Working in luxury

Lobster rolls, hot-tub space — here’s why NFL players rank Dolphins’ conditions best

The hot tub fits 15 players. Each player’s weight workout is individualized and scheduled into their day for best results.

Fresh-cooked and boxed omelets await players arriving at the last minute to take into team meetings each morning.

They fly on a chartered double-decker 747 plane to games where every player has a business-class seat that reclines flat for sleeping or just stretching out.

“That plane is something we’ve been doing the last four years and isn’t the norm,” said Brandon Shore, the Miami Dolphins senior vice president of football and business administration. “Obviously, there’s an incremental expense associated with it that [team owner Steve Ross] allows.

“When we went to Germany last season, for example, we used our plane. The league has a partner and offers one, but it would’ve required more of our players to be in coach seating. That’s not acceptable for us.”

Does this help? Does it shed some context on why the Dolphins finished first in an NFL players’ union poll about working conditions, stressing the “daily experience of players at the team facilities away from the lights and cameras,” as its report said.

The poll involved 1,706 players from the 32 teams rating everything from food (the Dolphins rated first) to training staff (first) to strength coaches (second) to the owner’s “willingness to invest in the facilities” (first).

It’s a smart move by the union to improve conditions for players through the glare of public knowledge. A team like the New England Patriots, for instance, received a “D” grade for lack of space on travel, an “F” for the quality of weight room and an “F-minus” as one of four teams not providing a family room or daycare during games.

The flip side is highlighting teams with optimal work conditions. The Dolphins, for instance. Their lowest grade in the 11 polled areas was “A-minus.”

It helps they have the newest team facility in the league adjoining Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

If Ross invested the money and set the tone for the facility, if team president and CEO Tom Garfinkel and Shore oversaw its big-picture construction, perhaps a white board in the team’s former Davie facility also explains why Dolphins players value their working atmosphere.

At that white board, strength coach Dave Puloka and trainer Kyle Johnston sketched ideas for their new world before meeting architects and construction workers and plotting everything down to placement of electrical outlets.

One example: Johnston knew the hot tub was a problem in the former facility considering, “if two offensive linemen were in it a cornerback couldn’t fit and water was going on the floor,’’ he said.

So, he had 15 players stand on the floor and laid tape on it. That’s the size of hot tub they needed. Throw in a cold-plunge pool and a lap pool and you almost see what’s at work here. Almost, because the lap pool can be converted into a 105-degree hot tub or 45-degree cold pool with enough room that, “if the whole team wanted to get in we could do it.”

“A big part of designing the facility is we wanted the weight, training, hydrotherapy, nutrition — all of it we wanted in close proximity to enable us to communicate all the time,’’ Puloka said. “Things change in football quickly and if someone’s way on the other side of the building even with phones and texts it’s not as good as me going right to Kyle and asking for the latest on so-and-so.”

There’s an it-takes-a-village idea to what the union polled. Equipment manager Joe Cimino’s staff oversees a spacious locker room that rated third in the league.

Scott Bullis, the senior director of team operations, directs team travel that rated tops in the league. It isn’t just the 747. Players can park near the chartered plane at the Fort Lauderdale airport (some teams bus players from the team facility) and each player has an individual hotel room (some teams double-up younger players; Tampa Bay charges players for an individual room).

The Dolphins’ food ranked first in taste, second in freshness, John Parenti rated second as a nutritionist and, “multiple players made it a point to give credit to the staff in the cafeteria,” the union’s report said. “They think the food service staff is tremendous.”

Meg Kelly, the director of dining services, has a common question when hiring for her staff: “Give me five recipes for chicken.” It’s generally liked, healthy, open to various meals and Dolphins players ate 10,000 pounds of chicken from June to December last season, Kelly said.

They also ate 1,400 pounds of salmon, 22,000 eggs, 4,000 avocados, 1,000 pounds of turkey breast at the deli station and 250 cases of romaine lettuce.

“Everything is roasted; there are no friers in the kitchen,” she said, citing the unhealthier aspects of fried food.

It’s not all by-the-health-book eating to keep calories on and the food fun. Players ate 1,700 pounds of bacon last season. And a cinnamon-roll pancake breakfast is served on Saturday mornings before a Sunday game.

“Everything is a balance,” Kelly said. “If one of the players is asking for oxtail, we’ll do that as long as we have chicken breast for others. We had a request for a lobster roll. That was a big one. We made a lobster rolls hot and cold and various ways.”

A player needs to gain or lose weight, the different disciplines in the building — food, training, strength — meet to formulate and follow through on plans. Such collaboration is at the center of what each of these behind-the-curtain staff members feel is their shared success.

As the union’s report said, “The state-of-the-art facilities continue to impress, but more importantly, are complemented by the number of quality trainers, strength coaches and other support staff who help make the workplace experience one of the best across the league.”

The number of trainers, strength coaches and physical therapists is normal by NFL standards, they say. But Puloka made a common point in texting his staff after the union’s report came out in saying, “technology and data and all that is nice, but it comes down to good people — and it always will.”

No one works more closely or often more hours with players than strength and training staffs. Puloka and Johnston stressed the need to build trust with players to have any impact.

“I’m fortunate enough to having been an undrafted free agent, went to a small school and came into (the NFL) and it was almost like I wasn’t even there,” Puloka said. “I remember feeling out of place and there wasn’t anyone telling me what to focus on or not worry about.

“So, I have the perspective that I wish someone had told me what I can tell players now. What to expect, how to focus on what’s important, training habits, nutrition. We cover all the topics no one did for us.”

At the center of the NFLPA grades on the Dolphins is an understood idea every plays has a finite career. The idea is to maximize that career through food plans, by drawing up weight workouts for a 22-year-old rookie or 35-year-old veteran with a shoulder problem or through the daily grind of rehabilitating an injury.

“It’s a people business,” Johnston said. “There’s nothing cooler for us than to see a player have some adversity, overcome it and having the kind of success that lets him go sign a big contract. It’s really cool to be a part of that.”

Winning? Losing? That’s not in their control.

“Our idea is to set the conditions to where players can perform at their best,” Puloka said. “We can’t throw and catch or run the ball, but we can set conditions that are conducive for them to play at their highest level.

On that idea of workplace conditions, just that, NFL players agree: The Dolphins are No. 1.