Kenny Stills was the NFL’s homecoming king in Week 10.
His 39-yard touchdown catch against the Chargers last Sunday wasn’t just the difference in the game, it was a dream scenario for the Southern California native.
“That’s big-time,” Stills said after practice Friday. “But it’s about winning. If I score a touchdown and we lose, I score a touchdown and that’s it. But if we come out here and win, everyone’s happy.”
There’s only way for this story to get any better: for Stills and Dolphins to repeat the feat Sunday two hours north on Interstate 5.
The Dolphins (5-4) look for a California sweep Sunday in L.A., where they’ll play for the first time in some three decades. Miami is a one-point road favorite over the Rams, largely because Los Angeles (4-5) will start rookie Jared Goff for the first time.
But this is no gimme game. The Dolphins could be starting three players out of position Sunday, with Branden Albert out and Mike Pouncey likely the same. The Rams have one of the best defensive fronts in football. So the running lanes that have been so wide for Jay Ajayi during his four-week run will surely shrink.
The Dolphins might need to throw to win. And when they throw to Stills, they often do.
Stills has just 19 catches (on 36 targets) this season, but four of those went for touchdowns, by far the most on the team. His 19.7 yards-per-catch average is fourth-best in football.
“We’d obviously like to get him more involved as far as attempts, at least,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. “I know a lot of times his throws come down the field to where the percentages will go down for the completion percentage, but I like the fact that when he is in there, that gives the defense a lot to worry about. They know they’ve got to protect versus the deep ball.”
And when he’s not in the game, they know they Dolphins don’t. Stills left the Jets game because of an illness and did not return. It’s no coincidence that the Dolphins had just 137 passing yards and averaged just 4.7 yards per drop-back that Sunday.
“We all saw what happened that one game that he goes out; now all of a sudden everybody’s kind of sitting on everything and not really worried anything coming down the field,” Gase said.
“He’s a key to a lot of things that we do in the game.”
That’s been true pretty much since the day Stills put on pads.
He grew up in Oceanside, a bedroom community 40 minutes north of downtown San Diego. Dad’s name is also Kenny; he played defensive back in the NFL for six seasons.
But his son preferred catching the ball rather than batting it down. He was good at it. The deep-threat receiver was a five-star recruit out of La Costa Canyon High School, which sits just four miles from the swanky resort that has been Dolphins HQ West these past two weeks.
The West Coast fortnight has been great, Stills said; the highlight has been seeing his dog, which lives with Stills’ mother during the season.
It has been a much better experience than the last time the Dolphins were out west this year. In the opener against the Seahawks, Stills dropped a would-be touchdown pass with no one around him; the Dolphins lost that game by two points.
But he has been nails ever since. Stills hasn’t dropped a pass in the past eight games.
Gase praised Stills’ consistency and said the Dolphins’ skill-position players have developed a good chemistry as the season has progressed.
That manifested itself on Stills’ most recent touchdown grab.
Tannehill took the snap and play-faked left before rolling right.
Chargers defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi shed his block and had an unfettered path to Tannehill, hitting him flush just after the quarterback flung the ball downfield. It dropped into the tiny window between San Diego’s back line and the back of the end zone.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Stills said. “It doesn’t get any easier or any better than that. He’s sitting there, took a hit. He’s playing lights out. As long as he keeps doing that, and we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll have a good shot at winning Sunday.”
And the biggest difference: This time he caught the ball.
Stills said that the key for him since Seattle has been “not letting that one moment put me in the gutter.”
He added: “I’ve dropped a couple of balls throughout my career, obviously. It happens, playing the receiver position. Knowing that I can come out here and work and that work will show up on the field on Sunday. Put that behind me. I’m happy that the coaches and Ryan trust me to go out there and make plays.”