Is Adam Gase a leader? Is Ryan Tannehill a leader? These are the questions that Dolphins fans are trying to answer...or have already come up with an answer for, and - like everything else - are debating that their answer is the objectively correct answer.
Many people say that yes, both Tannehill and Gase are leaders.
Many others, usually those who are the most vocal, say that Tannehill is too quiet and Gase is too stubborn for them to be true leaders.
But is that really the case?
This will be the first of a two-part series, detailing what truly makes a leader, what characteristics they have, and whether or not Gase and Tannehill have them. In this story, we will examine Adam Gase. Strap yourselves in.
Gase often gets compared to the legendary Don Shula, who - in his heyday - commanded so much respect from his players that if he told them to jump, they would ask how high...or at least, that's how he is described by Dolphins fans. Adam Gase, on the other hand, has had to ship out a lot of the franchise's most popular players because they wouldn't buy into the new culture Gase is trying to instill, which somehow proves he lacks the respect of his players.
If they respected him, he wouldn't have to get rid of them or bench them.
Is this the reality of the Miami Dolphins? A head coach who can't work with strong - but talented - personalities so he ships them out because they won't listen to what he says?
On the surface, this sounds like a perfect description of what the team is going through right now. Miami traded their most popular players in Jay Ajayi and Jarvis Landry for practically peanuts, only getting a 4th round pick for each of them; presumably they did not like the way Gase handled things.
People say that Don Shula would not have sent players packing just because they didn't get on board with the program, he simply would have found a way to make it work, no matter what it took. They say that even if players had issues with Shula, they would do what he said anyway because they respected his prowess as a coach.
Gase - in the eyes of those on the outside looking in - does not command that same respect. This "culture change" is simply an excuse to ship out players who won't listen to him, because he isn't a strong enough coach to make these strong personalities get on board with the program he's putting in place, like Shula would have.
But is what Shula would have done really that different than what Gase has done? Fans would say absolutely.
Former Dolphins WR Nat Moore - who played under Shula and knows him well - would disagree with that notion.
"Let's say at one point he traded what was probably one of the best safeties in football at that time, a Super Bowl MVP Jake Scott to Washington," Moore said. "He traded Duriel Harris to Cleveland, there was always that threat that if you didn't want to be a part of the team, we would go on without you."
That is what Shula did to players who didn't get on board. That is what New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick does to players who don't get on board. That is what Adam Gase is doing to the players who don't want to get on board.
So what is the difference? Why does Gase not get the same credit that Shula and Belichick do? Is it because of the championships? Perhaps that has a lot to do with it. When a coach has several championships under his belt, he is generally given a much larger benefit of the doubt than his constituents who are still trying to get to where he is.
But that does not mean the decisions that are made become wrong or right based on the number of rings on a coach's fingers. Bill Belichick has always been Bill Belichick, long before he became a championship coach and his decision making and personality has not changed from before that.
Adam Gase is the same way; he is who he is, a coach who can and will get along with players if they're on the same page as he is, but will call them out in a heartbeat if they start slacking off or going off-script, much like Belichick does in New England.
So what are the other leadership traits that coaches should have in the NFL?
"I think a guy that can assess talent, and then figure out the best way to utilize that talent," said Nat Moore. "a guy that says here's what my guys can do, and then you do that versus this is my system and you cannot adapt to the talent that you have because if you have a system and the talent don't fit it, you got no chance of really being successful long-term.
"Coaches like Don Shula when he had a Bob Griese and a Larry Csonka, we had the No-Name Defense where we just controlled the football and won games. Then when we got Dan Marino and Mark Duper, Mark Clayton, those guys, and we can air it out, and we used that along with the Killer B's to win games. I think it just comes down to adapting to the level of talent that you have, and get the best out of that."
So has Gase done that?
In 2016, Gase came onto the scene and things didn't start off on a very high note. The Dolphins started out 1-4 and seemed to be on the verge of one of their worst seasons ever. Then Jay Ajayi got onto the field after initially being in Gase's doghouse for being too high on himself and acting like he was entitled to the starting RB job over veteran Arian Foster.
The story is well known from there, Ajayi lit up the league with his powerful running style and Miami's offense rode the "J-Train" to a 10-6 season and their first playoff berth since 2008, only to stumble at the finish line as the limping and incredibly injured Dolphins lost to the Steelers in the Wild Card round.
But this was an example of Gase adapting to what he was given; the offensive line got an overhaul when Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas were cut, and Ajayi become the focus rather than Ryan Tannehill, who as a result of finally having the proper amount of balance infused into the offense, had arguably his best year ever before getting injured in Week 14 of the 2016 season.
Then 2017 happened, and it seemed like Gase had lost his ability to work with what he had after Ryan Tannehill's season-ending injury in training camp. Ajayi's performance slowed to a crawl and reports later came out that Ajayi was frustrated with not getting the ball enough as veteran QB Jay Cutler - who has history with Gase from their time with the Chicago Bears - started getting more focus.
Ajayi was shipped to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Cutler was unable to replicate the level of success at QB that the injured Tannehill had in 2016. One has to wonder why Gase couldn't adapt to use the talent he had anymore, was it just because Tannehill was gone?
This is where things get tricky.
