The Dolphins play the Buffalo Bills on Saturday and could clinch a playoff berth in the process. Here are ten thoughts on the game and the state of the NFL entering week 16.
1. There are plenty of people in Dolphins land who are holding their collective breath waiting for the bottom to drop out as this season winds towards its end with Miami still in the playoff hunt. Everyone knows the stakes and everyone knows this will be an uphill climb.
Well, for one thing because the Bills, who they need to beat this week, are good. Yeah, sure they’ve got a 7-7 record. But the 28-25 victory Miami got over Buffalo in October isn’t really an indicator of where they are at now.
The team that the Dolphins beat didn’t have receivers Sammy Watkins or Robert Woods or defensive lineman Marcell Dareus or linebacker Shaq Lawson.
In addition, running back LeSean McCoy played with a hamstring injury. McCoy is now healthy and he’s had three 100-plus-yard performances in the last four games.
On the other side, the Dolphins won’t have starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Mike Pouncey or Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones.
So, yeah, there’s all that. And even with all that I say that the Dolphins have this one because they have one intangible that the Bills are going to be hard pressed to overcome. It’s that “team of destiny” feel that pervades the Dolphins every game now.
Sometimes, no matter what the sport and no matter what the team, you just get on a roll. Fifty-fifty balls bounce your way, timely calls by the referee fall in your favor, teams fall at your feet with turnovers and penalties. It isn’t quite that good but there is a feel about the Dolphins where no matter what they try, you just kind of know it’s going to work.
The Dolphins are passing when teams stop the run and they run when teams stop the pass and they do both well when they have to. More on that below.
They have it all going right now and it’s all working. Fans need to sit back and enjoy the ride while it lasts.
2. Along the same vein, the Dolphins are certainly hitting the teams in their division at the right time. The Jets are a veteran team at the bottom of the division and had little to play for last Saturday and it showed as they play out the string. Now the Dolphins take on the Bills who are in turmoil as they will once again not make the playoffs.
The major issue in Buffalo right now is whether Rex Ryan will keep his job. Reports for weeks have indicated that he will be fired any time now as the team will look to get an early jump on the market for coaches in the offseason. However, one report in particular is more puzzling than the rest.
Adam Schefter of ESPN has said that the Bills are not only “preparing to move on from Ryan” once the season comes to a close, which would end his run with the team after two years, but that 1) Ryan is aware of this and 2) general manager Doug Whaley will remain and will hire the new coach.
Both aspects of this report defy logic. Let’s concentrate on the first.
If ownership had, indeed, decided to fire Ryan there would be no reason to tell him or, if they did, it would only be to, you know, fire him.
No one could expect a head coach to do his job optimally under conditions where he already knew he was gone and there would be no reason to expect him to. Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula would surely pick an interim coach.
It is possible that ownership has, indeed, decided to fire Ryan but would rather see him coach out the string than give an interim coach a chance simply because they want a fresh start and don’t want an interim coach to make a case that he’s earned the job. That would be understandable but there would be no way you would tell Ryan if that were the case.
3. I also find the second aspect of this report, that Whaley will remain, to be less than logical.
Sure, it’s possible that Whaley has a good relationship with ownership and that they’d be more comfortable with him staying on. But good owners won’t let that stop them from making a change where the evidence indicates that its necessary. The suggestion that Whaley should be given the opportunity to blow a third head coaching hire is less than sane. Whaley also hired Doug Marrone in 2013.
The question here is what has Whaley ever done to deserve the loyalty of ownership? He’s been with the team since 2010 and general manager since 2013 and the team has seen nothing but misery ever since.
Most importantly, Whaley’s draft record has not been exactly stellar. For instance, he was integral in convincing the organization to draft E.J. Manual in the first round, far above the value most people put on him. All agree it was a major mistake that crippled the franchise for years.
More recently in 2016 he took Shaq Lawson despite the fact that NFL teams had flagged his shoulder injury during medical checks at the Combine in February. Lawson was eventually shut down for half the season as the shoulder required surgery. One league source told Pro Football Talk that, “His shoulder was so bad it would have dislocated tying his shoes.” And yet the Bills still drafted him.
It also didn’t help that second round pick Reggie Ragland landed on IR before the season started after he tore his ACL. Third round pick Adolphus Washington has been only so-so with 12 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Whaley, himself, said before the season that he bears responsibility for the performance of his draft classes.
“If they don’t perform, then they’re not going to play,” Whaley said. “We’re going to play the best people. We think they’re the best people, and if they come in and don’t perform that well, then we didn’t do our job right. So that’s on us. I have no problem with that.”
