Before Jalen Ramsey forced his way out of Jacksonville, before Antonio Brown forced his way out of Pittsburgh and later Oakland, Jordan Phillips did the same in Miami.
Phillips, a defensive tackle who leads the Bills with four sacks this season, doesn’t have the same prestige as those All-Pros. But he’d had enough of the Dolphins, and long before the sideline outburst over a lack of playing time that precipitated his release last October.
As it turns out, the Dolphins waiving Phillips, their 2015 second-round pick, wasn’t as surprising as it first seemed.
“I asked for my release, so I was expecting it,” Phillips told The Buffalo News this week, as the Bills prepared to host the winless Dolphins on Sunday at New Era Field. “I wanted it. I bet on myself and now I’m here and I couldn’t be happier.”
He’s in good company. The Bills, who are off to a 4-1 start for the first time since 2011, have been built largely from players who began their careers elsewhere. Buffalo opened the season with just 17 of their own draft choices on the 53-man roster, tied with the Jets for fewest in the league, according to research by The News. That tally included wide receiver Zay Jones, since traded to the Raiders, and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, placed on injured reserve after Week 3.
But Jordan Phillips’ path to Buffalo is somewhat unique. While a handful of his teammates have also been claimed off waivers, none was actively campaigning for his release.
Phillips, however, celebrated on social media when he was waived by the Dolphins on Oct. 2, 2018, writing “free at last, free at last” on Instagram. He has maintained that the Dolphins attempted to stifle his personality, and that neither his heated argument with then-Miami defensive line coach Kris Kocurek, when Phillips played just 25 snaps in a 38-7 loss to the Patriots days earlier, nor a lingering perception about his inconsistent effort, were the reasons he was released.
But Phillips offered additional context this week about how his relationship with the Dolphins soured, saying that he wanted to leave Miami for seven months, and the team knew it.
“When they cut Ndamukong Suh and let go of Mike Pouncey and Jarvis Landry, that same day I asked to be released,” Phillips said, “so it took a while but finally got done.”
Miami traded Landry and released Suh and Pouncey – all multiple Pro Bowlers – within the span of a week in March 2018, as then-Dolphins coach Adam Gase, who had control over the roster, continued to purge top talent, citing a desire to improve the team’s culture after a 6-10 record in 2017.
The effort backfired.
“I was more depressed than anything,” Phillips said. “I didn’t go to work happy. I didn’t go home happy. And so finally being gone from where I was at, it was a breath of fresh air.”
Phillips’ deteriorating relationship with the Dolphins led to diminished playing time, he said, which also factored into his misery.
Phillips, a second-round draft choice in 2015, had started 22 of 29 games over the previous two seasons with Miami and entered the team’s 2018 training camp as a nominal starter. But by the time the season started, he was a reserve, coming off the bench as part of the defensive line rotation. He had one sack and five tackles in four games.
“Honestly, my agent, he was like, ‘You’re right. You need to go,’ ” Phillips said. “And we tried to get it done. We tried doing things to get it done and it didn’t work, and finally after our first loss, they felt like they didn’t need me anymore, so they let me go, and you see where they ended up.”
Phillips is represented by agents Joel Segal and Chafie Fields. Neither responded to a request for comment.
The Dolphins, through a team spokesperson, referred questions to Gase, now the head coach of the Jets, and Mike Tannenbaum, who is now with ESPN and was the Dolphins' executive director of football operations. The Jets didn't respond to a request for comment by Gase. Tannenbaum declined to comment through an ESPN spokesman.
The day after Phillips was waived, Gase told reporters, “We’ve moved on already. I’m not going into details on that stuff. He’s not on our roster anymore.”
The Dolphins, who began the 2018 season with a 3-1 record, finished 7-9.
Gase was fired.
And Miami, which has a 0-5 record and the worst-ranked scoring offense and defense in the NFL, appears to be tanking this season to acquire the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. “Tank for Tua” Tagovailoa, the quarterback at Alabama, has become a running joke and something of a rallying cry among the Dolphins' fan base.
Multiple Dolphins players might have pursued a similar tack as Phillips, reaching out to their agents with requests to be traded after the team’s season-opening blowout loss to the Ravens on Sept. 8, according to a report from ProFootballTalk.com. The Dolphins said they received no such requests.
