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The first-year Dolphins head coach is getting improved play out of Ryan Tannehill and has pushed the right buttons as a play-caller. But in a bottom-line business, that’s not nearly enough

By Andy Benoit
September 19, 2016

After just two weeks, Adam Gase is intimately familiar with the brutal assault that NFL head coaching can put on your emotions. For Gase’s Dolphins, two games on the road against legitimate Super Bowl contenders (Seattle and New England) have resulted in an 0-2 record that, with a different bounce here and different roll there, could very well have been 2-0.

It’s not just that Gase’s Dolphins have lost. It’s that they’ve lost despite the fact that their offense—his offense, the one Gase was hired to transform—has played well. Or, at least they’ve played much better than what meets the eye. Sunday in Foxboro, Gase’s quarterbacking reclamation project, Ryan Tannehill, was 22 of 27 for 273 yards and two touchdowns in the second half. Playing mostly from a no-huddle, Tannehill figured out the Patriots’ matchup coverages and caught fire working the deep-intermediate levels from within the pocket. Highlights included near-perfect balls against man coverage on a 24-yard touchdown to Kenny Stills, a 33-yard slot wheel route to Jarvis Landry to convert third-and-1 and, best of all, on a tight-window 12-yard touchdown strike to Jordan Cameron against red-zone Cover 4 (the most congested zone coverage in football).

To be fair, Tannehill was playing from behind throughout all of this in part because the Dolphins’ offense produced a smorgasbord of mistakes in the first half. That included an awful interception where Tannehill failed to read linebacker Jamie Collins in the shallow free-defender spot that Collins occupies in so many of New England’s coverages. (Compounding the mistake was that defensive end Chris Long beat right tackle Ja’Wuan James to hit Tannehill on his release.) But all in all, and given the second half dominance, Gase’s offense played well enough to win on Sunday.

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For Gase personally, the loss at Seattle the week before was probably even worse. In that one, the Dolphins just barely failed to execute in a handful of crucial situations where the gameplan and strategy had won. No example was more egregious than the would-be 71-yard touchdown that Kenny Stills dropped. It wasn’t just that Stills got open and didn’t make the play. It’s that he got open on a gutsy call that Gase has presumably been sitting on for years. One of Gase’s regrets from his Super Bowl 48 loss to Seattle, when Gase was Denver’s offensive coordinator, is that he had a handful of brilliant deep-shot plays out of empty backfield formations that he knew would out-leverage Seattle’s foundational matchup Cover 3… but he didn’t trust his pass protection enough to call them. The next year, in the Broncos’ late comeback attempt at Seattle in Week 3, Gase did dial some of these up, and they yielded an Emmanuel Sanders 42-yarder and Jacob Tamme 26-yard touchdown that helped nearly create a miracle win.

In his first game as Miami’s head coach, Gase called another of these empty set deep shots on the Stills play. It was a considerable risk because Miami’s O-line was playing a rookie at left guard (Laremy Tunsil) and an inexperienced backup at center (Anthony Steen, in for an injured Mike Pouncey). Seattle’s front four was clearly the more explosive unit. Almost all empty formations involve quick passes because, with no one but the QB in the backfield, there’s no one to help the O-line in protection. But what Gase knew was: against empty formations, the Seahawks (in an effort to take away those quick passes) like to rush three and drop eight into coverage, with a defensive lineman stepping back into the shallow crossing lanes. (The Seahawks had done this very successfully against Gase’s Broncos in the Super Bowl.) With five blockers handling three rushers, there’d be time for Dolphins receivers to get downfield on the vertical routes that Seattle’s Cover 3 was inherently weak against. And that’s exactly what happened. Only Stills dropped the ball.

It’s one play, yes. But it’s a play Gase had probably been anticipating ever since learning back in spring that his new team would open the season at Seattle. The fact that he had a handful of similarly aggressive Cover 3 beaters in that game that also, for a variety of reasons, produced nothing makes it all the more painful.

Just like the pain one feels flying out of Massachusetts already down, essentially, 2 ½ games in the division after your offense dominated a fine-tuned defense in the second half. Until the Dolphins win, no one will notice how well Gase’s system is working and how comfortable Tannehill, his pet project, looks running it. In fact, talk radio hosts are more likely to yap about the young coach being in over his head. Welcome to NFL head coaching, Adam Gase. It’s the most bottom-line driven job in America.

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As for that team that beat Miami on Sunday but saw its soon-to-be super-hyped quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, go down with a shoulder injury after throwing for 234 yards and three touchdowns in about 25 minutes of game time…

The question now becomes: What can we expect from third-round rookie fill-in Jacoby Brissett? The answer: nobody knows. There’s no way to know. Third-string quarterbacks don’t get many reps in training camp even under normal circumstances, let alone on a team that had to get two starting quarterbacks ready.

On Sunday the Patriots used Brissett exactly like you’d use a mysterious, inexperienced QB who was playing with a lead. They lined up in heavy personnel—including more than 15 snaps with fullback James Develin—and handed the ball to power back LeGarrette Blount. When Brissett was asked to throw, it was usually on one-read plays, like screens and quick flings to the flat. These tactics, and only three days of preparation time, won’t be enough Thursday night against a Texans defense whose front seven is loaded and whose secondary is so cohesive in the matchup-zone coverages that its been perfecting for three years. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will have to pull something out of a hat.

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