This is part of my ongoing series where I recall and describe my thoughts and feelings at the same point in each of the careers of the Dolphins' most recent three permanent head coaches.
Recap of Game 31
Joe Philbin: Heading into the final game of the 2013 season, Joe Philbin's 8-6 Dolphins headed into Buffalo with a great chance to take a firm hold on a Wildcard slot, with the AFC not being especially strong that year. Despite coming off of two strong, inspiring wins over the Patriots and Steelers the previous two weeks, Philbin's Fins laid a massive egg up in Orchard Park, losing 19-0 and dropping to 8-7 on the season. As sad as it was, his team still had a chance to redeem themselves and snag a Wildcard slot. All they had to do was beat a very mediocre Jets team in the final week of the season.
Adam Gase: Four years later, in 2017, as the snake-bitten, ramshackle second season under Adam Gase was winding down, the 6-8 Dolphins made a decent game of it against a slightly above-average Kansas City Chiefs team. Ultimately, though, the Chiefs pulled away in the second half and won the game 29-13. Our Dolphins dropped to 6-9 and the rest of us were looking forward to a healthy Ryan Tannehill and the draft in 2018. But there was one more game left to be played, in the oh-so-typical season finale setting of Orchard Park, New York.
Brian Flores: In the penultimate game of this regular season, our guys barely squeaked out a miracle win over the dysfunctional Raiders, thanks to a "how the hell did he do that?!" throw by Ryan Fitzpatrick as he was getting his head ripped off, Mortal Kombat Fatality-style. This nail-biter win upped our record to 10-5, which along with some fortuitous losses by other Wildcard contenders, put out team in a pretty good position to bag a post-season berth. It wasn't going to be a cakewalk, though, with the final game coming against a 12-3 Bills team that had been steamrolling teams for a few weeks prior to the regular season finale.
Game 32 (Season 2, Game 16)
Philbin's 32nd: The Jets rolled into then-Sun Life Stadium in Miami, where the first quarter of the game was a dull, defensive wrestling match. Neither team put up a single point. The second quarter got things headed our way, as Ryan Tannehill oversaw a steady touchdown drive a few minutes in, putting our guys up 7-0. The Jets' offense, with Geno Smith under center, responded with a grinding, eight-and-a-half-minute touchdown drive of their own. Our offense sputtered to a lame three-and-out, which the Jets turned into a perfect two-minute drill, scoring another TD to go up 14-7 at the half. Still very much in the game with everything on the line, our guys received the ball, drove it to mid-field, then failed to convert a 4th-and-1 attempt. And that was the beginning of the end. The two teams jostled for just a bit longer before Tannehill threw his first interception of the day. The teams jostled some more before the Jets tacked on a Nick Folk field goal to go up 17-7. Two plays later, Tannehill threw his second INT, which the Jets quickly turned into another three points, taking a 20-7 lead. With only three minutes and a few prayers left, the Dolphins drove one more time, only to get intercepted again, putting a ragged little bow on the season. Final score: 20-7, Jets. Final record for the Dolphins: 8-8, outside of the playoffs and looking in again.
Gase's 32nd: Two weeks after losing to them in Buffalo (my description of that game is here), Adam Gase's Dolphins would have to play out the string against the Bills, this time in Miami. In short, the team played very much like they were already in a boat on their way out for some fishing off the Keys. Cutler got pulled after the first offensive series (a three-and-out), and David Fales took over, in a manner of speaking. While not looking tragic, Fales and the Fins' offense mustered laughably little against the Bills, not scoring their first points until a Cody Parkey field goal with 2:30 left in the 3rd quarter. Meanwhile, the Bills had steadily run up 19 points in the same time frame, adding another field goal a few minutes after to go up 22-3 a few minutes into the 4th quarter. That's really all there was to it. Even though the Fins did put up a couple of garbage-time TDs, one with 6:16 left and another with 1:56 left, they really weren't in a position to win. The 22-16 score made the contest look much closer than it was, and the 2017 Dolphins ended with a 6-10 record.
