Kevin Jones
Thursday October 29th, 2015

Halloween is a time when things are not what they appear, and with their transformation over the past two weeks, the Miami Dolphins seem to have very much gotten into the holiday spirit.

In mid-October you would have been forgiven if you mistook the Miami Dolphins as roadkill, long left for dead alongside the wayward bones of other 1–3 NFL teams that have failed to live up to expectations. Now, though — coming of a complete and utter annihilation of the Houston Texans — interim head coach Dan Campbell could wear a superhero costume to team’s practice facility in Davie all week and no one would bat an eyelash.

Seemingly overnight the Dolphins have morphed from floundering fish to attacking sea monsters, discovering a distinct and convincing identity that recently deposed Joe Philbin couldn’t create in 52 games at the helm.

Yes, the Dolphins’ recent back-to-back blowout wins have come against the lowly Tennessee Titans and aforementioned Texans, but there is no denying that Campbell — a 6-foot-6, 265-pound, fire-breathing, Super Bowl-winning former tight end — has quickly tapped into something his predecessor never could: a way to motivate his players to play fast, physical, aggressive football.

“You guys have bought in — you can smell it and you can taste it,” Campbell said to the Miami locker room after Sunday’s immolation of Houston, in which the Fins led 41–0 at the half. “But you can tell … you guys are still starving.”

If anything, it seems like Campbell is the one who is hungriest.

A Dolphins source confirms the 39-year-old has earned the nickname “Man Campbell” for his machismo and bravado, and several players have privately endorsed their leader’s attitude.

Apparently a big fan of symbolism, Campbell has ordered any vestiges of Philbin’s reign removed. He has replaced a variety of generic “Togetherness” and “Champion” signage around the building, instead opting for motivational visual cues relating to “Brotherhood,” “Competitors Only,” and a warning that “The Storm is Coming.” By all accounts, the players are buying into what Campbell is selling, with one source suggesting that the entire roster is eating out of the palm of his hand.

Campbell is the 26th interim coach in the NFL since 2000, and according to STATS Inc., none of the previous 25 made the playoffs. As far as Campbell sees it, though, that’s challenge accepted.

In an era in which players warmly swap game jerseys with each other on the field after a heated battle, a source reveals that Campbell is having none of it. Since being named interim head coach, he’s managed to effectively thread a very tight needle, privately calling his team out for being soft, but doing so without ruffling any overly sensitive (and overpaid) feathers. Early sample size, notwithstanding, Campbell seems to have rocked the boat without making too many waves.

Behind the scenes, there had been indications that Dolphins players wanted Philbin to take more accountability and demonstrate more leadership; his nonchalant, laissez-faire approach often came across as cluelessness when trying to take the temperature of the team. To the contrary — and surely focused on making the most of the 12 games he’s been allotted to lead the Dolphins over the remainder of the season — Campbell has not been shy in deploying drastic, in-your-face measures to make an impression.

Miami’s practices have been cut some 40 minutes overall under Campbell, but a source reveals the sessions are far more intense than they ever were under Philbin, with hard hits, profanity and an occasional drawing of blood. This, of course, is a complete 180 from a few weeks ago, when quarterback Ryan Tannehill was reportedly whining over practice squad players’ intensity when defending against his first-team offense.

Some in league circles say Campbell reminds them of a young Bill Cowher when he first arrived on the scene for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and a source notes that Campbell has made it known around the team that he’s been in regular communication with Bill Parcells, his former coach and mentor for advice on how to right the ship.

Campbell also has hired offensive assistant Al Saunders, who’s known around the league as something of a sorcerer when it comes to incorporating subtle wrinkles into an offensive gameplan.

The result: Tannehill is now on pace for career bests in multiple categories, the offensive line is punching people in the mouth, Lamar Miller is running over and past defenders, the defense is flying to the ball, and the way they’ve tackled under Campbell has been an intrepid change in effort and intensity. 

“Dan Campbell was tough, he was gritty, he was nasty,” said Deion Sanders on NFL Network. “He’s taken that same attitude into his coaching style.”

Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys is the only head coach in the league right now who has survived the interim tag. Normally, when you fire a coach during a season, the staff underneath him is a major part of the problem. 

A source said when Philbin was canned, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that special teams coach Darren Rizzi would be tapped to steer Miami’s ship from sinking, a logical choice. Whether Parcells nudged Miami owner Stephen Ross to choose Campbell remains unclear, but the organization’s gamble on rolling the dice with a position coach like Campbell could change the way midseason firings are handled in the NFL. In the right situation, experience doesn’t matter as much as an attitude shift. 

Now, the question is: How does Campbell keep this tidal wave of emotional football purring?

The next three contests are all on the road — tonight against the Patriots, then the Eagles and Bills. All three opponents possess creative, outside-the-box head coaches who will relish the opportunity to trip up an upstart.

Since it’s unrealistic to think Miami can keep getting off to these blazing starts, the true test for Campbell — and whether or not he will have the interim tag removed at the end of the season — will be how his newly constructed Dolphins handle adversity. Campbell’s brash yet real approach will sound different if a losing streak incurs. His messaging and tone might have to change. How well does he know his locker room? Time will tell.

But right now, in the last week of October, the Dolphins are suddenly the hot team in the NFL. Surrounded by the Jets, Steelers and Raiders in the AFC standings, why shouldn’t Miami fans crank up the volume and buy into where this franchise seems now to be heading? The players seem to be.

“The passion he brings to the game,” defensive end Cameron Wake said, “he’s transferred it to us, and that’s transferring to the game field.”

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