Things looked grim. The body seemed lifeless. Last rites were being given. Players were being cut, and rumors of a fire sale circulated. Some had already begun their 2017 NFL Draft analysis.
Then unexpectedly, like Lazarus, the body was miraculously revived with new life.
Today 1-4 seems like eons ago. Where there was disappointment, hope now blossoms.
Riding a three game win streak, the Miami Dolphins have powered their 2016 campaign back onto a winning track, back to .500 and into the land of living. ‘Powered’ is really the proper verb here because this turnaround began with the offensive line and RB Jay Ajayi tearing the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills up for 200+ yards each in successive weeks. Once that juggernaut got underway (and it is a legitimate juggernaut), everything else fell into line.
Even the coaching seems smarter today, with Adam Gase curbing his pass-first tendencies and adjusting to what is working in the present. This is what good coaches do, and due credit should be given for it.
In fact, things are rolling along so happily that confident paragraphs have been written about how soft the Dolphins’ remaining schedule is, though this sort of thinking is nothing more a trap.
Instead, the balanced school of thought should continue to be a “one-week-at-a-time” view of the work ahead. Yes, let’s all take a Victory Monday lap and appreciate the accomplishment of climbing out of a 1-4 hole, notching two important divisional wins and a key conference win along the way.
Hey, this was not an easy task! Honestly, it was a long shot. But somehow, these Dolphins found a way to get it done.
For those opining that this is the start of real and lasting culture change, from consistent losing to consistent winning, I say curb your enthusiasm just a bit. It’s still too early to make that claim, to drink that Kool-Aid. This is still a fragile team, two plays from being a 2-6 train wreck instead of a 4-4 J-Train diesel.
What we can safely say is that there are some encouraging signs of progress that could become lasting, changes that will serve this team well into the future.
One is the aforementioned running game. When a unit rings up the sort of yardage these Dolphins have versus stout run stoppers, they’re legit. When a unit like this can consistently close the deal against top rated run defenses (NY Jets), they’re elite.
Branden Albert, rookie Laremy Tunsil, Mike Pouncey, Jermon Bushrod, and Ja’Wuan James have jelled. They’re a proper unit now, and they’re powering this resurgent comeback.
Ajayi is taking advantage. People who pay attention knew he was ready to be a starting RB. But no one knew he was THIS ready. The more he carries, the better he gets. That sort of talent wins games in late December and into January.
Credit Gase for getting Ajayi in the proper frame of mind to produce the way he has these past three games, earning back-to-back AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. The gas can hanging in his locker? It’s a reminder from his teammates to keep the J-Train rolling.
You can bet Gase has filed a “lesson learned” to himself on how to prepare an offensive line to play, one of many that this rookie coach will no doubt gain as he cuts his teeth on this suddenly meaningful campaign. His only regret is that he didn’t (and couldn’t) make the needed preparations sooner.
We’ve also learned that Jarvis Landry is not a system receiver, but a player who can be prolific regardless of the scheme. A modern day Nat Moore, he takes pride in blocking just as much as returning kicks or catching a slant. Of course Landry is more animated than Moore was, but the skill set is the same. He will be a force to be reckoned with by opposing defenses for years to come.
We’re learning that Ryan Tannehill is much more useful in doses rather than as a main course. Whether or not this is sufficient to win a championship with is a matter of debate. For now, he is in a good place in terms of his role and expectations thereof. Gase knows he has something to work with now. We’ll see where it goes from here.
Defensively, we know the Dolphins are strong up the middle. All great defenses have this fundamental characteristic. Last year’s defense couldn’t make this claim. Now, with the additions of MLB Kiko Alonso and S Isa Abdul-Quddus, it’s a matter of firming up the perimeters.
The good news is that there’s relief coming with the imminent return of CBs Chris Culliver and rookie Xavien Howard. LB Zach Vigil was also just reactivated, he with a sensitive nose for the football. And there’s real hope that DE Dion Jordan can still return to make a meaningful contribution during the stretch run; they need him more than most people realize, especially with the loss of Reshad Jones.
There are other signs of improvement that are encouraging. One in particular is a bellwether for winning: avoidance of turnovers. For the first time in 19 years, the Dolphins have gone three straight games without committing a turnover. 19 years!
(yes, that sound is Don Shula clapping)
All of this reassures the faithful that the Dolphins are indeed on firmer footing, that they are improving, and that they are now poised to make a real honest-to-goodness playoff run. This hopeful resurgence must continue to be a one-week-at-a-time affair, strength of schedule be damned. At 4-4, this team still has little room for error.
Real momentum and winning is an every week thing, a sustained thing. This is what the Dolphins must discover. This upcoming road trip (at Chargers, at Rams) will go a long way towards confirming the true identity of this football team.
For now, enjoy the moment. Enjoy the real accomplishment of winning the past three games and getting back to .500 football. Relevant Novembers and Decembers haven’t been all that common in these parts over the past ten years. Let’s see if these Dolphins can add January to this ride.