The Dolphins attempted to trade Phillips before his release, according to a report from Yahoo! Sports, but found no takers. Days after the Dolphins’ loss to the Patriots in early 2018, Phillips met with team officials.
“They just called me in there and said, ‘You’re free to go,’ ” Phillips said. “I said, ‘I appreciate it. Thank you.’ And that was it.”
Phillips walked out of the facility, uncertain about where he’d end up, but with a sense that his life and career would only improve.
‘A shocking experience’
For most NFL players, being released or traded is more akin to failure than reason to celebrate.
“It’s a shocking experience,” said defensive end Jerry Hughes, who was drafted by the Colts in the first round in 2010 and traded to the Bills in 2013. “Just because, like a lot of guys in this locker room, you’ve always been picked first to participate in all the sports. Everyone wants you on their team, so when you get picked by a team, you kind of set up this false sense of reality that you’ll be there for the rest of your career. You kind of see it happening almost like a fairy tale ending.
“So when you do get traded, cut, however things may happen in this business, it throws you for a loop. You’ve kind of got to get used to it. You’ve got a lot of anger bolted up inside just because of people telling you what you can and cannot do. And I think when you get that opportunity and you come to a new place, you want to show not only your own team but prove to yourself that you are that athlete, you are capable of everything that you had your mind set to and more. So I think it’s just that internal drive really comes out of guys.”
Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lorenzo Alexander has been with six NFL franchises since the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2005.
He was cut by the Panthers and Ravens before spending seven seasons with the Redskins, including one on the practice squad.
“I think with anybody, especially if you’re on this level, you’ve been the man probably the majority of your career, whether it was Pop Warner, high school, college, getting drafted,” Alexander said. “So you’ve been deemed the man. So any time you get cut, there is a sense of disappointment or maybe reflection, a shot at your ego. ‘Man, maybe I’m not as good as I thought.’
“I know, at least that’s how I felt. But I think the great ones are able to see where some of their shortcomings are, why they became a player that was cut or released, and then change your game or change your attitude or change your mindset so that doesn’t happen again to you.”
Kicker Stephen Hauschka has been with seven NFL franchises, and even a team in the now defunct United Football League, since first signing with the Vikings in 2008.
He’s been claimed off waivers by three teams, including the Seahawks, and helped Seattle win Super Bowl XLVIII.
“My first response to getting released early in my career was, ‘I’ve got to get better,’ ” Hauschka said. “And so it just made me put into perspective how much better I needed to get and how much hard work I needed to put in. And so I knew that when I got another opportunity, I was going to take full advantage of it. That was my mindset from the beginning, but there’s a lot of different cultures, a lot of different places to play in this league. And some guys flourish and other guys need another opportunity.
“That’s the way this league works and I think Jordan’s such a great asset for this team. He’s just come in here and been an amazing player for us, and it’s really exciting to see him fit into this team so well.”
‘A perfect fit’
The Bills claimed Phillips off waivers on Oct. 3, 2018, the day after he was released by Miami.
Phillips said he had reservations at first.
“When you hear about Buffalo, you’re not excited to come here,” Phillips said. “But once you get here, I couldn’t be happier.”
Bills coach Sean McDermott said that General Manager Brandon Beane and the front office had checked into Phillips’ sideline incident in Miami and didn’t have concerns about his character. Former Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey, who drafted Phillips in 2015, is a senior college scout for the Bills.
“I trust their evaluation, making sure they checked those boxes and they feel confident as far as that goes,” McDermott said at the time.
Phillips’ impact was instantaneous. He had three tackles and a pass deflection in his Bills debut, a 13-12 victory against the Titans on Oct. 7, 2018, at New Era Field. But his infectious energy stood out most.
Phillips jumped around before plays and implored the crowd to make noise.
“I’ve done that my whole career,” Phillips said. “It’s just more embraced here. Sean really loves it. He really loves getting the crowd involved, so I was a perfect fit.”
Phillips said Bills fans are on another level, compared to Dolphins fans.
“Comparing the two is kind of a joke,” Phillips said. “We probably have the best fan base in the NFL.”
The Bills signed Phillips to a one-year, $4.5 million contract in March.
He has 10 tackles, including six tackles for loss, a career-high four sacks and six quarterback hits in five games this season. He had three sacks in the Bills' most recent game, a 14-7 victory against the Titans on Oct. 6 in Nashville.
