Is winning close games a skill or simply statistical noise?
Football coaches say the former.
Advanced statisticians insist it’s the latter.
The Dolphins’ 2017 season could hinge on who’s right.
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Miami went 8-2 in one-score games in Adam Gase’s rookie season.
“Do I think it's sustainable? I do,” said Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ assistant head coach and special teams coordinator. “We have the same people in the building. We've added some great pieces to the puzzle. It comes down to playing well in the crunch times.”
The Dolphins did that with remarkable consistency last year. They scored the game-winning points in either overtime or the final two minutes of regulation in half of their 10 wins.
That level of success is nearly unprecedented. And it’s unlikely to carry over to 2017, those in analytics say. Rather, it suggests the Dolphins are due for a major step back.
Because, given a long enough time line, teams almost always win as many one-score games as they lose.
According to the football website SettingEdge.com, teams who have the type of close-game success the Dolphins enjoyed last year lose, on average, five more games the ensuing year.
How does a 5-11 football season sound after disappointing campaigns by the Heat, Panthers and Marlins? Not great.
But what if the Dolphins are still making up for all the bad luck of the last decade? Between 2010 and 2015, the Dolphins were part of 48 games decided by eight or fewer points. They won just 21 of them, or 43.8 percent.
“It seems like my first few years we were always on the short end, so I think we're still making up for them,” said Rizzi, who has been on staff in Miami since 2009. “The talent sometimes, at that point, can even out. In the NFL, there's a whole bunch of talent. The bottom line is, who's playing well? Who's executing? Who's making those plays in the fourth quarter, in the times that mattered? We did that last year.”
Rizzi continued: “Everything we got last year, we earned.”
That was a nice change of pace from the years that preceded it. The Dolphins’ playoff drought began in 2009, Rizzi’s first season in Miami. They have had real playoff hopes though, most notably in 2013, when the Joe Philbin-led Dolphins lost to the irrelevant Jets and Bills in the final two weeks of the season. A win over either would have put Miami in the postseason.
And the Dolphins didn’t just lose those games. They weren’t even competitive in either.
“I've been on teams that were 7-9 that might have had more talent than we had last year,” Rizzi said. “I think last year, we played well when we had to within the game, and we played well when we had to within the week. ... When the season comes, we're going to have to play well in those games, in those crunch times, and that's what we did well.”
He added: “I look at a couple of years where we went 7-9 or whatever, we didn't win those games. We lost those games. This year, we made the plays to win it, guys stepped up.”
The good news for the Dolphins: Most of the men who made plays to win those games are back in aqua and orange this year. They have experience of playing in those tight games, and the confidence they can win them.
And they’ve brought in players they believe can do the same. Take, for instance, rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan. He was a captain on the Ohio State team that went 4-1 in one-score games last year. Without those wins, the Buckeyes wouldn’t have sniffed the College Football Playoffs.
“I wouldn't say it's a skill,” McMillan said of winning close games. “It's something you train for.”
“The hardest part of our workouts at Ohio State was the end of the workout,” he added. “It was hard throughout, but we kind of turned it up at the end. That's kind of our mindset here as well. Always train for the fourth quarter, always finish. At the end of the game, when it's a close game, it's all about finishing. That's what we practice and that's what we preach.”
▪ Dolphins starters Mike Pouncey, Laremy Tunsil, Reshad Jones and Koa Misi all sat out Monday’s rain-soaked OTA practice due to injury. Tunsil and Jones are dealing with minor issues, Gase said.