A look back at Adam Gase's first season as Dolphins head coach
With a stunning loss to Tennessee still on his mind and another unsatisfactory Thursday afternoon practice on the screen before his bleary eyes, Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase decided something had to change or the 2016 season was going to go from disappointment to disaster.
So in his office that late evening two months ago, Gase decided to make multiple changes to his offense, which basically meant he was starting over five games into the season.
Two days after Gase reworked his offense, the 1-4 Miami Dolphins seemed like a different team in beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-15. That was the first of nine wins the next 11 games. That was the moment the Dolphins 2016-17 season turned on its axis and onto its current course — a playoff berth for the first time since 2008 and renewed hope for a grumbling fan base.
Gase had already shelved his beloved no-huddle attack the week before. And now he decided if he didn’t make the scheme more basic and more adaptable for his players, the offense that broke records and went to the Super Bowl in Denver was going to put his rookie season as a head coach in the cellar of the AFC East.
That’s why after all his players and most of his assistants had gone home that evening, Gase began to trim his offense. Options got tossed. Reads got changed. The approach on the running game was tweaked.
The next day — a Friday — he installed the revamped offense with his assistants and then with the players.
And, yes, his offensive line at the time was coming together. And running back Jay Ajayi had been showing signs he was ready to bust loose as a leading NFL running back after gaining a total of 117 yards in the season’s five games. And, yes, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was progressing with his reaction times and reads.
And that is one reason Gase has earned the respect of peers and others around the NFL for lifting the Dolphins from irrelevance to a playoff team.
“Adam is really a mentally tough guy,” said New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who met Gase when the two were at Michigan State and later hired Gase as a wide receiver coach in Denver. “He's very smart, works his butt off to try to get his group, or his team in this case, to do all the right things that it takes to win.
“I think you've seen a consistent approach. I think you saw a style of leadership that didn't flinch in the face of some early losses during the course of the season. He stayed with his plan and his process and obviously that's paying big dividends for him now.”
The Dolphins are having success, but this team also has holes and flaws. Talk to people within the organization and they freely admit this is a three-year build that is only in its first season. The linebackers not named Kiko Alonso, the tight end position, the offensive line (again), the defensive line will all need improving in the offseason.
That doesn’t even address the injuries that have threatened to derail the season.
The Dolphins had a starting lineup set for the Sept. 11 season opener at Seattle. And those 22 starters have missed a total of 97 games because of injuries or retirement.
Jelani Jenkins — seven games missed and counting.
Earl Mitchell — seven games missed.
Tannehill has missed three games.
Reshad Jones and Mike Pouncey, both Pro Bowl players a year ago, have each missed double-digit games and will miss the remainder of the season.
And yet Gase’s team is 10-6 and in the playoffs.
By the way, the team’s starting running back at the beginning of the season also retired — twice.
Arian Foster stepped away from the NFL Oct. 24 after injuring a calf muscle against Buffalo. What few people know is that he first approached the Dolphins about quitting immediately after injuring his groin and hamstring in the Sept. 18 loss at New England.
The reason Foster rethought the idea of retiring after wanting to quit the first time?
He had forged a bond with Gase and didn’t want to disappoint the 38-year-old coach.
You know who decided these Dolphins would never complain about injuries? You know who decided to install a culture within the organization that makes everyone including coaches and backup players accountable?
The head coach.
Gase, by the way, declined to be interviewed.
Gase wanted nothing to do with the idea of praising himself. He said that wasn’t his priority.
His priorities? His players. Their success. Winning.
And speaking of that, Gase has taken an interesting approach to instilling a winning culture in Miami. He is cocky. He is smart. He is borderline deranged.
The Dolphins won a hard-fought overtime game in Buffalo two weeks ago that helped propel them into the playoffs. After the game Gase was unhappy.
He growled a few answers to questions during his postgame news conference. Then he got on the bus to the charter and flew home.
People within the organization say he was upset about something the team worked on during the previous week that was botched. And while that didn’t cost the victory, it cost Gase any postgame satisfaction.
I’m told other folks noticed Gase was unhappy after the victory when they expected him to be in a celebratory mood. So they told him he surprised them. They told him they didn’t expect that reaction from him.
“Don’t try to get in my head,” he answered. “You can’t read how I’m going to react. I don’t even know what I’m going to do next.”
The Dolphins lost their season finale to the New England Patriots. It was a 35-14 whipping but it didn’t affect Miami’s playoff seeding. That detail didn’t serve as any solace for Gase.
“For us to show up and look the way we looked against a team that has dominated this division for the last ... What have they won it, 15 out of 17 years, whatever it is?” Gase said. “For us to show up and get smacked around in our own stadium is terrible.”
And it’s not just about winning with this guy. It’s about winning the right way.
Gase got his first career head coaching victory Sept. 25 against Cleveland. It was an ugly 30-24 overtime affair. And Gase was angry after that game. Not disappointed.
“He can be a strange dude, sometimes,” one player said in confidence.
This is a guy who obsesses to this day about the Seattle Seahawks because they beat his Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl. And then beat him again the next year. And the year after that.
When he arrived, Gase found some players who needed individual attention.
He had to get Ndamukong Suh to buy in to his program. Suh, the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL after signing a six-year $114 million contract in 2015. didn’t buy in at all last season. This year he’s still moody and often surly but is also a leader in the locker room among players.
Gase had to get wide receiver Kenny Stills to buy in. Stills, disliked in New Orleans for unknown reasons, came to Miami via trade and just sort of treaded water in 2015. But Gase and he struck up a bond to the point the coach loves this player and the player is producing at a high level for the coach. He leads the team with nine receiving touchdowns.
All that stuff goes unreported. Unnoticed.
So does this: Tannehill was supposed to be Gase’s biggest project this year. The QB guru was supposed to fix the guy who was due to get paid like a franchise quarterback but didn’t always play like one. Well, Gase recognized Tannehill was never protected by the last coaching staff. He was criticized publicly. Former coach Joe Philbin tried to replace him privately. And the offensive line was never quite right.
Now, Gase never criticizes Tannehill in the press. Never publicly. That’s the reason some reporters say Gase has a blind spot where Tannehill is concerned. What they don’t see is Gase rides Tannehill harder in meetings than he does most other players.
He does that because Tannehill can take it.
He does that to let the rest of the locker room know the head coach is indeed not playing favorites with the quarterback.
He does it his way because he believes he needs to critique his most important player, but it is none of the public’s darn business if and when that happens because Tannehill and Gase are joined at the hip.
About the rest of the players: These Dolphins are not the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. There will not be a handful of Hall of Fame inductees tapped from this roster.
But Gase constantly tells them how great they are. Wednesday team meetings to start the week are meant to make players believe they can demolish the opposition. Yes, corrections were made two days earlier off the mistakes made the previous game. But the new week is about building, not tearing down.
This coaching staff makes a point of making all the players believe they are facing a flawed opponent and that they can and will defeat that opponent no matter what the public or records or reputations suggest. And that message is sent when the Dolphins play the Browns. Or the Seahawks. Or the Rams. Or even the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I think the entire team believes,” Joseph said. “We didn’t think for one second on Saturday that the game was going to be not won. So I think it comes from our total team culture.”
Adam Gase’s culture.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero