At 4-4, the Miami Dolphins are at a crossroads. Yes the playoffs of course, but the real stakes in play here are much bigger than a wild card berth.
I’m referring to the soul of this football team.
Back in the day the stakes were the same when owner Joe Robbie brought in Don Shula and asked him to take a group of talented players and mold them into champions. Those Dolphins hadn’t a clue how to win before Shula instilled his Winning Edge philosophy, any more than today’s Dolphins do.
This same task is what owner Stephen Ross was looking for when he hired Adam Gase as head coach: a leader who would instill a winning culture, a championship culture. “The New Miami” people called it. The “Same Old Dolphins” that Gase inherited were to be swept away. Nothing from that sorry legacy would be sacred, then or now.
In the wake of an embarrassing 40-0 loss to the Ravens, it is clear the Same Old Dolphins have not yet left the building. That realization left Gase frustrated, angry, and even more determined to instill a culture of winning in his own image, short term consequences be damned. High profile players like CB Byron Maxwell and RB Jay Ajayi, who did not fully subscribe to Gase’s approach, were shipped out. Other players who will do the job his way were promoted.
What price is too high to pay to achieve a winning culture?
Almost none. That’s why bemoaning a fourth round pick for Ajayi misses the big picture entirely.
No one is more important than the team.
And so, at the midway point of the season, Gase now finds himself in a battle with his players to embrace the desired behaviors each and every day. That means being on time, paying attention, studying the playbook and the game plan, knowing opponent’s tendencies, and executing assignments with maximum effort and proper technique.
Not all agree with how Gase wants things done, which is a big reason why the Same Old Dolphins continue to lose. And when you have players who are mentally undisciplined and continue doing things “their way”, it becomes a battle for the identity of the club…which is nothing less than a challenge to Gase’s remit.
That’s why it’s wrong to criticize Gase for giving Ajayi away, blaming it on his inadequacies as a leader or comparing it to a move Joe Philbin might have made. It’s a shallow, emotional reaction. A deeper look reveals a principled decision by a leader with deep conviction as to how things ought to be.
If Gase is guilty of anything it’s being too tolerant, a hard lesson for the young Dolphins coach. To his credit, he wasn’t fooled by last year’s playoff berth or this year’s 4-2 start, and neither should you be. His Dolphins have not yet embraced a real culture of winning, a culture that gives a team the strength and discipline to go into Foxborough, Baltimore, or Pittsburgh in January and have the confidence from their preparations to prevail.
Great wins like that require talent, but they also require a community of practice that is uncompromising when it comes to physical and mental preparation. It’s an all-of-the-time mindset, a consistent expectation dedicated to team play. The Dolphins haven’t shown that mindset in their behaviors or attitudes, which is why they keep losing so badly and winning so narrowly.
Sure, comeback wins are fun; a testimonial to persistence and fight. But the best teams don’t do business like that week-to-week as the Dolphins do.
And know this: there is a BIG difference between losing a game 40-0 in a tsunami of mental mistakes and undisciplined play versus losing 27-24 as a result of mainly physical, aggressive mistakes. Teams can live with the latter and even build off it, but there’s never an excuse for the former. The players must come to understand this if they want to win big.
Against the Raiders, there were hopeful signs. For the first time this season the Dolphins played mostly the right way. The underachieving offense, arguably the worst unit in the NFL, looked more cohesive than before. The line and backs blocked the right people. Yes they were heavily penalized for holding but that’s a mistake a player makes when they get beat physically, especially against an elite front like the Raiders have. But they kept QB Jay Cutler clean for the most part, which is why he was able to stand and deliver the football accurately. It was his best day as a Dolphin.
The style of offense also changed, with RBs Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake doing more of the types of things that Gase believes in…and doing them the right way. We saw explosiveness from them that was missing in weeks past, together with power running that opened eyes. Yes, Drake fumbled the ball in the red zone: a big no-no. But it was an aggressive physical mistake that can be corrected.
Defensively, adjustments were quicker in coming and the mistakes made were mostly physical in nature. We saw some of the best fundamental tackling of the season and a run defense that held Marshawn Lynch in check most of the night. Pass defense continues to be leaky, but that situation should improve somewhat now that safety TJ McDonald’s suspension has ended.
“We prepared the right way, which has me somewhat excited”, Gase said in his Monday presser.
No one likes losing, but it was a step in the right direction. And long overdue.
The good news is that the battle for a playoff berth is still attainable with the players they have, playing the right way. But it’s still the larger war for the soul of this football team that is most important thing. Because all the talent upgrades in the world now and in the future won’t be worth a cent until a real winning culture is in place.
That’s “The New Miami” way that Gase came here to build. No matter the cost.