The Dolphins’ charter plane returned to South Florida around 5 a.m. on Sunday morning. Thirteen hours later, Adam Gase was still at work, trying to catch up on his normal day-after-game review of their 34-13 win over the Jets. At the same time, the Patriots were beating the Broncos in a game that was directly beneficial to the Dolphins’ postseason hopes. But Gase insists he wasn’t really paying close attention.
“We are focused on [our work],” he says. “You always have games on in the background. But I don’t sit here and have one particular game on.”
For weeks, the word out of the Dolphins’ locker room has been that players are demurring to talk about postseason possibilities, often invoking the trite “one game at a time” cliché. But here they are, at 9-5 and tied for the fourth-best record in the AFC, with two clear paths to the playoffs: win at Buffalo and at home against New England; or, win one of those two games, and hope that the Broncos lose either at Kansas City or at home against Oakland.
Miami has made the playoffs just once in the last 14 years—in 2008, when Tom Brady tore his ACL in the season opener. Gase, in his first season as the Dolphins’ coach, has a pretty good chance of changing that. That’s the validation you want in Year 1, right? To show your players, your locker room and your front office that your approach works?
“I go off what I learned under Coach Saban,” he says. “If you stick with your process, and do it right enough, then you will get the results you are looking for.”
Gase began his coaching career working for Nick Saban at Michigan State as an undergraduate assistant and then followed him to LSU. Gase, who is fiery and rarely satisfied even after wins, has had plenty of other coach and player influences too. (One example: Peyton Manning’s radar for knowing everything that’s going on around him and his team). But here’s one thing that really stands out about Gase in his first season as a boss: The 38-year-old is both a skilled play-caller and a leader of the entire 53-man roster, possessing a no-nonsense edge in his personality that coaches many years his senior struggle to maintain.
Every year, teams looking to hire new coaches must answer this question: Do you go for the up-and-coming coordinator who will make an impact on the field, or someone with proven success as a team CEO who can change the team culture? Gase, to the Dolphins’ delight, has been both. In Week 1, he sent a message to Jay Ajayi, the presumed starter at running back who was dropped on the depth chart for poor play and a bad attitude. (Ajayi responded by already rushing for 1,000 yards this season.) After the team dropped to 1-4 with a loss to the Titans, Gase called out the offensive line and, two days later, cut three linemen, all of them recent third- and fourth-round draft picks. “He cut three people—three draft picks—right after games,” guard Jermon Bushrod says. “If you can’t get the message after that … then you won’t get the message.”
Last month, Gase cut defensive lineman Leon Orr during practice after finding out about his drug possession charges. “We're in the middle of the season,” Gase said then. “We have priorities, and this is the No. 1 priority. If guys have other priorities, then they can go about their business somewhere else.”
Not much about this season has been easy for the Dolphins, not even their victories, which is why Gase deserves credit for piloting them through the rough patches. Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey played only five games before being placed on season-ending IR with a hip injury. Defensive starters Reshad Jones and Koa Misi have been out since October. And Ryan Tannehill is now limping around the locker room with a cast on his left leg after partially tearing his ACL and MCL in Week 14. The team is still waiting to see how his body responds before ruling him out for a possible postseason return. “Everybody has told us the same thing,” Gase says, “that we have to wait right now.” But in the meantime, Gase must try to win with back-up QB Matt Moore.
Saturday night’s game was a reminder that, regardless of who is at quarterback, Gase seems to know the right notes to hit. Remember the Rams game last month? Gase wasn’t pleased with the performance of the offense, which was held scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter. But he didn’t back off his aggressiveness. With a chance to tie the game with a field goal in the final two minutes, he instead trusted Tannehill to sling his way downfield for the game-winning touchdown, extending what would become a six-game win streak after that loss to Tennessee.
Gase showed a similar belief in Moore this past weekend. The Dolphins, who were trailing 7-6 late in the second quarter, stopped the Jets on a fourth-and-1 near midfield. That’s when Gase decided he’d had enough of “sitting back and trying to throw quick.” Stop being so conservative, he thought. So on a third-and-9, he asked his back-up QB to throw a deep post route to Kenny Stills. The result was a 52-yard touchdown.
