The tangible and obvious signs that point to the Miami Dolphins changing their culture, finding their identity and improving from week to week are found on the scoreboard and the NFL’s standings.
Yes, the Dolphins are scoring more while allowing fewer points.
Yes, the Dolphins have won consecutive games for the first time since October 2015 and on Sunday have a chance to win three in a row for the first time since 2014.
All that is in plain sight.
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This is not:
The Dolphins are practicing better now.
Dolphins players, many of whom resisted the coaching from the last staff, generally have bought in more to what Adam Gase and the current staff are selling.
The Dolphins — coaches and players alike — believe they now fully understand how to win after it was something of a mystery to everyone earlier this season.
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Understand that the Dolphins’ practices during training camp were open to the media. Indeed, they were open to the public. And everyone saw that they sometimes dragged. Sometimes they were ragged.
Coaches and players who had been on successful teams elsewhere grudgingly admit there was something not quite right about those July-August-September sessions. Things just didn’t look or feel precise.
That isn’t the case anymore.
Although all significant parts of practices are closed to all outsiders now, I’m told the workouts lately hum like a V8 engine.
They go faster. There are fewer mistakes. There’s a competitive spirit present.
“You can feel the guys just love to be here, having fun at practice, joking around, clowning around,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. “But at the same time, we want this taste to stay in our mouths. We want to continue to have success and build off of what we’ve done so far.”
The Dolphins believe they have hit a cycle that is something of a sweet spot for NFL teams. They have found success in games so players are working harder in practice to keep that success going. And that leads to more success — which makes practices more fun and more productive …
Which often leads to more success in games.
“All of a sudden, you do get a little bit of confidence, some success … and then your practices get better and your meetings get better and everyone is buying in a little bit more, and you keep improving by inches,” offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said.
This coaching staff is convinced the only way players will continue to build and improve is by understanding their job and doing it exactly as the coaches ask. Coaches say players who do that have “bought in” to the way the staff wants this team to look, feel and play.
“Being a part of the whole group that everyone’s buying in, you have a little more success — all those things are good,” Christensen said.
And there are signs that’s happening, too.
Game corrections, made in meetings between players and coaches the day after, will continue throughout the season. But the number of corrections necessary have declined over the past couple of weeks.
Another sign players are starting to buy in is that they are arriving to meetings on time. They’re taking good notes and asking good questions. No one is falling asleep.
And get this: No one has incurred a team fine for messing up in weeks — at least not through Friday morning.
The meetings Gase has with players in his office — often disciplinary in nature earlier in the season — are different lately. Now they’re more about taking suggestions and continuing the process of building understanding between a coach and players still new to each other.
“I think we’re on the right track right now,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “I think there’s a good feel, a good energy in the building, and we just have to keep on that track and keep it going.”
There’s one more very significant sign that suggests there’s cohesion building between players and coaches — one more sign that players have bought in:
Ndamukong Suh has become a major force for good in the locker room.
That wasn’t the case last season. Suh held meetings and tried to show leadership last year but it didn’t translate well. It was obvious Suh didn’t buy in to Joe Philbin as a head coach and Kevin Coyle as a defensive coordinator.
Suh also alienated some teammates. Indeed, very few people in the building liked him.
But there has been an almost 180-degree shift by the team’s highest-paid player this year. Suh and Gase have built something of a relationship. Suh has been trusting the coaching and, indeed, encouraging players to do the same.
He seems to have bought in.
So does all this ensure the Dolphins will continue to win? No.
But if the hidden signs that lead to success continue the current trend, well, it suggests the obvious signs of success — winning games — will follow.