And yet here we are with Ryan shouldering the blame for a lost season while Whaley reportedly escapes scot-free. Go figure.
4. The Dolphins have been emphasizing that the declining production from running back Jay Ajayi is “not his fault” over and over again through the last couple of weeks. And I could not agree more with this message. It is, in fact, no one’s “fault.”
No matter who the team is and no matter what their position, one message that defensive players repeat constantly is that they have to stop the run. Running plays are generally “safe” and assuming the running back can simply hold on to the ball, few bad things can come from doing it. No defense can afford to allow an offense to simply run over them. It is a sure path to defeat.
Because of this, teams must concentrate on stopping Ajayi and the Dolphins running game, usually by bringing an extra man into the box (i.e. close to the line of scrimmage where he can be more effective at helping against the running game). That leaves one fewer man to cover receivers deep. So the harder a team has to concentrate on stopping your running game, the more it opens up the pass.
That is why Dolphins head coach Adam Gase has stuck with the run despite its apparent lack of success. Against the Jets they ran the ball a staggering 60% of the time despite gaining only 2.5 yards per carry. The game before that it was 55% and only 2.7 YPC in a win against Arizona.
And perhaps not coincidentally, they ran the ball only 16 times and 29% of the time in their only loss in the last three games against the Ravens.
Yes, a really great offensive line like the Cowboys could run the ball effectively against an eight man front and ideally you would like the Dolphins to have that.
“We don’t want [Ajayi] to be frustrated because we haven’t quite got the results we are looking for,” Gase said. “We’ve run into some tough defenses. We have another one ahead of us this week. They are going to try to stop the run and make us one-dimensional. That’s what most teams have tried to do with us the last nine games.”
Truth. Nevertheless, no matter how many yards it results in directly, the more Gase sticks with the run, the more good things will happen.
On Saturday, Ajayi faces a Buffalo team that he trampled for 214 yards on 28 carries (a 7.6 average) in their Oct. 23 meeting. “We’re going to make some adjustments,” Bills head coach Rex Ryan said. “He’s a heck of a back.”
And better news the Dolphins could not have received.
5. One more Buffalo note. I find their situation with quarterback Tyrod Taylor to be interesting. He’s on what amounts to a contract year and I’m looking forward to seeing how he performs.
The Bills' extension with Taylor, signed in August, already puts the quarterback under contract for $27.5 million in 2017 -- a salary that is guaranteed if Taylor suffers an injury that prevents him from playing next season. The Bills have until March 11 to exercise an option on Taylor's contract that would trigger the 2018 through 2021 years of the deal, paying him $15.5 million immediately and lowering his 2017 salary to a fully-guaranteed $12 million.
If the Bills do not exercise Taylor's option by March 11, then the entirety of his $27.5 million salary in 2017 becomes fully guaranteed March 12, and Taylor would be slated for unrestricted free agency after the 2017 season. But it’s highly unlikely that the Bills will do that so under the current deal it comes down to 1) trigger the three-year option or 2) release Taylor before March 11.
There is, of course, one other consideration – they could try to renegotiate the contract. The Bills probably will want to do this but the question is, what would it take on Taylor’s end to motivate him to agree to a change? The answer is, the same amount of money or more that he’d get as a free agent.
There are going to be a number of teams looking for a quarterback in the offseason including the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and potentially the Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos. In 2016 through 14 games Taylor has completed 62% of his passes at 6.8 yards per completion with a passer rating of 91. He’s also gained over 500 yards on the ground.
Those numbers are pretty average and they belie Taylor's vexing inconsistency. The Bills have found that the quarterback that they have in quarter one will often not be the same as the one that they get in quarter four.
So they are stuck with an interesting conundrum. Paying Taylor what he’ll get as an average starting quarterback on the free agent market might be more than they would like. On the other hand, not paying him means starting over with someone else who may well not be as good.
It will be interesting to see how Taylor does against the Dolphins defense, one that isn’t exactly the ’85 Bears but on the other hand can cause you some serious headaches with a defensive line that is finally starting to perform up to its reputation. In other words, it’s a defense that a quality quarterback should be able to perform against.
6. The Chicago Bears and injured 2014 first round pick Kyle Fuller find themselves having an interesting but common problem amongst NFL teams. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio summed things up in an unusually candid way for a modern NFL coach.
