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Why weren’t the Dolphins’ tampering penalties more significant?

Mike Florio believes the NFL felt pressured to punish Stephen Ross and decided to suspend the Dolphins owner for tampering because they could not punish him for tanking.

On Tuesday, the NFL announced that the Dolphins had been engaged in a blatant, multi-year tampering effort that targeted a Super Bowl-winning coach and the greatest player of all time, and that victimized three different NFL franchises (Patriots, Buccaneers, Saints). The punishment doesn’t seem to come close to fitting the crime.

“The investigators found tampering violations of unprecedented scope and severity,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in announcing the discipline. “I know of no prior instance of a team violating the prohibition on tampering with both a head coach and star player, to the potential detriment of multiple other clubs, over a period of several years. Similarly, I know of no prior instance in which ownership was so directly involved in the violations.”

So why did the Dolphins lose only a first-round pick and a third-round pick for it? Sure, owner Stephen Ross is required to stay in New York (where he spends most of his time anyway) through October 23 and pay $1.5 million. Yes, co-owner Bruce Beal also was fined $500,000 and can’t attend league meetings through the end of the year (big deal). For what they actually did, and given the slim chance that they were going to even be caught, it arguably was worth it.

The extent of the prohibited conversations shows just how nonchalantly tampering happens. They talked to Brady in 2019 and 2020, when he was under contract with the Patriots. They talked to Brady and his agent, Don Yee, during and after the 2021 season, while Brady was playing for the Buccaneers. They talked to Yee, who also represents Sean Payton, about hiring Payton before he resigned from the Saints.

(Here’s something to ponder: Would Payton have resigned from the Saints if he didn’t think he would be coaching the Dolphins in 2022?)

It’s unclear how the league set the penalties. Maybe the truth is that it’s unprecedented only insofar as the Dolphins were caught, thanks to the concerns raised by former Dolphins coach Brian Flores and a tanking investigation that found plenty of evidence of attempted tanking but that (thanks to Flores) never became actual tanking.

Other tampering has occurred. As explained in Playmakers, the Cowboys had put everything in place to hire Payton from the Saints in early 2019. That surely didn’t start with the Cowboys following the approved steps of the tampering policy (i.e., calling the Saints, reaching agreement on compensation, and then raising it with Payton). The Cowboys knew Payton was interested, they knew what it would take to get him, and they were ready to surrender the coach in the hand and activate the formal effort to land the Payton in the bush.

Also, the Dolphins weren’t the only Florida team to tamper with Brady. Former Bucs coach Bruce Arians publicly stated his interest in Brady and then-Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers before free agency began in 2020. It was a textbook violation that, like the vast majority of tampering violations, was ignored. Then, after signing Brady, the Bucs pushed to the media a hokey, concocted chain of events that covered their tampering tracks.

Look at it this way. If the Dolphins took advantage of an unauthorized head start in talking to Brady and didn’t get him, surely the team that got him didn’t wait until the start of free agency to speak to him for the first time.

So that’s the best explanation; the Dolphins aren’t alone in tampering. Most if not all teams do it, in some form or another. But, in this case, it gave the league office a way to whack the Dolphins for something, because finding that Ross attempted to lose games generally could have sparked a class action civil lawsuit and/or a criminal investigation as to whether the Dolphins attempted to lose specific games.

Again, Flores saved the day, by refusing to act on the hints his multi-billionaire boss was dropping. The reward Flores got for doing so was to get dropped by an owner who prefers to have coaches who will do what the owner wants, without having to expressly be ordered to do so.