WHAT: Miami Dolphins
WHEN: August 13
WHERE: Davie, Fla.
HOW: Flew from Jacksonville, which in August is going from the frying pan to the fire. And there was a huge line to get on the rental car bus when I got to the Fort Lauderdale airport for some reason, even though it was 11 p.m. on a Sunday night.
Adam Gase isn’t foolish enough to think he can get his players to tune out everything that the public and the media say in this age of the iPhone. So the Dolphins coach will acknowledge that, sure, it’s out there: People don’t think his team is very good. And then he’ll tell his guys what he as sees the unassailable truth: That doesn’t matter much.
“They’re just more aware that I have no interest in anybody listening to what other people think,” says Gase from his office in suburban Fort Lauderdale. “That’s probably the awareness that I’ve talked to them about. Anybody’s opinion outside this building is irrelevant. Right now, it’s almost like you’re the worst team of football. And we’ve been on both sides of the spectrum over the last two years.
“It just goes to the old adage—when you’re bad, you don’t listen to it, and when you’re good, you don’t listen to it, because until the end of the season, it doesn’t matter. Anybody else’s opinion doesn’t matter.”
Gase is right, and he and the Dolphins have seen both sides of it. This time last year, Miami, coming off a 2016 playoff berth, was considered a team on the rise with a young, quarterback-friendly head coach. But no one’s saying that about the Dolphins anymore after Ryan Tannehill’s ACL tear, disruptions caused by Hurricane Irma and the resignation of line coach Chris Foerster sent the Dolphins’ 2017 season into a downward spiral with no infrastructure in place to fight back. Gase has plenty to address ahead of this season, and attacking how the public perceives his team is just part of it.
“Some of these young guys that look at Twitter all day and Instagram and all that stuff, they can get caught up in it,” Gase says. “It’s like that thing that [Jason] Witten wrote, it can screw guys up. … This is the first generation, where it’s been around for most of their life, this is what they know. So we have to stay focused on what we’re doing. We can’t worry about what other people think.”
That’s one reason why Gase, EVP Mike Tannenbaum and GM Chris Grier spent the offseason looking for players who wouldn’t need to be told to stay focused. We’ve been over this before, but the issue with departed players like Ndamukong Suh and Jarvis Landry wasn’t that they were behind those problems that arose. It was that they weren’t helping to fix what resulted in the aftermath. And there’s no question there’s a noticeable personality profile in this year’s veteran haul—from receivers Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson, to running back Frank Gore, to linemen Daniel Kilgore and Josh Sitton, to defensive end Robert Quinn.
“Unfortunately, this organization, we haven’t been in a ton of big games,” Tannehill says. “So bringing in these veterans who know what it takes day-in and day-out—it’s not splash play here, and a big, exciting day one day, and the next day you suck. It’s steady. I think of it like a cold-blooded assassin, every single day, you’re the same every day, going after it, doing everything you can to get better.”
For his part, Gase saw the need for that kind of shift last December, when the team followed up a stirring Monday night upset of New England with an egg-laying in Buffalo—“We struggled to handle, ‘Hey, it’s not Monday Night Football, it’s one o’clock in Buffalo,’” he says—and the Dolphins haven’t wasted much time setting that in motion.
What was he looking for? Players with the kind of football-obsessed approach he saw trickle down in Denver when he was coaching Peyton Manning.
“I love being around guys where this is what it is for them, they love doing this,” Gase says. “Sometimes playing receiver’s a thankless job. You run a gazillion yards and you touch the ball four or five times—that’s why they’re so grumpy all the time, because they run a lot and they don’t get opportunities. So you want the guys who are more worried about how we’re doing as a group than they are as an individual.
“At the same time, you want them to want the ball. The good ones always want the ball, and when they get opportunities they make plays. But they also know there’s a fine—‘Hey, if I do this, it helps that guy.’ It takes all of them to help each other.”
If you’re looking for buzz around this group, you probably won’t hear much—subsequently concluding that it will a lot more for these Dolphins to get back to where they were two years ago.
So it’s a good thing they’re not listening.
OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT: Gore still has tread on the tires, even at 35 years old. Even with 13 NFL seasons under his belt. Even after 3,226 carries in that time. The Dolphin coaches have been impressed with his work in camp—he still has some wiggle and burst, and the vision and instincts that made him great are intact. I’m not suggesting that Miami’s going to saddle up and build the offense around him, but he looks like he provide a nice complement to the versatile Kenyan Drake and rookie Kalen Ballage.
STORYLINE TO WATCH: Miami has drafted 23 players since Gase arrived, and 22 remain (only 2016 seventh-rounder Brandon Doughty is gone). And as much attention as we’ve all foisted on the churning of top-end veteran names, and Tannehill’s fortunes, the fate of this team will ride largely on the play of guys like Laremy Tunsil, Xavien Howard, Drake, Jakeem Grant, Charles Harris, Raekwon McMillan, Cordrea Tankersley, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Mike Gesicki, Jerome Baker and Durham Smthye. The upshot here is that the model of player they looked for on the veteran market in March is the kind they’ve been drafting for three years.
“I love the draft classes that have been brought in here, we’ve legitimately had a chance to develop these guys,” Gase says. “We have everybody except one guy that we’ve drafted over the last three years. And that’s nice for us, these guys know us, they know our routine, they understand what we’re looking for. And we’ve watched guys mature over the last three years. Bringing in these new guys, it’s helped accelerate the growth of a few guys.”
TOP POSITION BATTLE: The Dolphins went into camp with a big question mark at corner. The good news is that second-year pro Howard has clearly emerged as the team’s top player at the position. The bad news is that the rest haven’t quite kept up. So one way or the other, Miami is going to need to find depth at corner, whether it’s via internal improvement (Cordrea Tankersley, Tony Lippett, Torry McTyer, Bobby McCain) or an outside acquisition. It would not be stunning to see Miami trade for someone here.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: On the day I was in Davie, the Dolphins were deep into their third week of training camp—and the triple-digit heat indexes, which are the norm in South Florida in August, tests wills and tempers. When defensive tackle Gabe Wright came up swinging from a pile, first at a running back (Senorise Perry), then at the starting running back (Drake), Wright was handed a ticket out of town. The significance? As Gase sees it, the heat provides natural adversity for the players, and after a year in which the team didn’t handle adversity well, the coach sees these elements as a good way to see if the players have a chance to improve in that department.
“You can tell when guys are the types of guys that put their head down and work,” Gase says. “This is a tough environment to practice in. It’s always gonna be hot. Every day you walk out there—wow, it’s hot. Well, the next day’s probably gonna be hotter, so get used to it. You can create adversity right out of the gate, because of our location.” And you can figure out plenty about your team, too.
PARTING THOUGHT: It’s easy to compare Tannehill to guys like Carson Wentz and Dalvin Cook, since those guys are coming off torn ACLs as well. But there is a significant difference—Tannehill’s injury happened in camp last year, meaning he’s already past the one-year mark in his recovery. So as he saw it when we talked, with a preseason game under his belt, there isn’t much left for him to prove to himself.
“I don’t think there’s any more hurdles,” he says. “The spring was a little bit of a hurdle for me, getting back to playing football, I hadn’t played football for a while. Being in the pocket, moving around, trusting it. Trust stepping into throws with people around it, at your feet. I think going through that process in the spring, I got to full trust it, I was running, I was cutting, I was in the pocket, escaping and making moves down field. I really had no reason not to trust the knee. So I’m fully in on the knee now—I trust that I can do anything I was able to do before. And I really don’t even think about it.”