Don't look now, but the 2017 regular season is just four months away, and unlike previous years, there is a clear delineation of the hierarchy that is the National Football League's AFC Eastern division. Yes, for the sixteenth consecutive year, New England still sits atop the division, as well they should. But the Patriots are no longer being chased by a hodgepodge of three other teams, as has been the case in recent seasons. Today, New England, according to most pundits and prognosticators, is being pursued by one divisional rival, while the other two, at least for the foreseeable future, occupy the division's cellar.
That one team that's chasing New England? The Miami Dolphins. Indeed, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio said recently that if any team can threaten the Patriots' grip on the division, it's the Dolphins. The reason for this newfound optimism regarding the team from South Florida? Adam Gase.
Gase and his staff arrived in Davie sixteen months ago and immediately set about the formidable task of changing the team's culture. He and legendary former Dolphins head coach Don Shula have several things in common. As was the case for Shula, in 1963 (when he was named head coach of the then Baltimore Colts), Gase was the youngest head coach in the NFL when he was hired. Like Shula, Gase would post a winning record in his first season. Like Shula, Gase demonstrated early on that he would not tolerate poor play or lack of discipline. When the offensive line played horribly, in an ugly loss to the Tennessee Titans, Gase promptly cut two players, both of whom were former third round picks by the team. The out and out fear players had of Shula was exemplified by DT Alfred Oglesby's kidnapping story during training camp in 1992. Rather than risk Shula's wrath for oversleeping and being late to practice, Oglesby instead concocted an intricate account of being abducted at gunpoint and held for ransom. The story eventually fell apart under questioning by the authorities.
To be sure, other men who have coached the Dolphins since Shula's departure have attempted to motivate through fear, with mixed results. The team's entire fan base was electrified by the hiring of former Cowboys and Miami Hurricanes head coach Jimmy Johnson, in 1996. Johnson, though, failed to heed an important, unwritten rule -- that every great man must live with the knowledge that he is only a couple of false steps away from becoming a caricature of himself. Johnson, who enjoyed great success at both of his previous stops, winning college and NFL championships, at UM and Dallas, respectively, let his ego get the best of him when he arrived in Miami. After expanding a first round pick on Tennessee wideout Alvin Harper, who helped him win two Super Bowls, in Dallas, Johnson, seemingly obsessed with beefing up the Dolphins' running game, allowed the Dolphins' passing game to languish. To be fair, J.J. did draft WR Yatil Green in the first round in '97, but Green blew out his knee in training camp during his rookie year, blew out the same knee during the following training camp and started only one regular-season game for the Dolphins. Conversely, in his four-year stint with Miami, Johnson drafted four running backs in the first three rounds: Karim Abdul-Jabbar (3rd round, '96), John Avery (1st round, '98), James Johnson and Rob Konrad (both in the 2nd round, '99).
Nick Saban didn't take long to alienate himself from Dolphins players during his two-year stay in Miami; in one highly publicized incident, when linebacker Zach Thomas asked a coach a question during a practice drill, Saban yelled at Thomas, telling him not to speak unless spoken to. Thomas told Saban that he couldn't talk to the players that way, and ended up lasting a lot longer than Saban in the NFL.
Gase has thus far been able to avoid the pitfalls that tripped up coaches like Johnson and Saban; when the Dolphins finished thirtieth in the league against the run in 2016, rather than pounding the table for yet more offensive players in the draft, he apparently gave the front office his blessing to select defenders with five of the team's seven draft choices last month, including the first three picks. When you get down on the turf during practice and take part in various exercises alongside your players, you can't help but endear yourself to them. But Gase wasn't brought in as Miami's head coach solely because his players love playing for him; he was hired in large part to infuse some much-needed striking power into what had become one of the league's most moribund and predictable offenses. When the Dolphins' offense struggled during the first month of the season a year ago, Gase shifted gears and switched to a power running attack; the team responded with an impressive winning streak and qualified for the postseason for the first time in eight years.
A recent article by CBS Sports' Pete Prisco ranked Adam Gase eighth in the league, among active head coaches, and based on last season's performance, I don't believe he's far off in that assessment. One thing is for sure: he's a heck of a lot better coach than Dan Quinn, of the Atlanta Falcons. The fact that Quinn has been to a Super Bowl, largely on the backs of players like QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones, both of whom are more talented than anyone on the Dolphins' roster, doesn't faze me one iota. When your team gives up 21-3 and 28-9 leads to succumb to the largest comeback in Super Bowl history, the only thing you can possibly be is the worst coach in the history of the Super Bowl, period. It may well take the Falcons twenty years to recover from the ignominious defeat this past February that absolutely should have been a win. Don't be surprised if Atlanta fails to make the playoffs this season. They literally would have been better off not going to the Super Bowl at all than to lose that way. Quinn a better coach than Gase? Not in this lifetime.
Now, as the 2017 regular season approaches, the Dolphins are widely expected to take another step forward. The team has smartly kept its offensive nucleus intact, re-signing WR Kenny Stills, as well as bringing in players like OG Ted Larson and TE Julius Thomas, a staple of Gase's offense when he was in Denver. They also signed longtime Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons, and the defense figures to be much improved from a year ago. Despite having a tougher schedule this year, the Dolphins themselves promise to be tougher, as well. In January 1973, the newspapers were full of stories, claiming that Shula couldn't win the big one, and Gase and the Dolphins will surely have their doubters, as well. But, again, like Shula, Gase is well positioned to prove the naysayers wrong. It's an exciting time to be a Dolphins fan.