With 2:21 remaining on the clock in the first half and three time outs, the Miami Dolphins trailed the Buffalo Bills 9-0, but had just gotten the ball on their own 12-yard line. The team practices two minute drills incessantly. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill seems to flourish in a hurry-up, two minute offense. Everything seemed to say Miami would immediately attack and try to cut the deficit against the Bills.
Everything, that is, except the play calling.
Miami killed the clock with six straight running plays, gaining 29-yards behind Damien Williams and Lamar Miller. They actually converted their first third-down of the game on the drive, but they clearly were playing for halftime, rather than points. It was a move that left the announcers at the game, as well as the fans watching, confused. Why would Miami not try to add points, knowing they had all of their timeouts remaining and were getting the ball to start the second half.
"I believe at that point in time, we had 45 yards of offense and three sacks in the first half," Miami head coach Joe Philbin explained when asked about the situation on Monday. "The last thing I wanted to do is go into halftime down 16-0. So I told Bill [Lazor, offensive coordinator], I want to run the ball every single play and I want to get to the locker room and make some adjustments, and I want to get it to a one-possession game, which is exactly what we did twice in the third quarter. That was the reason I did it and I think it was the right thing to do, myself."
The Dolphins were able to do exactly what Philbin wanted: cut the lead to a one-possession game. They came out in the second half and drove the field for a field goal, bringing the deficit to six and appearing to gain some momentum for the first time in the game.
The kickoff following the field goal was returned 102-yards for a touchdown.
MIami took the next possession down the field, with Tannehill finding wide receiver Mike Wallace on a fade route in the endzone for a touchdown. Miami again clawed their way into the game, again closing the deficit to six.
Six plays later, Buffalo again found the endzone, this time on a pass from EJ Manuel to Sammy Watkins.
Miami never scored again.
Did Philbin's decision to run out the clock in the first half indicate his lack of confidence in his offense?
"My job is to give the team a chance to win the game and put the team in position to win the game," Philbin continued. "That's why, again, I'm not pounding my chest, but I feel like, in the third quarter, we were exactly where we needed to be in that game. We had a chance, we were on the road, you're in a one possession game on the road against a division rival. You have an opportunity to win the game. I had no thoughts that we were going to throw an interception or anything like that [at the end of the half], but if we, by chance, didn't get a first down, which we hadn't converted on third down up until that point, we would have been punting the ball to them, giving them great field position. They had a bunch of timeouts left. I think the worst thing that could have happened was to be down 16-0. Somebody else could have a different opinion and that's OK. I was very comfortable with that."
Lazor agreed with the decision by Philbin to run out the clock. On Monday, he explained, "I thought what Coach Philbin decided to do worked because, when you think about it, we had our struggles in the first half. He decided to run the football. We went in at halftime. We talked. I think we got settled down in some ways. We made a couple of adjustments, not that many, and we came out and had two straight scoring drives. I felt like knowing that we were getting the ball to begin the second half, I thought he did a great job with his decisions."
Tannehill did not seem to be as behind his head coach as Lazor was. "As a competitor you know I obviously want to go down and score, but it is coach Philbin's call and he wanted to do that," Tannehill told reporters after the game. "He knew we were getting the ball at the end of halftime. Obviously, as an offense we feel like we want to get going. But we hadn't done much up to that point to give him any confidence in us."
And that's where the issue comes in to play. Did Philbin just tell Tannehill that he would rather kill the clock with over two minutes remaining and three time outs - plus the two-minute warning - rather than hand him the ball and tell him to go get it?
Shane Falco told Jimmy McGinty that he wanted the ball. McGinty replied, "Winners always do." (Yes, I went with a The Replacements reference.) Philbin did not give Tannehill that choice.
This is not to say the thought process was wrong. The Dolphins offense clearly needed some shot in the arm, and Philbin and Lazor thought that would come at halftime. They wanted to get off the field, make their changes, take the opening kickoff of the second half and score. That is exactly what happened, and it appeared to work.
Given this team's strengths, however, that shot in the arm could have very easily been allowing Tannehill to attack in a two minute offense. Speed up the tempo, take it to the Bills, and use those timeouts when needed. It could all backfire, and a 16-0 deficit is a lot different than a 9-0 hole. The offense needed to be awakened, and a score at the end of the first half, even if it was simply driving into field goal range for a Caleb Sturgis kick, could have made a 9-0 deficit into a 9-3 one. Take that momentum into the second half, and come out firing again with the opening kickoff there. Perhaps the game is a different story.
Even if you have to punt, you trust your Pro Bowl punter, Brandon Fields, to blast the ball deep (even though he struggled with some poor kicks on the day). You trust your defense, which has held Buffalo to three field goals in the first half, to hold on for a couple of minutes. Punting was not necessarily a green light for the Bills to add a touchdown as the half ended.
Herman Edward famously (infamously?) told us all, "You play to win the game." In this instance, Philbin decided to play to not lose the first half. Who knows if anything would have been different if Miami threw the ball instead of running it. Who knows if anything would have been different if Miami, even as they ran the ball, used some of their timeouts, just in case they were able to break one for a long gain. The Dolphins got conservative to end the first half, and there is a lot of criticism that goes along with that decision. Maybe it really was the correct one, but, when you are trailing in the first half, and you have a chance to attack, why would you not give the ball to your quarterback and see if he can make something happen?