MIAMI — While an NFL-backed investigation found Dolphins owner Stephen Ross made it known he believed the team’s draft position should take precedence over winning games in 2019, those beliefs did not make it down to the football field.
Dolphins running backs coach Eric Studesville, who has held that title since 2018, said the team’s directive during the 2019 season was not questioned as far as he knew.
“From the top down, [the goal was] to win football games and prepare and get ready to go — that’s how it’s always been,” Studesville said Wednesday. “That’s how I think this game is right. That’s what we do, that’s what I owe the game, every time we get a chance to compete, we do our best. There was never anything other than that expressed to us or to me.”
In February, former Dolphins coach Brian Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL and the Dolphins, alleging racism in the league’s hiring practices. In the lawsuit, Flores claims that Ross attempted to incentivize him to “tank,” or purposely lose games, shortly after he was hired in 2019, with Ross allegedly offering Flores $100,000 for every loss that season. Flores says that as the team won games late in the season, Dolphins general manager Chris Grier told him Ross was “mad” that the on-field success was “compromising [the team’s] draft position.”
The NFL looked into these allegations as part of its aforementioned investigation but found no evidence that the team intentionally lost games during the 2019 season. The investigation did, however, find that Ross made comments to team president and CEO Tom Garfinkel, general manager Chris Grier, senior vice president Brandon Shore and Flores that the team’s draft position should take priority over winning games. When Flores expressed his concerns in writing, he was assured that everyone wanted him to build a “winning culture in Miami” and Ross never again made those comments to Flores.
The investigation also found that Ross’ offer of $100,000 for every loss, of which there were “differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context … 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.”
Studesville insisted that the message to Flores did not trickle down into the locker room.
“That’s just not how we’re wired,” he said. “None of that was ever shared.”
Beyond the alleged tanking, the NFL investigated and found the Dolphins guilty of tampering with quarterback Tom Brady and former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton; Ross and vice chairman/limited partner Bruce Beal made “impermissible contact” with both Brady and agent Don Yee in an attempt to get both men to join the franchise.
Miami’s contact with Yee in regard to Payton occurred before Payton’s retirement in January. The Dolphins eventually hired former San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel.
Dolphins tight ends coach and associate head coach John Embree said the team didn’t feel the need to discuss the matter internally, as the indiscretions occurred before they arrived in South Florida.
“Nothing to be said — control what you can control,” he said. “We weren’t here, some players were here and some weren’t but at the end of the day, it doesn’t change what we do as far as how we work and what we do when we get an opponent on Sundays.
“I was probably my wife’s second choice,” he joked. “Being first choice, second choice, third choice — it doesn’t matter. It’s about being present where your feet are and taking advantage of the opportunity that you’re in and that current situation.”
Beal and Ross contacted Brady about becoming a limited partner or football executive with the Dolphins, although the possibility of playing for the team was also discussed. These conversations occurred as recently as the end of the 2021 season and as early as the 2019 season, when Brady was under contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New England Patriots, respectively.
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who is entering his third NFL season, said he and his teammates found out about the NFL’s report after Tuesday’s practice but didn’t feel like his standing with the team was any less secure.
“I came in 2020, so whatever happened in 2019, I can’t even speak on that,” he said Wednesday. “So I was here in 2020, and I’m still here and I’m blessed to be here. If it has to do with support from the team. I think the team’s all-in with me and all the guys that we have now.”
The NFL suspended Ross for six games and fined him $1.5 million, while Beal was fined $500,000 and barred from attending any league meeting for the entire 2022 season. The Dolphins were also stripped of their first-round pick in 2023 and third-round pick in 2024. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called Ross’ level of involvement, as well as scope and severity of the Dolphins’ tampering, “unprecedented.”