A butt kicking on par with any in history was delivered to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday and along with it, a lesson about winning in the NFL. What separated those two teams yesterday was not talent or depth or scheme or any of those tangible things that people like to point to when trying to actualize outcomes.
What was on display yesterday were all the intangibles that coaching is supposed to fill in for. The Dolphins beat themselves every bit as much as they were beat by the Patriots and that happened in the empty spaces of football, where teams make their own luck and those with the instilled sense of self outshine those who are still unsure of their identity. The Miami Dolphins got blown out by a team they are every bit as talented as, because they don’t know who they are.
It can be confusing sometimes, especially when you watch a team so closely that its positives and negatives seem as obvious as night and day. It is so confusing to try and reconcile the ever present touches for running backs that should not be carrying more than a small percentage of the load with so much on the line. It can be dumbfounding when an obviously overmatched offensive lineman is continued to be forced into action even though that he is not up to the task is glaring. It can be mystifying that a nobody linebacker was thrown into a starting role when there is another candidate who is a former number three overall pick that may offer better upside. What can be the most hallucinogenic of them all, though, is that all of these things happen at the same time.
Listen closely and you can hear the chirps of practice quality or lack of snaps or whatever else the excuse machine wants to throw out into the universe, but at the end of the day, when nothing is left to lose, what is the point of not trying? Sitting back and letting fortune decide your fate is the breeding ground of losers and quitters. The old saying about fortune favoring the bold is an old saying for a reason.
Now sitting here removed from a beating that very well may have ended their season, what can the Miami Dolphins do? Nothing. They cannot go back in time and make bold choices that may have altered the outcome of not just this game, but the Baltimore game that preceded it. Miami can’t wave a wand and create a more likely path to the playoffs. All they, and we as fans, can do is shake their heads at what might have been. There are no excuses to be made and none that should be accepted by the fans or, and this is most important, owner Stephen Ross. It is time for the Dolphins to finally learn the lesson that Bill Belichick and the Tom Brady led Patriots have been teaching them with a closed fist for the last 14 years - you don’t win by trying not to lose.
That is what it comes down to. We can argue forever about injuries or schemes or timeouts or what the hell ever it is you want to ascribe this to, but in my estimation, it comes down to one overriding factor. Since Jimmy Johnson walked out, the Miami Dolphins have been led by coaches more afraid to lose then they were determined to win. In a game where violence is so extreme and the players so reckless that there need to be rules put in place to stop them from hurting themselves, being meek and mild is never going to carry the day. Playing the odds only stack them against you, trying to simply hold on to a lead is the surest way to watch it slip away, and all of that was on display in New England on Sunday. It was a master’s class in football and it exposed this Dolphins team as a reflection of their coach. The 2014 Miami Dolphins are more afraid to lose than they are driven to win.
Everything stems from that. You ask me why there were so many dropped passes; I say that it is because the players were so scared to drop the ball that was all they could do. Why does the offensive line end up down field or jumping offsides so often you wonder and I reply that they are so scared to lose their math-ups they think they have to be perfect, but in trying to be perfect they regularly miss that narrow line where perfection turns into failure.
I feel really bad for the players on this team too. There have been some great performances and some real individual progress. Despite the diminishing returns of the staff’s machinations, players like Jarvis Landry and Ja’Wuan James continue to ascend, two rookies, one playing out of position, still doing their jobs about as well as you could hope for in the circumstance. Reshad Jones finding his groove and Cortland Finnegan rediscovering himself as a starting caliber defensive back have been nice stories this season. Jelani Jenkins’ emergence and the startling, unpolished, upside of Chris McCain in the linebacker unit are notable in the haze of all of the negative feelings about the team.
Halfway through this season when Branden Albert was still playing and the team was on an obvious upswing, you could sense the deep rooted changes that all fans have been hoping for possibly, finally, being set in motion. Now, after once again with the Dolphins failing in the face of adversity, when the next man up was not up to the job and the staff was unwilling to at least try anything else, the progress has disappeared and with that failure the only thing that has been created is more animosity. I, for one, am ready for a fresh start, even as painful as starting over is, I think this is the right time. For the first time since Jimmy and Dan and Don, there are some important tent poles in place. Ryan Tannehill is a QB who is ascending and Dennis Hickey, no matter what choice he was, was the right choice.
My prescription for the Dolphins is a pretty simple one. Everyone can go except the QB and the GM. Give Hickey the power to run the coaching search as he would be the first football guy to run for Miami in a long time. Trust in the constant growth of your quarterback. Don’t be swayed by the idea of a quick fix coming in the form of a messiah QB - they don’t exist. Build around your youth, which is something that Hickey has shown an inclination for, which is the only real long term path to sustained success in the salary cap version of today’s NFL.
All of that said, I am still cheering for the Dolphins to win these final two games, because I am always cheering for the Dolphins to win. I think there are a lot of players who will show up against these last two teams, but I hope that does not hide what we have al already seen. Philbin and a large portion of his staff need to be set aside, maybe not for someone who knows all the tricks, but at least for someone who can learn from the lessons that the game teaches, like the one that we all watched yesterday.
To win, and win big in the NFL, you have to play to win, always.
This column was written by Ryan Winters. Follow him on Twitter: @WintersNFL