If Flores doesn’t coach the Dolphins with such a mighty sense of competitive honor in 2019, if he doesn’t exhort the Dolphins to win five of their last nine games to finish 5-11, Ross sure looks guilty of offering a bribe for his team to tank. Thanks to Flores’s efforts, the league couldn’t or wouldn’t conclude that Ross’s organization outright threw games. Still, it turns out that Flores spoke the truth about his contemptible ex-boss when he leveled the scorching charge that Ross offered him $100,000 per loss. “There are differing recollections about the wording, timing and context,” the league said in a statement. But apparently Ross said it, or something close to it.
That Flores coached to win despite his owner’s pressure and duplicitousness, somehow managed to make something competitive out of a roster singularly barren of talent — not a single player earned so much as one vote for the all-pro team — is all that allowed NFL investigator Mary Jo White to generously conclude Ross didn’t actually submarine his own team.
Instead, the league just suspended Ross and fined him $1.5 million Tuesday for tampering, for being a backstabber and a cheat who tried to swipe talent from other teams with a range of other unethical conduct — violations of “unprecedented scope and severity” for an owner, according to Commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement.
Remember what a job Flores did down the stretch, even as Ross was conniving? On the Sunday before Christmas, Flores urged his team to a 38-35 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in overtime, a game that meant absolutely nothing except that Flores somehow made it mean something to his guys. A week later, Flores led the Dolphins to that unthinkable upset of the New England Patriots, 27-24, to deny them a bye in the playoffs. Remember that? Remember who the Dolphins had in what laughably passed for a backfield that day? Patrick Laird, the undrafted free agent whose nickname was “the intern,” because that’s what everyone on the team thought he was, as opposed to a running back.
Remember Ryan Fitzpatrick outdueling Tom Brady, even as Ross — through an intermediary — was playing foot-massage with Brady in “numerous and detailed” secret communications in brazen violation of league rules, trying to screw his Hamptons and Palm Beach neighbor Robert Kraft?
Imagine how it must have felt to Flores to have Ross murmuring in his ear that whole time, pressuring him to tamper with Brady and insinuating how much it would please the owner if, somehow, they lost enough games to improve their draft position.
According to the league, Ross repeatedly “expressed his belief that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record.” Ross said it to Flores. He said it to Dolphins President and CEO Tom Garfinkel. He said it to General Manager Chris Grier and Senior Vice President Brandon Shore. And he said it “on a number of occasions.” He said it often enough, and in a way that so concerned Flores, that the coach felt compelled to document it in a written memo to senior executives, finally forcing Ross to knock it off, at least with him.
“I am thankful that the NFL’s investigator found my factual allegations against Stephen Ross are true,” Flores said in a statement Tuesday. “At the same time I am disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’s offers and pressure to tank games especially when I wrote and submitted a letter at the time to Dolphins executives documenting my serious concerns regarding this subject.”
The league — with extraordinary charity — found Ross did not explicitly “instruct” Flores to lose games. It interpreted that dump-games-and-win-a-hundred-grand remark as a joke. “However phrased, such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer,” the league decided.
Still, it’s clear just how dangerous Ross’s verbal pressure was. The Sports Bribery Act makes it a crime to “influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest.” What if Ross’s remarks had been directed at a coach with a little less iron in him than Flores? What if Ross had actually swayed him?
“An owner or senior executive must understand the weight that his or her words carry, and the risk that a comment will be taken seriously and acted upon, even if that is not the intent or expectation,” Goodell said.
The only reason it didn’t look like a serious offer was because Flores didn’t act upon it and instead coached the team with virtuous insubordination. “The comments made by Mr. Ross did not affect Coach Flores’ commitment to win and the Dolphins competed to win every game,” Goodell said in his statement. “Coach Flores is to be commended for not allowing any comment about the relative importance of draft position to affect his commitment to win throughout the season.”
Ross’s statement in response to the penalty was deceitful in and of itself. In a stunning piece of double talk, he claimed he was “cleared” by the investigation and only accepted the penalty so the Dolphins could move forward, though he strongly disagreed with the “conclusions and the punishment.” He went out of his way to call Flores’s accusations “malicious and defamatory.” Even now, Ross doesn’t get it. He doesn’t recognize that Flores actually protected him by competing wholeheartedly. Without Flores, Ross would have been totally exposed.