The Dolphins had just smoked the Titans 38-10, and every visitor in Miami’s keyed-up locker room had more or less the same question:
What’s the reason? What exactly was different this Sunday than the season’s first four?
Was the scheme changed? The play-calling better? Was the moon in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligned with Mars?
Because rational beings (not to mention sports writers) wanted a rational explanation for what they saw here Sunday afternoon.
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The Dolphins (2-3) didn’t just crush the Titans (1-4) in Dan Campbell’s maiden voyage, earning the team’s interim coach a double-barreled Gatorade bath and a game ball from the owner.
More importantly, the Dolphins looked like the team everyone expected all along. They were physical and efficient on offense. And they were hellacious on defense.
And they did all this with the most minor changes to their lineup. Yes, Billy Turner started over Jamil Douglas at right guard. Sure, Kenny Stills got snaps over Greg Jennings at receiver. And OK, the secondary relied more on its bench than it did all season.
But these superficial tweaks don’t explain the Dolphins’ most complete performance in nearly a calendar year, one in which Miami outgained Tennessee 434-299, recorded six sacks, forced four turnovers and rushed for 180 yards.
So people asked what would account for it. And they asked. And they asked again.
Finally, C.J. Mosley had heard enough.
“We didn’t do anything differently,” Mosley insisted without solicitation; fellow defensive tackle Earl Mitchell was the one asked.
“There wasn’t too much different up front,” Mitchell agreed.
Added Reshad Jones: “We ran our base defense and got after those guys.”
So if it wasn’t schematic, was it Campbell’s high-octane coaching style?
“I think Dan energized us,” insisted Ryan Tannehill, who completed 22 of 29 passes for 266 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. “I think he does a great job of motivating and setting the tone of what we want to do.”
OK, but pep talks only go so far. Adrenaline wears off after a while.
So was it a newfound commitment to running the football — with Turner’s physicality at guard, Branden Albert’s return at left tackle and Campbell’s long-awaited decision to unleash Mitchell as the team’s occasional fullback? Mitchell got a handful of snaps on offense as a lead blocker, and even pulled out wide on a power sweep.
“It was a nice change-up, right?” he joked. “I was running around, looking for someone to hit.”
The result: Lamar Miller’s best game of the year. Miller ran for 113 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries Sunday.
6 Sacks for the Dolphins on Sunday after recording one in first four games
But none of that would explain Cameron Wake’s four first-half sacks (including two that forced fumbles), Jones’ 30-yard interception return for a touchdown and Brent Grimes’ game-sealing pick in the fourth quarter.
So perhaps the best breakdown is this: The Dolphins have a top-heavy roster, and for the first time this season, their stars played like stars.
And if the Dolphins are going to salvage their season, that better become the rule, not the exception. Tannehill, Wake, Albert, Jones and Grimes combine to make up roughly one-third of their salary cap. They earned their keep Sunday.
“If you call yourself a big-time player, you’ve got to step up,” Albert said.
Those big-time players did just that Sunday. And in the process, sent a message to the rest of the league: The Dolphins have two-thirds of the season left. They don’t plan on wasting it.
“We’re not playing for a message,” Tannehill said. “We’re playing for ourselves. We understand, like I said all week, that everything we set out to accomplish this week is still out in front of us.
“We have the talent in that locker room,” he added, “and now we have the mindset to get it done.”
Dan Campbell became the fifth coach since Don Shula retired to begin his Dolphins coaching career with a victory:
W 38-10 @ TEN
L 30-10 @ HOU
W 30-23 @ BUF
L 20-14 vs. NYJ
L 16-13 (OT) @ WAS
W 34-10 vs. DEN
L 24-17 @ SEA
W 23-0 vs. SEA
W 24-10 vs. NE