A busy week of NFL discipline continued Tuesday as the league stripped the Miami Dolphins of their 2023 first-round pick, among other measures, for tampering violations commissioner Roger Goodell said were of “unprecedented scope and severity.”
The announcement came one day after an independent disciplinary officer suspended Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games following allegations of sexual misconduct during massage sessions. It’s six months after former Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the league, accusing the New York Giants and Denver Broncos of conducting sham interviews in order to fulfill Rooney Rule requirements, and charging the Dolphins with incentivizing losses and applying pressure to improperly recruit Tom Brady.
Tuesday’s ruling addressed the last two items on that docket. The issues of sham interviews and other potential illegal labor practices remain to be addressed in court.
In the end, an independent investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, uncovered one of the most extensive cases of tampering in league history. Over the course of two years, the Dolphins tried to recruit Brady and coach Sean Payton to join the franchise when both were under contract with other teams. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a statement he “strongly disagrees with the conclusions and the punishment,” but the league said there would be no appeal.
Here’s a closer look at what we know, including the semantics involved in the public statements regarding tampering, and what could be next.
What did the Dolphins do?
According to the investigation, the Dolphins spent two years trying to recruit Brady — first from the New England Patriots and later from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — to join the franchise. Much of the discussions focused on becoming a limited partner, a team executive and even its quarterback. Per the NFL’s anti-tampering policy, “no club, nor any person employed by or otherwise affiliated with a club, is permitted to tamper with a player who is under contract to or whose exclusive negotiating rights are held by another club.”
In addition, the investigation found the Dolphins spoke to Payton’s agent in January 2022, before Payton had resigned as the Saints’ coach. Even after Payton announced his departure on Jan. 25, the Dolphins would have needed permission from the Saints to talk to him. Per the policy: “An employee under contract (including a head coach, general manager, or other ‘high level’ employee) who voluntarily resigns or retires prior to the expiration of his contract is prohibited from discussing or accepting employment with another NFL club without the consent of his prior club.”
The Dolphins did ask the Saints for permission to speak with Payton after his resignation, the investigation found, but the Saints declined.
What are the penalties?
The Dolphins forfeited one of their two 2023 first-round picks, as well as a third-round pick in 2024. Ross was fined $1.5 million and suspended until Oct. 17, 2022. According to an NFL source, the discipline amounts to a six-game suspension. The Dolphins play their Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 16.
Ross has also been removed from all of his current committee assignments, which included the finance, media, international and legalized sports gambling committees.
Dolphins limited partner Bruce Beal, who was found to have conducted many of the discussions with Brady and his agent, was fined $500,000 and is prohibited from attending any league meetings through the end of the 2022 season.
Is this what Flores alleged?
Along with the accusations of sham interviews and incentivizing losing by offering monetary rewards, Flores said the Dolphins tried to draw him into the scheme to recruit Brady on multiple occasions. He declined.
Wait, so the Dolphins were trying to hire Payton and Brady for 2022?
That’s what the investigation found. Ultimately, the Dolphins hired San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to replace Flores and stayed with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback.
According to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, NFL owners would have had to vote to approve Brady playing a dual role for the Dolphins as a player, executive and/or limited partner.
What else did the investigation find?
The NFL said it looked into Flores’ allegation that Ross offered him $100,000 to lose games in 2019, his first season as Dolphins’ coach. It found Ross made a number of comments to multiple people in the organization, including Flores, that the 2020 draft should take priority over winning in 2019. Flores took those comments as a suggestion from his boss to lose, but the investigation found the team never intentionally lost a game.
As for the $100,000 offer, the investigation found “differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context.” Regardless, the NFL said: “[S]uch a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer, nor was the subject pursued in any respect by Mr. Ross or anyone else at the club.”
Ross said the investigation ‘cleared our organization on any issues related to tanking.’ Is that true?
It might be true that the Dolphins didn’t tank, but that’s not the same as saying Ross didn’t want them to, especially as it related to making draft position a higher priority than winning. The investigation also didn’t fully resolve whether Ross offered Flores a financial incentive to lose, instead noting the “differing recollections” about it. And even if it wasn’t intended to be a serious offer, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t taken as one.
In his own statement, Flores said: “I am disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’ offers and pressure to tank games, especially when I wrote and submitted a letter at the time to Dolphins executives documenting my serious concerns.”
Why would it have been a big deal if the Dolphins had been found to lose intentionally?
At its core, the NFL’s product is unscripted drama. In his statement, Goodell said that “every club is expected to make a good faith effort to win every game.” Anything short of that, he said, would undermine “the integrity of the game, and public confidence in professional football.”
Jeff Darlington reacts to the news that the Dolphins will lose a 2023 first-round pick and a 2024 third-rounder after violating the NFL’s anti-tampering policy.
Are these punishments unprecedented?
It is not the first time a team has forfeited a first-round pick for disciplinary reasons. The Patriots did it twice, in 2008 after “Spygate” and 2016 for “Deflategate.” In those instances, as in 2023, the first round will have 31 picks instead of 32.
The Saints, meanwhile, lost two second-round picks for “Bountygate” in 2013.
Owners have also been docked more than $1.5 million, most recently the Washington Commanders‘ Dan Snyder ($10 million). There have also been suspended owners before. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, for example, was suspended six games in 2014 after he pled guilty to a misdemeanor count of driving while intoxicated.
Has there been much tampering identified in recent years?
Some, but nothing of this magnitude.
The Kansas City Chiefs lost a third-round pick in 2016 and a sixth-round pick in 2017 for talking to free agent receiver Jeremy Maclin before it was allowed. The Detroit Lions, meanwhile, lost a sixth-round pick in 2012 and were forced to swap fifth-round picks in 2011 with Kansas City for improper contact with Chiefs safety Jarrad Page.
Can Ross still run the team during his suspension?
The league’s announcement said he can’t be present at the team’s facility, nor can he represent the team or league at an NFL event or at league meetings. That language is almost identical to the words used to announce Irsay’s suspension in 2014.
Why weren’t Brady or Payton disciplined?
The anti-tampering policy is directed at clubs intervening into contracts of another club, not the targets of the attempted intervention.
It defines tampering as “any interference by a member club with the employer-employee relationship of another club or any attempt by a club to impermissibly induce a person to seek employment with that club or with the NFL.”
In the case of Brady or any other player, discipline would be governed by the personal conduct policy, which makes no mention of tampering.
What does losing a first- and third-round pick do to the Dolphins’ ability to build their team?
Dolphins general manager Chris Grier said it was a priority for the Dolphins to keep both of their first-round picks in 2023, as well as their second-rounder and two third-rounders. Why? In all likelihood, to hedge their bet on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins had five premium picks they could use to strengthen their roster if Tagovailoa developed, or to move up significantly in the first round and tap into what should be a strong quarterback class if he didn’t.
They lost a major asset in their first-round pick in 2023, but still have the San Francisco 49ers’ 2023 first-round pick, and they could package it with their own first-round pick in 2024, if necessary. Losing their 2024 third-round pick is not ideal, but should not have a major impact on their plans.
Flores’ lawsuit, which alleged violations of federal and state civil/human rights statutes that are intended to ensure equal rights, remains in the court system. The NFL filed a motion in June to move the lawsuit to its in-house arbitration process, but a ruling isn’t expected before late summer at the earliest.
Contributing: ESPN Dolphins reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques