Four weeks are left in this strangest of football seasons, and the Dolphins are fighting the temptation to talk about next season, at least publicly.
Yes, their 35-9 spanking of the Broncos felt good, but it changed little. They still have just a 1 percent chance to make the postseason, according to FiveThirtyEight.
So let’s assume that Miami does not own the winning lotto ticket and its season ends before the New Year. Dolphins players, coaches and staff will look back at the bad Buccaneers and Raiders losses and would understandably argue that is where their season came undone.
But by then, they had already wasted a number of winning performances by Miami’s defense. The Jets and Saints games were lopsided on the scoreboard, but the Dolphins probably would have won both if their offense was even slightly competent at the time.
Coach Adam Gase knows all of this. He knows that the offense was terrible to start 2016, and by his own admission, “garbage” to start 2017. In each of his first two seasons with Miami, there has been some sort of breakthrough that has spurred the offense to play much better in the season’s second half than first.
And he is all too aware that if the Dolphins are ever to compete at the highest level, that problem must be fixed this offseason.
“I’m so far away from 2018,” Gase said, when asked about the phenomenon Monday, “but I understand what you’re saying. You’re confirming something that I do know.”
The stats are sobering. In Games 1-8 of Gase’s two seasons in Miami, the Dolphins have averaged just 18.1 points per game.
But in the second half of those two seasons, that number jumps to 23.6.
The problem in each of those seasons: By the time the offense figures it out, the defense has worn down. Sunday was the first time the Dolphins played complementary football all year.
Another similarity between the seasons: A dramatic roster move catalyzed a comatose offense. Last season, the Dolphins responded after Gase cut three offensive linemen. And in the five games since shipping Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia, Miami’s offense has been transformed.
Was trading Ajayi an addition by subtraction? Gase would not say Monday.
“I just know that we’ve been doing things better than how we were doing them earlier,” Gase said.
And they are unearthing players who were not supposed to play major roles this year. Jesse Davis has not only earned himself a roster spot in 2018, he might have earned himself a starting job, either at guard or tackle.
Then there’s Kenyan Drake, a third-string back who set career highs in yards (120) and carries (23) Sunday.
The volume of carries was a surprise to everyone involved. But the flow of the game changed the plan — to Drake’s advantage.
“We’re always going to go in there thinking that we’re not going to have one guy just carry the load,” Gase said. “It was good to get Drake going a little bit. He had the safety 1-on-1 unblocked a couple of times and created some explosive plays.”
Slow starts have doomed the Dolphins in another way under Gase: The Patriots have scored on their first possession in each of their three meetings with the Dolphins since 2016.
“It’s just really hard to challenge them the way you need to challenge them if you’re down 21, 14, 20 before you even get going,” Gase said. “They’re a hard enough team to play when it’s close, and then all of a sudden you give them a big lead and you’re trying, ‘Hey, we have to score every drive and then we have to stop them.’ That’s a tough thing to do. We need to do a better job of being competitive early.”