Every room where Miami Dolphins defensive players meet at the team’s training facility is decorated with footballs. No, the footballs aren’t in glass cases and don’t recall great past performances. They actually are a reminder of past failure …
And a demand for change.
The Dolphins, you see, are emphasizing turnovers this year. And those footballs are in place so that when defensive players enter and leave the rooms, they punch at the balls, they try to snatch the balls, they try to strip the balls from their perch as if practicing how to treat ballcarriers this upcoming season.
The idea the players should be getting is the Dolphins are putting a premium on causing turnovers.
“We constantly look for better ways of teaching, from little things like that,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. “We’ve got the footballs hanging from the walls in every defensive meeting room that they have to go in and when they walk in and out of the meeting rooms, they’re stripping and punching.
“It’s just a reminder.”
It reminds that last year the Dolphins were not nearly good enough at causing takeaways from opposing teams and were too generous in yielding turnovers. The team was minus-10 in takeaways, which means it had 10 more turnovers on offense and special teams than the defense and special teams took from opponents.
And that statistic, more than any other reason he can think of, is what coach Joe Philbin believes is the reason his team had a losing season.
“If you ask me why we were 7-9 last year, I would say minus-10,” Philbin said seriously. “That’s the starting point. That’s the starting point of everything. It’s the starting point of our offense, and it’s the starting point of our defense. I would say it is very, very important.”
If you haven’t yet figured out how much importance Philbin puts on the otherwise unsexy and often overlooked turnover statistic, consider that Miami made offseason personnel decisions based in part on the turnover margin.
Consider that cornerback Sean Smith, a big cornerback with big potential, was allowed to exit via free agency because he often got his hands on passes but rarely actually held on to those want-to-be interceptions.
The dropped interceptions were something of a theme during Smith’s time with the Dolphins and the club was so vexed by that, Miami didn’t even make Smith a contract offer after the season was over.
The club also jettisoned both linebackers Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett primarily because they simply didn’t turn the ball over for the team despite big reputations and paychecks that suggested they’d be making more game-defining plays.
Yes, Dansby and Burnett led the team in tackles – a combined 243 of them to be precise – but in all those opportunities around the football they also combined for zero fumble recoveries and only one forced fumble. And they did not manage even one interception between them despite being in the middle of all the action and in the game on practically every down.
Running back Reggie Bush, meanwhile, fumbled four times last year and was actually benched during a game for fumbling. Daniel Thomas, who had three fumbles, was similarly kept out of action for fumbling in another game.
So is it coincidence Bush was not re-signed in the offseason and when this training camp opened Thomas was behind second-year player Lamar Miller in the chase for the starting running back job?
Addressing the turnover margin didn’t stop when free agency did and it doesn’t end with the corny decorations in the defensive meeting rooms.
Dolphins coaches make sure quarterback Ryan Tannehill is aware he threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12) last year and led the team with nine fumbles and were pleased when Tannehill went five practices and a scrimmage without a turnover stretching to last week.
Coaches also make sure offensive players work on ball security early in every practice – an exercise that includes having people snatch, punch and claw at ballcarriers as they run a gauntlet of such people.
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
It doesn’t stop there. Coyle has shown defensive players tape of teams that succeed at causing turnovers so his players can learn how to play similarly.
“We’ve shown them tape from around the league of teams that cause the most fumbles, how they were caused,” Coyle said. “We’ve talked about sacks and sack fumbles. We got a lot of sacks last year, but we didn’t get a lot of sack fumbles.
“We’ve looked at the teams that created the most fumbles last year, it was New England, Chicago, and Cincinnati, and we’ve studied every one of those fumbles. We’ve showed them those things on tape, and hopefully it will start to translate onto our play.”
Last season Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman intercepted three passes and caused an eye-popping 10 fumbles. That feat made him one of the players to emulate for the Dolphins.
“We looked at about seven plays in a row of him making tackles as he got the ball out,” Coyle said.
The Dolphins also studied Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora who had 10 forced fumbles in 2010.
“Ten!” Coyle stressed.
So what does this focus on turnovers mean? Well, the Dolphins are in a division with the New England Patriots, who led the NFL in turnover margin last year at plus-25. The Patriots are typically good in this statistic because quarterback Tom Brady takes care of the football and coach Bill Belichick’s defense has been opportunistic.
That means the Dolphins can’t give up 10 more turnovers than they yield if they hope to compete with New England.
“Let’s flip it from one year ago,” Philbin said. “There is no specific numerical goal, but you want to be at least plus-one in every game. That means plus-16 for the season. I think that’s a great starting point to be.
“If you can win the turnover battle in every game, you’ve got a great chance of winning football games in this league.”