In an age where character and integrity seem to be increasingly hard to find, the NFL has provided us with a clear example of those traits, even if some in league circles would regard him incorrectly as a pariah.
Brian Flores, the former Dolphins coach who now works as an assistant with the Steelers (go ahead and sleep on Pittsburgh this year, while they quietly prepare their team with both Mike Tomlin and Flores on the coaching staff), is the only hero in the situation that resulted in the Dolphins being punished for tampering and being scrutinized for tanking that absolutely would have happened but for the refusal of Brian Flores to go along with it.
The NFL desperately wants to avoid legitimizing the notion that teams put draft position ahead of winning, even though they do. And they have. The Buccaneers did it in Week 17 of the 2014 season, for example, removing most of the starting lineup and in turn blowing a double-digit second-half lead en route to clinching the No. 1 overall pick in 2015.
In Miami, it would have happened but for the character and integrity of Brian Flores.
The league found that the Dolphins “did not intentionally lose games” in 2019. They didn’t intentionally lose games because Flores refused to go along with the express wishes of owner Stephen Ross.
Consider this finding, made by the NFL: “On a number of occasions during the 2019 season, Mr. Ross expressed his belief that the Dolphins’ position in the upcoming 2020 draft should take priority over the team’s win-loss record.” Flores correctly took those statements as a suggestion that he should lose games, because that’s exactly what Ross was doing.
It’s one of the benefits of being an oligarch. Ross should never have to issue a direct order. Those who work for him should be able to figure out what he wants without Ross having to say, “This is what I want.” In Playmakers, I explored the influence that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam had on the drafting of Johnny Manziel. Haslam denied telling anyone to take Manziel. And Haslam may have been telling the truth. The real truth is he didn’t need to tell anyone to do it. He merely needed to say in the presence of others that he really likes the kid from Texas A&M, or words to that effect.
That’s how folks like Haslam and Ross order code reds without ordering code reds. And if Flores had acted on the owner’s desire to have a code red in the form of the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, Flores wouldn’t have fallen out of favor.
Instead, Flores committed the cardinal sin for anyone who wants to be regarded as something other than a troublemaker. He blew the whistle internally, reducing his concerns to writing and sending them to key executives.
So what did the executives do? They did exactly what any executive does when an employee is creating a paper trail that preserves proof of misconduct. They tried to put out the fire.
In this case, they “assured Coach Flores that everyone, including Mr. Ross, supported him in building a winning culture in Miami.” After that, Ross never made any comments about prioritizing 2020 draft position over 2019 win-loss record to Flores.
Along the way, the $100,000-per-loss offer was allegedly made. The league claims that any such comment “was not intended or taken to be a serious offer.”
That’s just false. FLORES TOOK IT AS A SERIOUS OFFER. And he again rejected the owner’s desire to lose games now in order to win draft position later.
Consider what Flores did. He put his own personal interests behind the integrity of the game. He put his career at risk by refusing to do that which one of the richest and most powerful men in the country wanted him to do. Flores passed on the opportunity, as he saw it, to make $100,000 for every game he lost.
And here’s where Flores showed an even greater degree of character and integrity. He kept his concerns internal. He could have called a reporter with what would have been one hell of a story. The external scrutiny quite possibly would have ended the issue, conclusively.
But Flores didn’t, because he believes in not airing out dirty laundry. He believes in using the proper channels for addressing his concerns.
He’s currently using the proper channels to challenge the decision of Ross to fire him, along with other claims against other NFL teams. It is natural, albeit wrong, for other teams to take a dim view of Flores for choosing to use formal legal means to pursue justice. (It’s a separate violation of the law for an employer to retaliate against an employee who has sued his employer, despite the number of non-lawyers on social media and elsewhere who shrug at such efforts to keep employees from pursuing valid rights.)
As we said on Wednesday’s PFT Live, Flores should be celebrated, not shunned. He stopped Ross from tanking. If Flores had gone along with it, we never would have known anything about it — and Joe Burrow would be the Miami quarterback. But Flores did the right thing. The hard thing. The selfless thing. The thing that advances and protects the integrity and best interests of the game.
Here’s a pretty simple litmus test for any team that has a head-coaching vacancy in 2023. Flores has proven his abilities as a coach, generating back-to-back winning records despite working for one of the most dysfunctional organizations in football. He also has proven that he has true character. True integrity.
Any NFL organization of true character and integrity that has a head-coaching vacancy after the coming season should rush to hire him. But here’s the real question. Is there any organization in the NFL with true character and integrity?
The Steelers have it, because they’ve already hired Flores. We’ll find out in a matter of months whether any of the teams who decide to change coaches share qualities that apparently have fallen victim to the ongoing supply-chain issues.