Once 1-4 and reeling, the Dolphins will enter December in playoff position (sixth in the AFC), in full in control of their playoff fate and one win away from matching their longest winning streak in 31 years.
The reasons for the remarkable turnaround from moribund to marvelous are pretty obvious: substantially better quarterback play; a very good running game; generally sterling third-down defense; tighter coverage from defensive backs; an improved offensive line; wide receiver DeVante Parker’s emergence; and smart coaching decisions (such as starting Cameron Wake and Andre Branch at defensive end and using Ryan Tannehill’s running skills more), among other reasons.
But more subtle factors also have been in play during this six-game winning streak. The phrase creating a winning culture sounds like a cliché, but players insist coach Adam Gase and this staff have done that.
“Coach Gase came in trying to establish a winning culture,” receiver Jarvis Landry said. Now, “we go into games not hoping to win but expecting to win. When you approach the game expecting to win, that’s usually the outcome.”
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And what’s the genesis of this new attitude?
“It starts with our head coach,” backup quarterback Matt Moore said. “His attitude, the way he walks around the building, the way he carries himself, the way he talks, it filters down through everybody and guys follow suit. That’s what he wants: a loose, focused bunch and that’s really what it is here now. That would be the biggest difference to me” from past years.
Tight end Dion Sims puts it this way: “The way [Gase] carries himself and the way he addresses the team, he got everybody thinking the same way. We’re all on the same page. We have a good vibe.”
Gase, asked Monday about players praising him, cited honesty as a reason he has earned faith and trust.
“The thing we try to do as a coaching staff is we try to shoot our guys straight, make sure we’re honest,” Gase said. “If a guy is doing something right or not doing something right, we let them know. [Good coaches] don’t tell them something to try to gain favor with them or pick sides. Being around coach [John] Fox [in Denver] was good for me because I saw a head coach who was up front, very honest, doesn’t BS. They always knew where they stood.
“Another thing I’ve learned being with Coach Fox is how he treated all of his players. He gave them some leeway on a few things but if you abuse it, you get reined in pretty quick.”
Among subtle, under-the-radar factors that have helped, according to players:
▪ More interaction among positions during in-week game preparation. According to linebacker Neville Hewitt and offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, players at different positions started watching tape together and communicating more about the upcoming game. They say they started doing that before the Steelers game, which was the first win of this ongoing, six-game winning streak.
The upshot, Hewitt said, is “everybody is on the same page when we go out there. It makes everything easier on game day.”
James said in the past, players from particular units met separately.
“Now we’re having protection meetings with running backs once a week, and the quarterbacks are involved and all of us are watching [tape] together instead of just separately so we know what everyone is thinking,” James said. “It helps us jell when you know what the receiver is thinking on this play and where you need to play.”
▪ Gase taking player suggestions, such as using the three running plays that Jay Ajayi recommended Gase call for him.
▪ A change in practice approach. James said Gase, several weeks ago, made an adjustment “where practice gets harder as you go through it.” The advantage of that?
“So late in the game, in the fourth quarter, you have to be more focused,” James said. Previous interim coach “Dan Campbell tried it a little bit, but this is totally different.”
▪ Player-coach relationships have improved. “Stronger than I’ve seen in a long time,” Moore said.
Said Sims: “Everybody’s relationship is great here: coach to player, player to coach. It’s different from any other time. It’s everything — respect, getting along, just being on the same page. Guys are hanging out off the field.”
▪ Having a head coach who can relate to players, unlike former coach Joe Philbin.
“He’s a player’s coach to the extreme,” left tackle Branden Albert said of Gase. “He understands us, things we go through as players, things we go through as men.”
Sims put it this way about Gase: “He’s got a little swagger, a little arrogance to him. He’s got that competitive mind-set, and other guys feed off of it. He’s not all uptight. He jokes around. … If you ask me, he’s like a player. He has the same mentality as the players.”
The result, James said, is “you will do anything for him because you know he has your back.”
▪ Better player comportment. James said player fines for tardiness or other violations are way down. Gase “told us when you do stuff right off the field, it shows on the field,” James said. “It’s been showing.”