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Breaking down the significance – and timing – of the Dolphins' tampering punishment

Tom Schad
USA TODAY

A little more than 24 hours after news broke of Deshaun Watson's six-game suspension, the NFL announced the resolution to another long-running investigation, centering around the Miami Dolphins.

The league said Tuesday that the Dolphins, including owner Stephen Ross, violated its anti-tampering policy on multiple occasions in their pursuit of star quarterback Tom Brady and coach Sean Payton while they were members of other teams. The Dolphins will forfeit two draft picks as punishment, while Ross has been suspended and fined.

The NFL also said its investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, determined that the Dolphins did not deliberately lose to achieve a higher draft pick.

Here's a deeper look at what the league's investigation found, and the ripple effects it might have on some of the other off-field issues the NFL is confronting.

OPINION: NFL lets Miami owner off easy while letting Brian Flores down, writes Jarrett Bell

MORE: How does Deshaun Watson's suspension compare to others under Roger Goodell?

NFL RECORD PROJECTIONS:  Can Dolphins make playoff run in 2022?

'Unprecedented' tampering

NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the league does not plan to release a full written report detailing the findings of White's investigation.

But the news release it issued Tuesday appears to substantiate previous reporting on the topic by NBC Sports and The Boston Globe, among others. 

Most notably, the NFL's probe confirmed that the Dolphins had "impermissible communications" with agent Don Yee – who represents Brady and Payton – in late 2021 and/or early 2022, about the possibility of bringing the quarterback and coach to Miami. The Dolphins also had direct contact with Brady through vice chairman Bruce Beal in 2019 when Brady was with the New England Patriots.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has pushed back against Brian Flores' allegations.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement that the Dolphins' violations of anti-tampering rules were "of unprecedented scope and severity." Ross said in a statement that he strongly disagrees "with the conclusions and the punishment."

Was the punishment fair?

Ross certainly does not think so.

All told, the NFL took away the Dolphins' first-round draft pick in 2023 and third-round pick in 2024, while also suspending Ross through Oct. 17 and fining him $1.5 million. The league also booted Ross from all of its committees.

This is hardly the first time an NFL owner has been suspended, or a team stripped of draft picks. The Dolphins' punishment is somewhat comparable to the sanctions levied against the Patriots for "Deflategate" in May 2015. In that case, the team was fined $1 million and forfeited a first- and fourth-round pick.

The Washington Commanders were fined $10 million last summer, following a league-led probe into the toxic work culture within the organization, but owner Daniel Snyder was not formally suspended and the team did not forfeit any draft picks.

Will Brady and Payton be punished?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) works out during training camp at AdventHealth Training Center.

No. In short, the league's anti-tampering policy is designed to hold teams (or their designees) responsible for tampering, not the players and coaches who are being tampered with.

Even if the player initiates the tampering attempt, for lack of a better term, the policy states that it is the team's responsibility to shut it down and "immediately report such contact to the owner or operating head of the club that holds the player’s rights."

Tanking talk

The other primary question of the Dolphins probe: Did the team intentionally lose games in 2019 with hopes of securing a better draft pick?

Former head coach Brian Flores alleged in a February lawsuit that this was the team's hope, including a claim that Ross offered to pay him $100,000 per loss. The NFL said investigators looked into that claim and found "differing recollections about the wording, timing, and context." 

"However phrased, such a comment was not intended or taken to be a serious offer," the league stated in its news release.

Flores said in a statement Tuesday that he was "disappointed to learn that the investigator minimized Mr. Ross’s offers and pressure to tank games."

Timing questions

The timing of the NFL's announcement Tuesday raised some eyebrows, namely that it came one day after disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson handed down Watson's suspension, which resulted in widespread backlash for the league.

Mike Florio of NBC Sports was one of several national reporters who questioned the timing of the Dolphins announcement.

"Not only does the Ross announcement knock the Watson case out of the headlines, but it also shows that the league can and will (sometimes) impose stiff punishment on owners," he wrote on Pro Football Talk.

McCarthy did not immediately reply to an email inquiry Tuesday night seeking more information about when White's investigation was completed.

What's next?

Despite his disagreement, Ross said in the statement that he will not appeal the NFL's punishment because he doesn't want to create distractions for his team.

As for Flores, his discrimination lawsuit against the NFL will proceed as scheduled, with a New York judge first set to determine whether the matter can stay in court or will be moved behind closed doors, to arbitration.

"The punishment announced today is obviously inadequate and disheartening," Flores' lawyers, Douglas H. Wigdor and John Elefterakis, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it remains clear that the NFL cannot police itself, which is why we look forward to continuing to push the legal process, prove all of Brian's claims, as well as those of a class of Black executives, coaches and candidate[s], and force real change upon the NFL."

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.