The question Sunday, beyond whether the Dolphins will make the playoffs, is not about the talent on Joe Philbin’s team. The question is not whether the Dolphins are superior to the New York Jets. Anyone looking at both rosters, looking at the starting quarterbacks, looking at each team’s injury list, understands the Dolphins are better positioned to win this big game.
But that’s not all that matters.
The truth is the Dolphins also are a better team than the Buffalo Bills and still managed to lose in a 19-0 whitewashing last week. The Dolphins, fresh off a statement victory against the division-leading Patriots, laid an ostrich-sized egg against cellar-dwelling Buffalo.
“We really didn’t show up last week,” Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said.
So will the Dolphins come to play this game? Will they play downhill, with urgency and emotion as well as execution?
Will the Dolphins show up this week?
The question lingers as Sunday’s 1 p.m. kickoff beckons because it will decide the outcome of the game.
The reason this is even an issue is because the Dolphins have historically failed to answer the call in more season-defining games than space allows me to recount. But even putting that aside, what concerns is the Dolphins the past couple of seasons have seemed flat at times when the situation suggested they should be motivated and inspired to play well.
Last year against Tennessee? Flat.
In last season’s season finale? Flat.
The first half of this season’s opener against Cleveland? Flat.
Against winless Tampa Bay in November? Flat.
And then there was last week against the Bills.
Flat as Florida’s topography.
No plays from the playmakers or anyone else. No heroics on defense against a lessened opponent that had neither its starting quarterback nor top three wide receivers by the time the game ended.
So can Philbin and his coaching staff get this roster to deliver a full-throated response to Sunday’s challenge after the whispered response of a week ago?
Well, that depends, because neither Philbin nor many of his players think the performance last week was a result of being unmotivated or flat. What we saw, they say, was not at all a letdown after the stirring New England victory.
“Everybody is entitled to their own opinion about the performance of the team and whether they were flat last week,” Philbin said. “I personally don’t think we were flat. I don’t think we played a good football game or executed well. But we were down 10-0 in the fourth quarter. We were down to the New England Patriots 10-0. We’ve been down in other games and have come back and won. So I don’t know that we were flat.
“That being said, the guys understand the significance of this football game. What it means. And I’m confident we’ll have an excellent performance by them.”
Philbin’s confidence is a good thing. But anyone who knows Dolphins history and saw last week might have trouble sharing that confidence. Such people, myself included, are hoping the Dolphins are bringing more to this game than a good week of practice and a solid understanding of the stakes.
Maybe it’s corny, but we’re hoping for an inspired team. We’re hoping for a hyped team. We’re hoping for a team that plays with more urgency than the businesslike team Philbin has fostered this year.
Don’t misunderstand, businesslike is good. Preparation is good. Focus is good.
But emotion and passion in addition to those other things also are good.
Still, that doesn’t seem to be this team’s personality. Although the Dolphins do have some emotional players, many if not a majority of their players get neither very high nor low week to week.
Like their coach, this team relies on preparation and planning, and not so much on excitement and enthusiasm.
“Coaches don’t really motivate me — or least they never have,” tackle Tyson Clabo said. “I don’t need some rah-rah speech from someone to get me excited to do my job. I want to do my job because I believe you should.
“People have tried. There have been videos and highlights and rah-rah speeches and people cussing and screaming sometimes. It doesn’t do anything for me because I try to be as steady as I possibly can.”
That’s the kind of player the Dolphins typically seek out. They want players such as cornerback Brent Grimes and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who seek no rides on an emotional roller-coaster.
“There’s some people that’s real big for,” Grimes said. “They get hyped about watching movies or hearing motivational speakers. I’m not really into that. I’ll listen to it and recognize someone as a good speaker. But I don’t need something to hype me up.”
Having players like that on the roster is a perfect marriage with Philbin’s approach because he will never be mistaken for Knute Rockne … or Bill Belichick.
Last week, after the Dolphins beat the Patriots, Belichick changed his team’s schedule on Friday and took his players to see Lone Survivor, a movie about SEAL Team 10’s fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Patriots, Cowboys, Broncos and Redskins all have seen the film for motivational and team-building purposes. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher had the film played for his team prior to a blowout win at Clemson.
Yes, it’s a ploy. But Belichick obviously considered it a ploy worth trying.
The use of a Pat Riley quote printed on a sheet of paper two weeks ago notwithstanding, the Dolphins don’t typically try such ploys.
“A lot of teams I’ve been on, we watched highlight films,” tackle Bryant McKinnie said. “Last year [in Baltimore], we had different people come in and speak to us. We had motivational talks. We had Muhammad Ali and Michael Phelps talk to us. We had a lot of different people come in when I was with the Ravens.
“Coach [John] Harbaugh was big into the Navy SEALs. We would watch a lot of videos of them. That was his thing. I feel like each coach has his own thing like that. When I was with coach [Brad] Childress, he was big on boxing. He’d show us boxing videos. When I had coach [Mike] Tice, his thing was more mafia movies. So every coach has his own little things.
“Here, we don’t really watch highlight films.”
So maybe, in search of a spark, might this not be a time for that?
“There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat,” Philbin said. “And I think there’s a variety of different methods and whatever you feel is good for your team, you should do.
“Never say never. I have to scout [the movie] out first. I’m probably too cheap to pay for it on pay-per-view or whatever. Or Redbox. We’ll see. I got to get out more. I didn’t know it was out. I never heard of it.”