"Any time a guy's hurt, there's three stages to getting back to the field," Fangio said. "One is you've got to get medical clearance. Two, the player's got to say he's ready to go and feels confident and he's champing at the bit to go play. And then the coaches get involved and see if he's better than what the other choices are and if he really is back to being able to play. A has happened. B hasn't. So C is a non-issue."
Translation: We think he can play but he doesn’t want to. The Bears eventually gave up and put Fuller on IR this week.
The problem is that you can’t climb into the head of a player and figure out what the issue is. Fuller is a former track star and there is some thought that perhaps he just doesn’t want to play unless he’s close to 100%.
Tracy Porter summed up the attitude amongst most NFL players, one that most teams would prefer was the predominant one. "If doctors or trainers say it's not going to damage you in the long run, then if you can tough it out, that's what some guys try to do.
"Overall, it's a very fine line trying to be tough versus trying to be responsible and (not) further damage yourself and your team."
But that doesn’t appear to be what’s upper most in Fuller’s mind. Presumably, being medically cleared, he can’t damage his knee further by playing. But he’s still not on board. His comments on the matter are interesting.
Said Fuller: "I just listen to my body. It tells me what I can and can't do. Right now I can't go out there and play. That's the line, I guess.”
I suppose. But I really wonder how many players “listen to their body.” And I wonder if they do, how many times it says, “don’t play football” but they do anyway. My guess is a lot. Once you’ve played one game in the NFL, my bet is that every player in the league has a body telling him not to play. That’s professional football.
Availability is a talent. Football is going to punish your body and there’s no getting around that. If you don’t accept it, you don’t’ play. And if they don’t play, Fuller and those like him aren’t going to be around long even after they’re healthy.
7. I mentioned last week that players like the Seahawks' Richard Sherman, who fans and media insist are intelligent despite the ridiculously stupid things that pour out of their mouths, irritate me.
Sherman has again inserted himself into my consciousness as he abused Jim Moore of ESPN 710 in Seattle, one of the members of the sycophantic media I referred to. The exchange came as a result of a sideline exchange where Sherman screamed at Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell after the Seahawks had tried a pass play at the goal line rather a run play. The play choice stirred up dark memories of Seattle’s goal-line interception in Super Bowl XLIX.
Sherman: “You don’t want to go there. You do not. I’ll ruin your career.”
Moore: “You’ll ruin my career? How are you going to do that?”
Sherman: “I’ll make sure you don’t get your media pass anymore.”
Moore: “Is that right?”
Sherman: “Yes, it is.”
Sherman later apologized but it was too late. Setting aside whether Sherman could actually see that Moore never gets another press pass (my guess is that he could), he once again showed his stupidity in, like so many players, looking at the working press as the enemy.
Sherman fails to understand that most reporters are actually fans. If not fans of the team, then fans of the sport. Virtually all of them are happier when they are writing positive things. But they need help from players and coaches in order to do that.
Moore was giving Sherman an opportunity to explain himself and put the incident in a positive light (if possible). Responding with threats instead of quotes leaves reporters with no choice but to put the most negative spin possible on this incident and those like it.
Players and coaches would do well to treat reporters as partners rather than adversaries. Many of the truly smart ones know that and many are treated well far past the time that they deserve to be when they act upon that knowledge. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher lasted far longer than his record would have indicated that he should have because his relationship with the press was excellent and many refused to attack him for years because of it.
Unfortunately Sherman has once again proven to be less than the intelligent person that his fans insist that he is. In fairness, he is unfortunately far from alone.
8. The Cleveland Browns are becoming more and more likely to be the second team in NFL history to go 0-16 and not win a game. The experience is obviously wearing on head coach Hue Jackson.
Jackson reportedly spoke with Browns Executive Vice President Sashi Brown for an extra 30 minutes after a recent loss to the Giants before addressing the media. When he emerged from his office, his eyes welled up with tears in his postgame press conference while explaining that being winless “is probably the hardest thing ever.''
It is evident that this season is getting to him emotionally and that he's seeking answers from the front office for how things will be different going forward.
I hope Jackson’s not holding his breath. Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam recently held a full staff meeting at the team facility in Berea, OH and preached continuity. Speakers at the meeting also included Browns Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta. The meeting was intended to calm the waters and boost morale of a staff that's lived through the Browns 3-30 record since the end of 2014.
For the record, continuity is a good thing. If you’ve got the right people in place, that is. But whether the Browns do is highly, highly questionable. The two men in charge are Brown, a lawyer, and DePodesta, a statistician who helped oversee the “money ball” success of baseball’s Oakland Athletics. And that has to be leaving the well-regarded Jackson feeling like he’s been cut adrift in strange NFL waters with no land in sight.
