Coach Adam Gase made the promise on a March morning at a plush hotel in Boca Raton: Receiver Kenny Stills would “definitely” be more involved in the Dolphins offense this season.
Months later, count that among numerous promises that Gase has delivered on.
Stills has given the Dolphins the type of big-play element lacking in recent years.
He has seven receiving touchdowns of 20 yards or more, second in the league behind Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, and eight touchdowns receptions overall, which is tied for sixth. His three TD catches of 50-plus yards are the most by a Dolphin since Mark Duper 30 years ago.
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What’s more, his 18.0 yards per catch ranks second behind only New England’s Chris Hogan (19.2).
“When you’ve got speed and quickness together, and Kenny Stills has that, that’s a good combination,” Duper said by phone. “There’s no doubt he has good speed.
3TD catches of 50-plus yards by Kenny Stills are the most by a Dolphin since Mark Duper 30 years ago.
“You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to know that when you have to worry about deep-ball touchdowns, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense. That’s what you’re seeing now. That big-play element is good because you never know when they can strike. Speed makes a big, big difference.”
Teammate Jarvis Landry said Stills has commanded the type of attention that opens up intermediate routes for others.
“His top end speed is up there with the best,” Dolphins cornerback Byron Maxwell said. “It’s good to always have that deep threat in your back pocket, where you can throw it 40, 50 yards and change the game in the blink of an eye.”
When Gase met Stills in the spring, he had a simple message for him: “That he believed in me,” Stills said. “That he knew what I was capable of.”
Gase said “the first time I met him, I could tell he wanted to do it different than what he did in years past. We had a great conversation of the steps we needed to take. He grabbed a hold of the offense, did a great job of making sure he knew it better than anybody else and was able to put himself in a position where … he never missed practice time.
“He never missed any practice time in training camp. That’s really helped him because running routes and being in the huddle with the quarterback every time, that allows him to get a great feel for what we’re doing on offense, the timing.”
What specifically did Stills do differently?
“However he went about his business before this year,” Gase said. “Sometimes young players, the focus may not always be just on this. That’s part of the growth process of young players. I could tell the first time I met him that he wanted to try to do something special as far as being a guy that was a big-time contributor for us, somebody we could count on every week. … He’s been that for us.”
Stills said he’s no more professional now than he was in past years but has become more of a leader — something that wasn’t needed last season with veteran receiver Greg Jennings on the team.
“I was lucky enough to be with a group of veteran receivers in New Orleans [primarily Marques Colston and Lance Moore], and they showed me the right way to do things,” he said. “So I’ve tried to emulate that and really show that to this young group of receivers.”
Playing with Drew Brees in New Orleans, Stills led the league as a rookie in 2013 with a 20-yard average on 32 receptions.
He caught 63 passes for 931 yards the next season, then was traded to the Dolphins, where his numbers plunged last season (27 catches, 440 yards and three touchdowns).
This season began inauspiciously when he dropped a potential touchdown against Seattle, but Stills has been terrific since and enters Sunday’s finale with 38 catches for 685 yards.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything new or different,” he said. “I think [Gase] just does a good job of putting guys in a position to make plays.”
The Dolphins would like to keep Stills, an impending free agent, but a lot will depend on how high bidding goes. Stills declined to say whether he wants to return, emphasizing he’s focusing on the next game.
But he appreciates Gase and loves this receiving corps: “We feel like we can compete with all the other top groups in the NFL.”
▪ The Dolphins are not counting on having safety Isa-Abdul Quddus for Sunday’s Patriots game because of an injury in the neck/shoulder area. Michael Thomas likely will replace him.