Miami Dolphins

As Dolphins try to save their season, Darren Rizzi aims to fix their special teams

Miami Dolphins Rishard Matthews (18) receives instructions from his special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014. Miami won 27-13.
Miami Dolphins Rishard Matthews (18) receives instructions from his special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi during the second half of an NFL football game against the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014. Miami won 27-13. AP

Darren Rizzi is an NFL survivor.

The Dolphins’ special-teams coordinator is not only in his seventh season with the franchise, but he also is now serving his fourth different head coach.

And he has a better title now than he did before the last one, Joe Philbin, got fired. One of Dan Campbell’s first tasks when he took over was to name Rizzi as assistant head coach.

Rizzi’s staying power reflects his value to the franchise. In each of the past four years, the Dolphins have finished in the top 12 of the Dallas Morning News’ respected special-teams rankings.

But as Rizzi does his part to save the Dolphins’ season — and perhaps his own job — in Sunday’s crucial game against the Eagles, something is amiss.

A week ago, Rizzi’s group was uncharacteristically a big part of the problem, instead of the solution.

The Dolphins’ special teams committed five penalties in their loss to the Bills, often digging too deep a hole for an offense that has enough issues of its own.

There’s more. Of the Dolphins’ 66 accepted penalties this season, 18 have been committed by their special teams. That’s the second-most in football; only the Bills’ special teams have been flagged more.

“We’ve got to improve,” Rizzi said. “It’s something we’re emphasizing. It’s something that we’re well aware of. It’s something that we’re striving to get fixed, and we’re going to get fixed.”

They had better do it quickly.

The Eagles have the league’s best statistical punt returner in Darren Sproles (14.7 yards per return). Philadelphia hasn’t allowed a special-teams touchdown this season. And opposing teams have managed just 5.1 yards per punt return against the Eagles, sixth-fewest in football.

So the last thing Rizzi wants is a reprise of last week, when the Dolphins’ average starting field position was their own 14.

The most impactful mistake: a Terrence Fede hold that erased a field-flipping kickoff return by Damien Williams. The penalty cost the Dolphins 45 yards of field position.

“We’re frustrated for giving up free plays,” said long snapper John Denney, who addressed the issue with the team’s younger players last week. “We’re giving up a lot of penalties, a lot of free yards. That’s kind of the focus. We know we have a good unit if we can cut out all that stuff. That’s just mental.”

But Rizzi — who spent two hours early in the week watching every penalty on tape — also instructed his team to not let last week’s flag fest make them play tentatively.

“I don’t want to lose any of the aggression or any of the passion we’ve been playing with,” Rizzi said. “We’ve got great effort. … I don’t want to lose our aggression. I just want to make better decisions. Split-second decisions are huge in special teams.”

Rizzi’s full-throttle approach meshes well with Campbell. It probably explains why they work so well together. That mind-set has carried over to Rizzi’s new duties, which include helping Campbell make in-game decisions.

The most obvious example: when the Dolphins elected to run an offensive play instead of kicking a field goal on the last play of the first half Sunday.

Sometimes, those gambles backfire, as it did on the goal line against Buffalo. Plus, the Dolphins should have had more than one shot in that situation; they let 25 precious seconds elapse between plays despite owning a timeout. Campbell later acknowledged that he should have used it.

“Those things get magnified,” Rizzi said. “I know Dan’s addressed it. At the end of the day, he made the decision. I know he talked to me about it, ‘Hey, I thought I’d catch them off guard and get it snapped a little quicker.’ But we’re communicating with all that stuff throughout the game.”

Coaches stay employed by getting more of those decisions right than they get wrong. And clearly Rizzi has; head coaches keep falling around here, but he keeps standing — and, most recently, rising.

Still, no coach in Davie knows for sure whether he will survive the looming offseason. Common sense suggests the Dolphins must win at least five of their final eight games or wholesale changes are coming.

Yet Rizzi wanted no part of that suggestion during a conversation with the Miami Herald on Friday.

“Try not to focus on it,” he said. “As a coach, you focus on the job. I think Dan’s done a good job. Right now, our main focus is on this game, No. 1, and the second half of the season.

“Dan talked to the team the other day and made a big part of it, ‘We’ve got eight games left. We’ve got half the season left. This is our main focus right now.’ Things happen all over pro sports. You can’t control that stuff. What we can control is this week, this game, this team. That’s really what our focus is on.”

▪ The Dolphins on Saturday elevated rookie linebacker Mike Hull to their active roster. To make room, they waived defensive tackle A.J. Francis.

▪ Spencer Paysinger (neck) did not make the trip to Philadelphia and will not play Sunday.

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley

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