Haslam is trying an admittedly innovative, analytics-based front office model but there's no evidence it's working. In fact, there's data to the contrary -- the Browns' winless record and a lackluster 2016 draft class.
You feel for Jackson but, similarly, you have to feel even worse for the fan base. Dolphins fans can certainly identify to some extent as they prepare to break out of their own streak of seasons without a playoff win. This writer follows the Chicago Bears who haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1986 and have only sniffed the playoffs once in the last ten years. Before that I grew up with the old St. Louis Cardinals. Try following a team that would typically select a player in the first round only to have draft rooms around the league break out into open laughter.
But all of that pales in the face of the brutal way that the Browns franchise has treated its fans over the course of more than 50 years. The NFL lives by selling its fans hope for the future. The Bears in Ryan Pace have a real general manager in charge who was previously with a reasonably successful franchise in the Saints. The Dolphins are run by executive Mike Tannenbaum but at least general manager Chris Greer, with 17 years experience with the Dolphins, is right there with him.
Imagine what it’s like knowing that the only way your franchise of choice is going to be able to build is through a draft run by two guys who have never worked in an NFL personnel department. This might be the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed in a league that produces incredible things almost for its living. That Browns fans manage to hang on in quiet desperation year after year is a testament to either their fortitude or their stupidity. Probably both.
In either case, both they and their head coach deserve better. But I don’t see how they’re going to get it any time soon.
9. The Jacksonville Jaguars joined the Los Angeles Rams by firing their head coach last week in order to get an early jump on finding a new coaching staff. The Jaguars (2-12) fired Gus Bradley after the franchise's ninth consecutive loss Sunday. Bradley went 14-48 in four seasons in Jacksonville, the worst winning percentage (.225) of any NFL coach with at least 60 games.
General manager Dave Caldwell said Monday that former New York Giants Tom Coughlin "would be somebody we'd be interested in talking to" about the team's coaching vacancy.
The 70-year-old Coughlin was Jacksonville's first head coach, leading the Jaguars to a 68-60 record in eight seasons (1995-2002). Coughlin resigned last January after 12 seasons with the Giants, but has made it clear he wants to return to the NFL. He is currently serving as a senior adviser to the league's football operations department.
Caldwell could give him a shot at getting back on the sidelines.
"Tom's a great man and a great person, and we'll see where it goes," Caldwell said. "There will be a lot of guys we're interested in talking to."
There are plenty of hot young names that are undoubtedly high on the Jaguars list. Current interim head coach Doug Marrone will undoubtedly get a good look. Former San Francisco 49ers coach and current University of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley should get varying degrees of consideration.
But in some ways, Coughlin does make a great deal of sense. His history with the franchise would make him a popular hire despite his age. He’s also an offensive coach with some history developing quarterbacks, most recently and famously, Eli Manning with the Giants with whom he won two Super Bowls.
Fixing young Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, who has regressed dramatically this year, will be the first and most important thing on the agenda for a new head coach in Jacksonville no matter who they hire.
There is some talent on the Jaguars that may make potential hires feel that they can win immediately in a very weak AFC South division if they can get the quarterback situation squared away quickly. This will be a popular job amongst the candidates and it’s one to keep an eye on.
10. With the Jaguars job and the Rams job now both open, here’s one absolute dead solid guarantee that I will make. There is no way on God’s green earth that Jim Harbaugh is leaving the University of Michigan to take an NFL head coaching job. It’s possible he’ll do it someday. But absolutely not this year.
Why? Simple. He hasn’t beaten Ohio State and he hasn’t won a national championship.
When Harbaugh was at Stanford he flat out hated Pete Carroll at USC, once actually prodding the normally easy going Carroll to exclaim, “What is your problem?!”
I sense the same passion when it comes to Urban Myer and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Harbaugh is on a mission and he’s not going to be side tracked by the NFL now that he’s got his teeth into the rivalry.
In my opinion he’s well on his way to accomplishing both goals as Ohio State didn’t so much beat Michigan as Michigan beat itself this year. The less talented but more disciplined team won the 2016 match up but that won’t last long and if Michigan isn’t in the national championship playoff next year, I’ll be surprised. If Harbaugh ever gets to the point where he’s actually won that playoff a couple times, yes, I can see him taking on the challenge of an NFL job.
But he’s got plenty of time in the future for that. Ohio State is right now and that’s all that’s driving him.
This column was written by Tom Shannon. Follow him on Twitter: @bearingthenews
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