This is part of a series that I started last year, when I started tracking my reactions and feelings of each game by the last three permanent Dolphins head coaches.
My previous post on Game 32, the end of each coach's second full season, is here.Recap of Season 2
Joe Philbin went into the final two games of the 2013 season with an 8-6 record and a really good chance to grab a Wildcard spot. He only had to beat one of two very beatable division rivals: the Bills or the Jets. He did neither, looking utterly miserable in both games and giving us all a very clear foreshadowing as to what was coming in 2014. Like a lot of overly optimistic Dolphins fans, though, I clung to some sort of hope that the team still had the talent to overcome their doldrums and get back to being a playoff team.
Adam Gase's 2017 Dolphins staggered to the finish line, following a snake-bitten season that started roughly and had one mishap after another. With Jay Cutler and Matt Moore switching off as QB, this season was marred by weird injuries, embarrassing losses and a general malaise around a team that looked like it was going nowhere by late October. By December, I had chalked the entire season as a mulligan and waited for 2018, when I hoped that a healthy Ryan Tannehill could pick up where he left off at the end of 2016, showing some signs of offensive life.
Brian Flores led last year's Phins to a nice 10-6 record, as we saw a defense that developed a clear identity as smart, ball-hawking maniacs who were all over the place. The offense was another story, as Tua got healthier faster than anyone anticipated, forcing Flores's hand and putting him in over time-tested magic man Ryan Fitzpatrick. Controversy ensued as Fitz became a sort of "closer" in games when Tua struggled, with the offense never getting much better than average, regardless of who was under center. With a chance to grab a Wildcard spot with a Week 17 win in Buffalo, the team put up what was by far their worst performance of the 2020 season, getting downright humiliated by mostly Bills backups. It was a nasty way to end what had otherwise been a fairly encouraging second season in the Flores Era.
Drafts and Notable Free Agents Heading into Year Three
In 2014, Joe Philbin Dolphins, under GM Dennis Hickey, added several notable names to the roster:
- LT Branden Albert
- RB Knowshon Moreno
- S Louis Delmas
- CB Courtland Finnegan
There were others, but those were the ones who were expected to push this team to greater heights than their 8-8 record the prior year.
The draft shook out like this:
- 19th overall: Ja'Wuan James, T
- 63rd:: Jarvis Landry, WR
- 68th: Billy Turner, T
- 125th: Walt Aikens, DB
- 155th: Arthur Lynch, TE
- 171st: Jordan Tripp, LB
- 190th: Matt Hazel, WR
- 234th: Terence Fede, DE
The message was fairly clear that the team was trying to figure out its offensive problems, in the wake of finally dumping the dinosaur tactics of former offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. Philbin had fired Sherman in a "him or you" scenario rightfully handed down by team owner Steven Ross. The hope was that the influx of offensive talent, under new OC Bill Lazor, would inject some life into what had been a very stale and predictable offense for the past two season.
Four years later, Adam Gase and GM conglomerate Chris Grier/Mike Tannenbaum/Faceless Gaggle of Vice Presidents roped in key agents:
- WR Danny Amendola
- RB Brandon Bolden
- RB Frank Gore
- QB Brock Osweiler
- G Josh Sitton
- WR Albert Wilson
That 2018 draft was as follows:
- 11th overall: Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS
- 42nd: Mike Gesicki, TE
- 73rd: Jerome Baker, OLB
- 123rd: Durham Smythe, TE
- 131st: Kalen Ballage, RB
- 209th: Cornell Armstrong, CB
- 227th: Quentin Polling, LB
- 229th: Jason Sanders, K
While not quite as offense-heavy as 2014, there was still a clear attempt to improve the offense and see if Ryan Tannehill could work some magic within "offensive genius" Adam Gase's system and with a full compliment of "Adam Gase Guys," now that Gase had jettisoned every inherited player who had questioned him or looked at him funny.
As for this off-season with Flores and Grier, I don't see the need to recap the moves, as they're all fresh in our minds. Suffice it to say that most of the energy went into surrounding Tua Tagovailoa with the types of pass catchers with whom he thrived at Alabama, and an attempt to beef up the offensive line a bit. There were also a few tweaks to the defense, but it was mostly just galvanizing what was already a really good unit on that side of the ball.Game 33 (Season 3, Game 1)
Philbin's 33rd: The hateful Patriots flew down to Miami to start things off. Obviously, they were pretty heavily favored, despite the fact that Miami was the one place that had been proving relatively difficult for Belichick and Brady to win consistently. It was back-and-forth for about a quarter and a half, before the Pats looked like they had wrested control from the Dolphins later in the 2nd quarter, taking a 20-10 lead into halftime. It all had a very familiar look and feel to it, with Brady surgically dissecting our defense while our offense floundered about. Then, Knowshon Moreno well and truly woke up. Moreno had had a few nice runs in the first half, but he went wild in the second, creating a one-two punch with Lamar Miller that floored the Pats' defense. On top of that, the Dolphins defense got to serious work, not allowing a single point in the second half. Our offense racked up 23 points in that same span, thanks to a Moreno touchdown, a Mike Wallace touchdown, and a smattering of Caleb Sturgis field goals. It was a joyous way to start the season 1-0, to be sure.