“It was time for it. … From there, we just kind of took over,” says receiver Jarvis Landry, who later scored a 66-yard TD. “He’s witty. He’s different.”
Different, yes, and precisely the change the Dolphins needed.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England (12-2). LW: 1. The Patriots’ defense responded to the doubters by holding the defending Super Bowl champs to three points.
2. Dallas (12-2). LW: 2. I’ll admit, after two sluggish offensive performances in a row, I was in the camp that had questions about the Cowboys young stars sustaining success deep into the year. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott haven’t played a 16-game regular season before. Well, so much for that theory.
3. Kansas City (10-4). LW: 3. The MMQB’s big boss, Peter King, has always had a criterion for guiding these rankings: Who would win if teams played this week on a neutral field in, say, Wichita? So, for that reason, I have the Chiefs, who swept the season series against the Raiders this year, ahead of Oakland. But the loss against Tennessee has tempered hopes of a postseason home game at Arrowhead.
4. Oakland (11-3). LW: 4. The Raiders’ remaining schedule: vs. Colts and at home against the Broncos. The Chiefs are home vs. Broncos and then away at the Chargers. Denver might not make the postseason, but they’ll play a large role in deciding the AFC West.
5. Seattle (9-4-1). LW: 5. Hated Richard Sherman’s sideline outburst over the offensive play-calling. Liked the way Pete Carroll handled it.
6. Pittsburgh (9-5). LW: 7. The schedule-makers made a bet that the AFC North would come down to Steelers-Ravens on Christmas Day. That’s a best bet.
7. Atlanta (9-5). LW: 8. Got a kick out of Dan Quinn lauding the Falcons’ season-high 248 rushing yards as being key to “December football,” because they’re a dome team that doesn’t have any real cold-weather games left this year. And they may not have any in January, either, depending on how the postseason seeding works out. But, point taken. The NFL’s most prolific offense also needs to be a balanced one for a postseason run.
8. Giants (10-4). LW: 9. The underrated move of the Giants’ offseason was retaining defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Free-agent fixes don’t always work, but he’s successfully assimilated the new stars and developed the young players into a defense that’s driving the team to the verge of a postseason return.
9. Detroit (9-5). LW: 6. Matthew Stafford’s injured middle finger on his throwing hand didn’t seem to be a big factor (another thing I was wrong about), but the Lions’ offense was out of sync. They still lead the NFC North, but with games against the Cowboys and surging Packers remaining, the division is up for grabs.
10. Denver (8-6). LW: 11. The Broncos can win out and still not get into the postseason. But if they do, the offense just has to be a little bit better, because no team wants to face this defense.
11. Green Bay (8-6). LW: 13. I agree with Peter King here: Jordy Nelson is the leader in the clubhouse for the Comeback Player of the Year award.
12. Baltimore (8-6). LW: 12. Strong words from John Harbaugh, who called the decision to pass the ball in the red zone with a 10-point lead the “all-time worst call ever.” The pass was picked off, which led to a nearly successful Eagles comeback. Harbaugh took responsibility for the play call, which was made by OC Marty Mornhinweg, but his comment reinforces season-long frustrations with the offense.
13. Miami (9-5). LW: 15. It was a happy homecoming at MetLife Stadium for Mike Tannenbaum, the former Jets GM and now current Dolphins EVP of football ops. He has a chance to continue his AFC East revenge tour next week against Rex Ryan’s Bills.
14. Buccaneers (8-6). LW: 10. The emotions of Jameis Winston can be a good thing, once he learns how to control them. Sunday night was an example of why he, and this team, still has work to do to become a contender.
15. Tennessee (8-6). LW: 16. They’ve had some real quality wins the last few weeks, over the Packers and the Broncos, but Sunday’s win at Arrowhead was probably the most impressive. They are the best team in the AFC South.
Also receiving consideration:
16. Washington (7-6-1). LW: 14
17. Indianapolis (7-7). LW: 20.
18. Houston (8-6). LW: 18
19. Buffalo (7-7). LW: 19.
20. Minnesota (7-7). LW: 17.
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