The honeymoon is over for Joe Philbin and his staff.
It officially ended Sunday afternoon when these Dolphins coaches who seemed capable most of the past season-and-a-half laid an enormous egg on so many levels as to demand scrutiny and hard questioning about their ability going forward.
Think about that because the job this coaching staff displayed in losing a 23-21 decision to the Buffalo Bills presented both macro and micro problems so profound that even the most casual observer would take notice.
In the grand scope, the Dolphins lost a game they should have won
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On their home field
Against a losing Buffalo team. Starting an inexperienced quarterback that is the Bills’ fifth option at the position this year and was a practice squad player on another team less than two months ago.
The Dolphins lost to that weakened underdog led by a rookie coach. The Dolphins lost after having two weeks to prepare for the game after a bye week.
And after all that time to prepare and improve and address what ailed them, the Dolphins opened the game with an interception return for a touchdown against quarterback Ryan Tannehill and were trailing 14-0 after one quarter.
Question: Philbin has had this unexplained habit of deferring possession of the ball after winning coin tosses.
He has won the coin toss and then given the ball to Drew Brees in New Orleans, given it to Matt Ryan first, given it Andrew Luck first. In three games against excellent quarterbacks, Philbin gave those quarterbacks the ball first. He wanted those guys on the field first.
So what did Philbin do Sunday when the Dolphins won the coin toss? Did he put Thad Lewis, making only his second NFL start, on the field first so the Dolphins defense could set the tone against him?
The Dolphins took the kickoff. Philbin put his offense on the field first. And three plays and an interception later, the Dolphins trailed 7-0.
“I have to do a better job of getting the team ready to play,” Philbin said in resounding understatement. “We did not come out playing very well. We decided to take the football and on third down we throw a pick six.”
That’s just the big picture. That’s the view from space. Get closer and the micro view of some of Miami’s coaches got uglier Sunday.
What does that view show?
Well, it includes an offensive line that has proven it cannot pass protect on a consistent basis and a coaching staff that makes no personnel changes to stem the tide of the hits on Tannehill.
Indeed after left tackle Tyson Clabo gave up two more sacks Sunday, bringing this season’s total to eight, offensive line coach Jim Turner was heard saying Clabo, “played a great football game.”
Zero sacks allowed against Buffalo’s Mario Williams truly is great. Two sacks at the worst possible time was enough to get the Dolphins beat.
And speaking of getting the Dolphins beat, one must turn to offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who is smart and inspiring and experienced but still baffles with play-calling that suggests he doesn’t know his personnel or doesn’t understand situational football.
Sherman seems incapable of understanding that players have limitations and if they’ve failed at something consistently in the past, they might just continue to fail at the same assignment in the future.
That apparent fog that haunts Sherman cost the team a victory on Sunday.
Consider that despite a poor start, the Dolphins — superior in talent to Buffalo — held a 21-20 lead with 3:39 to play in the game. The Dolphins had the ball at their own 48-yard line.
Three running plays and a punt by the NFL’s leading punter and the Dolphins would have still been leading with Buffalo getting the ball likely no better than its own 20-yard line with only two minutes or so to play.
That would have been the worst-case scenario. But suppose, in a game the Dolphins averaged 4.8 yards per rush against the NFL’s 28th-ranked run defense, Miami would have picked up a rushing first down?
The game would have been practically over.
So the Dolphins ran the ball, right?
Sherman called — and Philbin approved — a pass on a five-step drop on second down that led to disaster. Clabo let Williams power inside of him and sack Tannehill.
And Tannehill, who led the Dolphins with six fumbles before the game, understandably added to that lead when Williams plowed into him as the quarterback was waiting for receiver Brian Hartline to come back toward him on a route.
“He was going to run a stop route,” Tannehill said, “so he’s going to end up stopping and coming back to me. The [cornerback] is on top of him. He ended up winning. He was going to come open right when I was letting it go. It was that close.”
So blame fate, right? Sometimes those other guys that also get paid make plays, right?
A coach who weighs his players’ limitations understands Clabo is on pace to give up a sack a game and asking him to block Williams one-one-one is not a high percentage play because so much can go wrong. Sherman went with the call anyway.
And the galling thing is that afterward, Sherman was not allowed to explain his reasoning because the Dolphins don’t allow their assistants to speak after games. And Philbin, who does speak, was dismissive about the whole thing.
“There’s always more than one option when it comes to doing things,” Philbin said when asked about the play choice. “We ran the ball on first down, we got 2 yards, making it second-and-8. We believed we had a good play called, so we called the play.
“You can always — every time you pass the ball, you can run it and when you run it, you can pass it.”
That’s not exactly the kind of reasoning anyone can believe in. The honeymoon is over.