Gase's 33rd: Like 2014, the 2018 season opened in South Florida, as that season's Phins opened up against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans' QB issues were emerging, with Marcus Mariota surrendering the QB duties to Blaine Gabbert after some poor play. The game was a real slog for its first three quarters, with Miami up by the meager score of 10-3, with the lone TD up to that point coming on a 10-yard pass to Kenny Stills from Tannehill. Then things went bonkers in the 4th quarter. Less than a minute in, Titans RB Dion Lewis tied the game on a 4-yard TD run. On the ensuing kickoff, Jakeem "Might Mouse" Grant returned the ball 102 yards for a touchdown to put eh Dolphins back up, 17-10. After a quick defensive stop, the Dolphins quickly struck again on a beautiful 75-yard TD bomb where Tannehill once again connected with Kenny Stills. But just as it looked like our guys were pulling away, the Titans responded by returning that ensuing kickoff 94 yards to quickly Tennessee back within 7 points, with the score 24-17. It devolved into a war of attrition for a while, with our guys eventually tacking on a field goal to go up 27-17 with just under four minutes left. Tennessee grinded their way downfield, but its offense was too ineffective and slow, mustering only a field goal with 11 seconds left in the game. Dolphins open up the 2018 season with an exciting 27-20 win to start 1-0.
Flores's 33rd: It was a nail-biter, as most of us expected, but our boys rolled up to Foxborough and did enough to win. Tua and the offense put together two beautiful touchdown drives, one to start each half. Those moments aside, it was a slog for the offense against a touch Patriots defense. Meanwhile, the defense did a nice job containing rookie QB Mac Jones and the Pats running game, limiting them to a meager 16 points. So like Gase and Philbin's 33rd games before him, Brian Flores leads his pod of Dolphins to an opening week victory.
2014: Nothing, and I mean nothing, has felt better in a season opener over the past 15-odd years than beating the Patriots. All wins over the Pats feel good, but let's be honest - some of them have come late in the season, when the writing is already on the wall. When Dolphins teams during the New England Reign of Terror win those November or December games, it's usually been pretty clear that the Pats are headed on another deep playoff run while our team is spinning its tricycle wheels in the mud. This one in 2014 felt awesome, though. I remember watching at my buddy's place, and then just floating through the rest of the week with visions of Dolphins glory dancing in my head. We had gotten over the hump! This was a new day!! (obviously, my enthusiasm was, shall we say, misguided).
2018: I remember also catching this one at that same friend's place, and that fourth quarter was plenty exciting. TD returns are always supremely entertaining, and mixing in a 75-yard TD pass by the QB who many had for years derided as not being able to throw downfield? Well, that was pretty satisfying. I do recall, though, a nagging sense that it was yet another one of those wins that rested upon a formula that wasn't very sustainable. But that was just a barely-audible whisper in the back of my mind. Nothing to really worry about, right? Right?
This Week: I'm sure I was part of a nationwide, collective sigh of relief among Fins fans once Tua led the offense to that final, win-clinching first down to set up the victory formation. It felt really good. I've been trying to quiet the nagging little voice in my head telling me that the offense should have looked better, and that Tua wasn't all that great. Maybe these things are true, but overall this is a really nice step-up over last year's start. The Pats tried to employ a lot of last year's Week 1 strategy - run the ball and don't ask the QB to throw much - but it didn't work this time. Our guys got a win on the road, against a division opponent who looks like they're going to be pretty good (again. barf). Each of the last two years, the team started slowly and got markedly better by October, so that bodes very well.Looking Ahead:
Joe Philbin's 2014 Dolphins would take their newly-minted 1-0 record up to Buffalo for an early season game in northern New York state. The Bills had eked out an opening week, overtime win over the Bears. Surely this Dolphins team, who had clearly just rounded a major corner, would finally put the ever-mediocre-yet-ever-annoying Bills in their place.
Four years later, the 2018 Dolphins would roll up to the Meadowlands to square off against the Jets, who themselves had just pounded a hapless Lions team into oblivion by a score of 48-17. Perhaps it wouldn't exactly be a cakewalk, even though the Jets had been struggling for a few years at this point.
As for the here and now, next week we'll be hosting the Buffalo Bills. Not only did the Bills win the AFC East last season, but they dropped their mic right on our Dolphins' heads at the end of the regular season, handing our guys their one and only truly ugly loss of the 2020 season. It was humiliating to watch, and I really hope our guys have been storing up all that remembered anger and shame so that they can channel it into the focus it's going to take to exact some serious revenge. The Bills took a pretty ugly loss to the Steelers last week, where a stout Pittsburgh defense had Josh Allen looking like his pre-2020 self. Let's hope our defense can keep him in that mental state.