The Dolphins, we learned in 2017, do nothing normal. And 2018 already looks like it will be more of the same..
But unlike much of last year, Sunday had a happy ending. The Dolphins somehow beat the Mother Nature, the Tennessee Titans and, at times, themselves, escaping Week 1 with a 27-20 victory over the Titans in the longest game in NFL history (clocking in at an absurd 7 hours, 8 minutes).
They did so because of the lessons learned in last year’s car wreck of a season.
And because they went out and added leaders like Danny Amendola in the offseason.
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Sunday’s back story:
Adam Gase’s Dolphins had already sat through one two-hour lightning delay Sunday when the officials stopped the game a second time with 6:47 left in the third quarter. A band of nasty thunderstorms lashed Miami-Dade County, and a lightning bolt was recorded too close to Hard Rock Stadium to safely continue play.
So the teams returned to their respective locker rooms for another delay. How long would this one be? They had no clue.
“They told us [we would be back on the field] probably at 7:30, and then they came in at 6:30 and said you’re on in 10 minutes,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “That was a little tougher to get up and get going, just because of the quick turnaround and how fast we had to be on the field.”
Problem was, it’s really hard to go from 0 to 100 in those 10 minutes. Gase probably sensed his team was a bit flat. So he told his players that whichever team came out for the game’s final 21 minutes with the most energy would probably win (Miami clung to a 7-3 lead when the game was stopped a second time.)
“There were times we wanted to be flat,” said receiver Jakeem Grant. “Nobody let us. It was Danny. He was like, ‘Come on, man. We’re going to have to finish this game out. There’s no doubt that we’re going to play this game. We’re here. We might as well go b---- to the wall.’ He was right.”
The message stuck. Despite a mostly empty stadium — all but a few thousands fans gave up after the second two-hour stoppage — the Dolphins came out energized. And they made a bunch of big plays that decided the game.
The first snap after the second break, Kiko Alonso intercepted Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (who left the game after that throw with an elbow injury).
Then the Dolphins really started rolling.
In the hour that followed:
▪ Grant returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown just moments after the Titans tied the game at 10-10. (It was the second-longest kickoff return in franchise history).
▪ Tannehill connected with Kenny Stills on a 75-yard bomb. Stills ran past Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler and raced to the end zone unimpeded. It was Stills’ second touchdown of the day; he had four catches for 106 yards on the game.
▪ Jones picked off Mariota’s replacement, Blaine Gabbert, when the Titans were driving down a touchdown with under seven minutes left in the game. It was Jones’ second interception of the game; he also had a tackle for loss.
“Coach said all week [there’s] going to be adversity that hits,” said Jones, who had the first multi-interception game of his career. “It did come. When we went back out, we were prepared and ready to go.”
The Dolphins ended up needing all of those big plays. The Titans, even without Mariota, star left tackle Taylor Lewan and tight end Delanie Walker, would not quit.
And Miami seemed at times determined to help Tennessee stay in the game. Up a touchdown with 10 minutes left, Gase tried to beat the Titans through the air instead of squeezing the clock with Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore, who were an effective duo on the ground. That approach backfired when Tannehill threw his second of two ugly picks.
Tannehill was decent, but not great in his first regular-season appearance since December 2016. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 230 yards and those two touchdown passes to Stills.
On another day, that might have been just good enough for a close loss. But Jones got the Dolphins the ball right back after that final Tannehill pick. Because he did, the Dolphins were winners for just the third time in their last 11 games.
“He seems to make the timely play, and he made a couple of them tonight,” Gase said of Jones. “He made some big hits, and they had their run game going a little bit, and he made a really good play where he jumped in the hole there and had a really good tackle. You know, it’s good to see our better players really stepping up in those key moments.”