He's played 38% of the team's defensive snaps and contributes on special teams.
“He's been pretty consistent for us throughout the season,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “Even going back to when we acquired him. … It was big for us the way he played against the Titans. We're going to need that going forward. He's one of those guys who has a ton of ability. If he can consistently give us what we saw in that ballgame, that'll be really good for our defense. Anytime your interior linemen can dominate the way he did, it just makes the rest of the defense that much better.”
Phillips’ teammates also disputed the narrative coming out of Miami – and from some draft analysts when Phillips played at Oklahoma – that he offers inconsistent effort.
“I’ve really loved his progression since he’s gotten here,” Alexander said. “He’s a big, physical, dominant player. But I’m talking about even as a professional and a leader, his development. Because the skill set is there. A lot of players have that. But I think a lot of players lack things that people take for granted – leadership, accountability, being on time, practicing hard, and I really like the way he’s developed into being one of those guys you can point to and say, ‘Hey, man, look at the way Jordan is practicing. That’s why he got those three sacks. He just didn’t show up and get them.’ ”
Hughes said Phillips is “always making an impact,” and that it’s not confined to game days.
“He brings that energy to the room where you want him around,” Hughes said. “He’s making guys smile. He’s taking the tension out of the room, when there can be tension. He’s that guy that’s going to bring in that awkward joke that’s going to make everyone smile.
“His intensity week in and week out has certainly picked up. The way he prepares for the game, how he’s taking care of his body, studying film, he’s actually sending us text messages talking about the game plan. So when you’ve got guys that are in a group text message and we’re talking game plan, we’re talking ball, along with everyday life, you’ve got a recipe for something good. And for him to be a part of that room, that group, that cohesiveness that keeps us all together, it’s great.”
Phillips said his effort in Buffalo is no different from his effort in Miami, even though he conceded he’s far happier.
“If you go look at my film from Miami to now, it’s the exact same,” Phillips said. “I’m just more liked here. I wasn’t liked in Miami. That’s the only difference.”
‘Hard to change a culture’
Hauschka said the most difficult part about being released and having to find a new team in a new city is the effect it has on a player’s personal life.
“The hardest thing is that you get uprooted and you have friends on the team and you have a community that you like and you care for and you’ve got to uproot your family,” Hauschka said. “That’s the hardest part. And anybody who’s moved knows it takes a little while to get comfortable somewhere else. But in this league, you’ve got to get settled and grounded wherever you are next and work on your stuff and improve yourself.”
Phillips said that after his release from the Dolphins, and before being claimed off waivers by the Bills, he spent the day packing his belongings.
“I had a little house in Pembroke Pines,” Phillips said. “My fiancée just packed up my stuff and I said bye to the people I needed to say bye to and that was it.”
He didn’t know how long his tenure in Buffalo would last.
“I stayed in a hotel all last year and that was probably the roughest part, just being away from my family and going home to a hotel every day,” Phillips said.
He now lives with his fiancée and brother in Orchard Park and is playing the best football of his career for a team on the rise.
Alexander said it sometimes takes a change of scenery for a player to find an ideal fit.
“Schemes matter, culture matters, the environment,” Alexander said. “Obviously, there’s some guys that culturally wouldn’t fit here. And there’s some guys that wouldn’t fit in some other places. You get that in New England. Guys go up there and are like, ‘I don’t really fit.’ But you’re going to win. But they don’t stay there that long. It just depends on where you’re at and how you fit into the place and the guys around you. There’s a lot of things that go into it. But the guys that can be resilient and adapt often have a longer career than not.”
Phillips said he has empathy for his friends still playing for the Dolphins.
“I feel for them,” Phillips said. “I have a lot of buddies on that team and they deserve better. They go out there and play hard every game. They’re more than capable of winning games. They have a lot of great players. They just need to be put in the right position.”
Losing, he said, can become contagious.
“I’m not speaking on Miami right now, but when you’re in a program – college, high school, anything – when you’re used to losing, that’s what you’re going to do,” Phillips said. “And it’s hard to change a culture.
“Luckily, here in Buffalo, we have the right people in place, the right front office, the right coaches and the right players, that we wanted to change something and we’re getting it done.”