While it is true that coaches are required to adapt their systems to match the talent of the players around them, those players also have to be willing to give their due diligence in return. That, presumably, was the opposite of what was happening, as Gase infamously came out on October 27, 2017 spewing fire and brimstone after a particularly embarrassing 40-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
“I don’t think it’s a retain information thing." Gase said. "It’s we’re not putting the work in. That’s what it comes down to. If you can’t remember it, you shouldn’t be in the NFL. At the end of the day, guys have got to actually take this stuff home and study it. They’re not going to just learn it all in meetings. We’ve got to find guys that will actually put forth effort to actually remember this stuff and really, it starts with our best players.”
That was an eye-opening quote, and many were split on what this meant. Had Gase lost the locker room? Did the players simply not care as long as they were paid? Was it a combination of both factors or more?
It is impossible to tell how much of what Gase said is factual and how much of it is simply his personal point of view on things, but the next thing he said goes back to the previous trait of leadership, which is that leaders have to be willing to remove players who aren't getting on board with the program.
"We’re going to have to figure something out." Gase said that day. "We’ve got to kind of figure out really what’s best for us to do, how we really want to approach it; or I guess I’ve got to figure it out. I’ll look into it, but I’m done compromising with anybody. I’ll do what I think is best and those that want to come on board, great. Those that don’t, we’ll get rid of them.”
Once again, based on the words of Nat Moore, this is precisely what Don Shula would have done back during his time. If a player didn't want to get with the program, they were gone. You can adapt to the talent on a roster, but you cannot adapt to a player's lack of willingness to put in the necessary work, or a mindset that emphasizes personal success over team success.
Which is why Gase brought in players who fit the mold of player he wants: players who know what it takes to be successful in the NFL and exactly how much goes into becoming great, such as veteran running back Frank Gore, who even at 34 - going on 35 - is still a very productive runner, and multiple Super Bowl champion wide receiver Danny Amendola, who played under perhaps the strictest coach in the league today in Bill Belichick and knows exactly what being great means.
Now the other players will have to follow their example, and Adam Gase will be watching to see who will and who won't do so. Those who don't, they will be gone. Those that do, Gase will - as shown in the past - defend them to the end, which many of his players still do appreciate, and the new faces are looking forward to working with him, having heard great things about him in the past.
“I’ve heard a lot of great things about Coach Gase just from previous coaches." center Daniel Kilgore said back in late March. "Meeting with him today was very casual and being ourselves, being just another guy in the room. I think from his record, and track record and guys that have been around the league for a while, they love him. I’m sure with all of those guys that love him, I’ll do the same.”
Wide receiver Albert Wilson had similar things to say.
“He’s a great guy. Exciting. The energy that I got from him when we first met, it brought some butterflies to me, just how excited he was to get me in the building. I’m looking forward to putting in a lot of work with him.”
Let's add the most recent comments from Danny Amendola to this discussion.
“He’s a great coach." Amendola said. "Obviously he’s been in the league for a long time and been doing a lot of great things. Just being here for a couple days, I can tell these guys really respond to him and they play hard for him.”
That seems to be a very different picture being painted by the new players, especially considering what Gase had to say and do last season and this offseason. How can Gase be both a player's coach and a player's worst nightmare at the same time? Can you actually be both unflinching and unrelenting and a player's best friend at the same time?
Ask former Dolphins tight end Troy Drayton, who played under head coach Jimmy Johnson - considered one of the greatest despite mixed results during his Miami tenure - from 1997-1999. Drayton was asked what made Johnson such a great leader, and the first phrase that came out of his mouth was telling.
"His charisma," Drayton said. "But he's unflinching in his beliefs, and you have to be that way to be a leader."
Johnson was able to inspire devotion in his players back during his coaching career, and - like Shula, as well as Gase - he didn't back down if he felt something needed to be done. But then Drayton went on to say something else, something that should be taken into account when discussing Gase's capability as a leader.
"He [Gase] is a new type of leader," Drayton said. "He also understands his troops, he understands his guys. I think when you understand your guys, you can still be a coach's coach, and be unflinching in what you believe and the things that you do. Absolutely, Adam Gase is that new type of leader.
"I think those guys will follow Adam Gase through Hell, because he taps into things that they understand, I think he's very simplistic in his beliefs, and he sticks to those beliefs, and that's what you have to be. You have to be unflinching, and he is. I don't care what people say, I think Adam Gase has won that locker room over and he's gonna continue to win the locker room over."
So is Adam Gase a leader or isn't he? Based on everything above, the answer is a definitive yes. But only maintained success will be able to convince the rest of the world of that.
He is unflinching like Shula, he has charisma like Johnson, and he has an ability to connect with players that sets him apart from the previously mentioned legends. Now he just needs the wins to back it up, and if he gets his hands on what he feels he needs - which he is doing now - there's a good chance success will return.
Just listen to Don Shula himself.
“Good players, good assistants, good organization,” Shula said back in January. “All those things have to fit together. You can’t do one without the other. So as a coach, you’ve got to put it together. You’ve got to know where your strengths and your weaknesses are. You build on your strengths and try to uplift your weaknesses.
“Give him a chance, the guy proved that he could do it. And you know everybody at one time or another has an off year. Give him a chance to bounce back and utilize his ability.”
This story was written by Luis Sung. Follow him on Twitter: @LuisDSung
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