads and it’s football. We’re talking football and you’re playing football so I think it’s very important aspect of things. We grind this tape so much. We’ll go through these things from now until the draft probably hundreds of times, so this is extremely important to me. It’s a live exposure and it’s the tape that we’ll really go back and we’ll really sit down and we’ll really evaluate every piece of this film.”

RGIII ENDORSED BY HIS OWN RB: As an underclassman, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III was unable to attend the Senior Bowl, but two of his teammates on offense are in Mobile – running back Terrance Ganaway and offensive lineman Philip Blake.

Being as Griffin is projected one of the top two quarterbacks taken in April’s NFL Draft along with Stanford’s Andrew Luck, his presence his shadow is evident this week. Ganaway not only believes the hype and attention his college quarterback is receiving is warranted, he expects it to continue at the next level.

“He’s going to be a leader and he’s going to bring a ton of enthusiasm and a different mindset,” Ganaway said. “He’s going to make your team more confident in itself and he’s going to get you ready to play. It was an awesome experience to play with a Heisman Trophy winner and I tell him all the time that I should have won it. He’s got extremely good character, humor and he’s funny but he will be the best football player for your organization.”

SECOND CHANCE FOR JENKINS: Former Florida Gators cornerback Janoris Jenkins, representing North Alabama, reportedly interviewed with the Dolphins last night. Having played under Urban Meyer, Jenkins credits his former coach for getting him prepared for the next level and compares himself to Darrelle Revis in terms of skill set but wants to prove more about his character.

“You’ve got to be humble and you’ve got to face reality,” said Jenkins, who was kicked off of Florida’s football team by new head coach Will Muschamp after twice being arrested for marijuana possession in the offseason. “When you face reality you’ve got to face it as a man and you’ve got to accept everything that comes at you. When you make mistakes like that you’ve got to learn from them and I felt like me coming back and going to Northern Alabama, giving me a year to learn and just sit back and relax and see who really cares, just humbled me as a kid.”

This week he plans to convey that message to every scout, coach and general manager that interviews him and then let his physical abilities speak for themselves on the field. He’s not the first player to use the Senior Bowl as a second chance after a setback and he won’t be the last.

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