Flores's 32nd: As I publish this post, nearly two full days after the end of the game, I'm pretty sure that people are still mopping up the blood and examining the chalk outlines of the 50 to 60 Dolphins that were slaughtered on the field in Orchard Park. We all saw it, so no need to get into the grisly details. In short, the Buffalo Bills absolutely annihilated the previously 10-5 Dolphins. It started with a bit of promise, with a beautiful Byron Jones interception of Josh Allen, and the defense was generally looking strong and hyped for about a quarter. But the offense did nothing whatsoever, and when the Bills woke up to start the second quarter, it was all over. They outscored our guys 28-3 in the second quarter alone. Then in the second half, despite sitting more and more starters, they just kept the boat race going. The 3rd quarter almost threatened to give us a shred of hope, with a good TD drive that put the score at 28-10. But a pick-6 of Tua put that dream on ice, and the Bills used the fourth quarter to pad the stats of every fantasy football player who had the Bills' third-stringers on their active rosters. The final score was 56-26, but even that 30-point embarrassment doesn't indicate just how badly outclassed our Dolphins looked after that first quarter. Once the inevitable backdoor Wildcard scenarios failed to unfold, the 2020 season was officially over, with our guys finishing with a 10-6 record and missing the playoffs.
That loss in 2013 to Rex Ryan's previously 7-8 Jets was repugnant. Like any Dolphins fan, I despised everything about Rex Ryan and his garbage team. If you recall, Ryan had been on the hot seat that year, and that game was considered the one that saved his job for another year. It would prove to be a massive mistake by the Jets, as Ryan would go 4-12 the following season, but I remember seeing how elated the Jets players were that their hyper-confident head coach would be brought back. Some of you probably recall the videos of the Jets locker-room after the game, when it was announced that Ryan woulf return for the 2014 season as head coach - they were celebrating like they'd won the friggin' Superbowl. We Dolphins fans and our coach? Not so much. This was the game that permanently lowered my confidence in Joe Philbin. While there would be some hopeful moments in his remaining time as HC, I never got over how his teams looked so unprepared to play in this game and the previous week's ugly loss to the Bills. At the time, I was trying to tell myself that this was maybe just a growing moment, and that a good off-season would get them to that next level. But I wasn't going to bet the farm on that, given what we had all just seen.
Four years later, the end of Adam Gase's second year didn't actually bother me too much. It was just a freaky, cursed year. It started with the Tannehill injury, then the hurricane forcing them to miss their season opener in Miami, which in turn robbed the team of a true bye week. And there was that Lawrence Timmons Missing In Action thing. It was all just weird and discombobulated, and it never felt like they were going to be a good team, even after opening with a 4-2 record. I remember my doubt about Adam Gase really starting to surface, though, with more whispers about frayed relationships with certain players like Jarvis Landry and others.
The loss we just took still tastes awful, which is a real shame. By many measures, this was a really good year for our team, but many of the clear strides we made are put at least in a little bit of doubt by a season-ending beatdown at the hands of a division rival. Yes, that division rival is playing Superbowl-caliber ball right now, but no good team takes a thrashing like that, even against one of the very best teams in the league, and especially not when that team is resting so many of its starters. I'll be writing a longer, more ponderous post-mortem on the whole thing, but right now I feel pretty crappy about it. I could have handled losing the game and missing the playoffs, if our guys had played well and made a good game out of it. But seeing them get humiliated like that, in a high-stakes game? Just awful. It's going to make the time between now and 2021 season opener feel a whole lot longer than just eight months.
With none of these three Dolphins teams making the playoffs, January is now all about planning for the next season. This is basically when we see head coaches, coordinators, unit coaches, and position coaches promoted, fired, hired, or even poached by other teams.
At the end of 2013, there was no tremendous pressure on Joe Philbin, in terms of him being fired. However, it was clear that certain changes were needed. While playoff teams were playing in the post-season, the coaching staff and front office would undergo some changes, in the hopes of getting this team past the hump of mediocrity where it seemed to be stuck.
Adam Gase's 2017 season was, to most of us, a mulligan of sorts. Like many, I was willing to overlook some of his shortcomings due to the weirdness of the season. Still, and like the end of Philbin's second season, it was clear that change was needed on more than just a player level. This team had obvious talent on it, still, and taking some of the brutal and embarrassing losses that this squad had taken meant that someone was going to fall for it.
Right now, I'm going to be very curious as to what kinds of coaching changes are made. I'm sure that we will all be furiously debating the merits and demerits of certain coaches, none more in the crosshairs than offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. The biggest question marks right now are overwhelmingly on the offensive side of the ball, so that's where most of our eyes will be directed as Steven Ross starts assessing and evaluating the staff.
And that does it for the second season of our three most recent permanent head coaches. Now that the season is over, I won't be doing these weekly posts again until next season. However, I'll probably do a little post on the January/February shake-ups that happened for each team, and very like one on the draft. I'm far from any kind of college football or draft expert, but it'll be fun to re-examine what Philbin's and Gase's teams did in the past, and how it might inform what Grier and Flores do in the months ahead.