There's a fairly hefty number of esteemed interim head coaches throughout NFL history. Don Coryell, Marty Schottenheimer, Marv Levy and Jeff Fisher are among those in recent times who have ascended to greatness on the back of an uncomfortable mid-season firing. The best way for an interim head coach to eventually become a full-timer, of course, is to come in with a solid and comprehensive plan, implement it with allowed authority, and watch his players unleash hell as they didn't before because they know the new guy gets it.
Two games is an early return, but it's pretty clear that so far, Miami's Dan Campbell checks all the boxes. The Dolphins' tight ends coach until he replaced Joe Philbin on Oct. 7 following Miami's embarrassing loss to the Jets in London two days before, Campbell made Philbin look like a relative milquetoast right away. He implemented as much pad-work and hitting in practice as the NFL allows, worked with new defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to implement a more player-friendly and aggressive scheme than had been seen under Kevin Coyle, and turned the offense still run by Bill Lazor into a much tougher and more truly integrated concern.
Campbell had the bye week to figure it all out, but few expected the differences to be so clear and obvious right away. A Dolphins team that had been far too passive and reactive under Philbin charged into Tennessee two Sundays ago and thrashed the living daylights out of the Titans, 38–10. Pass rusher Cameron Wake, who had amassed no sacks to that point, put up four and added two forced fumbles ... all in the first half. The run game had been inconsistent at best, but Lamar Miller put up 113 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Ryan Tannehill completed 22 of 29 passes for 266 yards, and overall, a roster that had far more talent than had been shown was actually living up to it for once.
The Texans found that out to their dismay last Sunday, as the Dolphins put up a 41–0 lead at halftime before easing off, going to their backups, and still blowing Houston out, 44–26 at home. They became the first team since at least 1940, and quite possibly in NFL history, to score four offensive touchdowns of more than 50 yards in a half, and Tannehill set an NFL mark with 25 straight completions over those two games. The team has simplified things and allowed its best players to be in ideal situations —amazing how things improve when that's the case—but the real story here seems to be Campbell's apparent gift for motivating his players and making them truly feel that they're part of something great. It's a rare, perhaps unteachable skill certain people have, and to a man, these Dolphins think their “substitute teacher” has the knack.
“Those guys were dying for something like that,” Campbell said after the win over the Titans. “It gives you momentum, it gives validity to everything that's being done, and those are the fun ones,right? Because now you’re up and everybody's having fun and they're playing hard, and it's back to like it was when you were a kid.”
That's how Tannehill seemed to feel after the Texans game. Of course, it helps when you've set a number of career marks with your offense, but as much as Campbell has wanted to credit the players, the players are throwing it right back on him.
“I always said this team had the players and playmakers and talent to play like we have the last two weeks,” Tannehill said. “For whatever reason, we weren’t showing up the way we wanted to. Give credit to Dan and rest of the coaching staff that they’ve turned it around.”
It’s been a great story. Now, there’s a new challenge for this highly inspired group. They travel to Gillette Stadium Thursday night to face the Patriots, the unbeaten (and seemingly unbeatable) Super Bowl champs who just threw off a threat from the Jets last Sunday. Rah-rah-speeches and Oklahoma drills won't get it done against Bill Belichick. But even Belichick seems to see something in Campbell as a member of his own fraternity.
"I’d say they’ve simplified it," Belichick said Monday of the post-Campbell Dolphins’ overall game. “The number of the things they’re running, like the number of calls that they have, it appears to be definitely a lot less than what it was before. I’d say it looks like they’re doing fewer things than they’ve done, they’re doing them better, they’re playing faster, they’re more aggressive, and so it looks like they’ve cut back the scheme a little bit defensively for higher execution.”
There’s a bit of a warning, a shot across the bow that Belichick has things in hand with that gameplan. No doubt the Pats will endeavor to take Tannehill's first reads away and stock up on defenders to stop Miller. No team is better at removing an opponent's primary weapon, though as Tannehill said on a conference call with the New England media this week, there are now intangibles that can’t necessarily be accounted for on tape.
“Dan’s enthusiasm and passion for the game, his energy and competitive drive is just contagious and it’s transferred over to the team and we’ve been really playing that way lately,” the quarterback remarked when asked what the differences are.
“I think it’s been more of an attitude adjustment, we haven’t changed a whole lot of what we’re trying to do. Obviously we’ve been running the ball better and that’s where it starts offensively is that we’re able to move the ball on the ground and that opens up a lot of things for us through the air. It’s nothing new schematically, it’s stuff that we’ve had and it’s just our mindset.”
Campbell is a Texas native who played tight end for Texas A&M and was selected by the Giants in the third round of the 1999 draft. He played in 114 games over 10 years for the Giants, Cowboys and Lions, saw a Super Bowl as a member of the 2000 Giants roster and the only 0-16 season in league history with Detroit in his final playing season of 2008. His coaching future really started when the Cowboys picked him up in 2003 and he got to learn from then-head coach Bill Parcells.
“We talked,” Campbell said of his mentor this week. “He’s one of the first people I talked to when everything that transpired here and he’s been a huge asset for me. Obviously I have a ton of respect for Bill and any advice that he gives and he’s somebody that I will continue to talk to from time-to-time.”
And what did Parcells say?
“‘Be you and change things up,’ that was the common theme.”
On both counts, Campbell has done so the way he knows how: with total conviction.