This result was not quite an embarrassment because Jay Ajayi scored the winning points on an overtime touchdown run, and the Dolphins escaped shame and humiliation with the win. But this 30-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns left little to feel good about.
Left little to embrace.
Little to celebrate.
The Dolphins locker room was mostly a solemn place late Sunday afternoon. There weren’t a lot of smiles. There was no satisfaction. There was no feeling of accomplishment.
I’m told coach Adam Gase, in his private office after the victory, was angry. Not upset. Not unhappy.
“I want us to execute better. I want us to play with some consistency,” Gase said. “We want to come out here in our first game [at home] and showcase to our own fans what we’re about, and offensively we’re out there flopping around. It irritated me a little bit. It still does now. It’s bothering me a little bit.”
Gase was angry at the team’s pass protection, which seemed obvious when he benched starting right tackle Ja’Wuan James in the overtime. He was angry about mental and physical mistakes he believes shouldn’t be happening three games into a season are still happening. He was also angry about some guys’ effort.
It shouldn’t surprise then that the words from Gase and his players describing the game were grim while the looks on their faces suggested failure.
“I don’t think we deserved to win,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said, “but we’ll take it.”
In the back portion of the locker room, Jarvis Landry, he of the electric personality and statistics (seven catches for 120 yards and a touchdown) also struck a sobering note.
“[We’re] fluttering,” he said. “I don’t know what we were doing. I think the frustrating part is that it’s three weeks in a row. That’s the frustrating part. We need to go back and see why we made all those mistakes, see how we can attack defenses and start faster.”
The point here is in the moments following the Dolphins’ first victory of the season, their first victory since the Hard Rock name went up on their newly refurbished stadium, the postgame scene was depressing.
It was mostly gloomy.
It was dismal.
And, here’s the part you didn’t expect: It was perfect.
I said perfect.
If you’re a fan of this team, you probably felt the same way Gase and his players felt after barely escaping against a Cleveland team the Dolphins should have demolished.
You recognize the Browns were starting their third-string quarterback who is a rookie and was making his first NFL start. You recognize the Browns were missing half-a-dozen frontline players that were either injured or suspended. You recognize the Dolphins won because Cleveland kicker Cody Parkey missed three field goals, including a potential game-winning 46-yarder that sailed wide left as regulation time ran out.
(True story: After the game, league sources said Browns special teams coach Chris Tabor wanted his team to sign free agent kicker Robbie Gould on Friday when Cleveland’s first-string kicker Patrick Murray sustained a knee injury. But Browns management decided Gould is too expensive and so they went with Parkey — who practically single-handedly lost the game for them.)
The point is the Dolphins escaped with a victory rather than earned one.
And that has happened to this team multiple times in the past few years.
The Washington season-opening win last year was like this game. The 2014 victory at Jacksonville and at the end of that season against Minnesota were like this game. The victory over an injury-ravaged San Diego team in 2013 was like this victory.
The Dolphins barely won those games against overmatched opponents while playing poorly.
But after those uninspiring performances, the coach would go into spin mode. He’d tell his players and the media that a win is a win is a win.
And any win, we’d be told, was good enough.
Except wins like those and wins like this one against Cleveland have an ugly habit of leading to losses. A team that thinks things are good enough because the coach says an uninspiring win is good enough eventually runs into the reality that his team’s performances aren’t really, well, good enough.
They certainly aren’t good enough to sustain success.
And that’s why the honesty coming from the Dolphins on Sunday was refreshing. And right.
This coaching staff knows this kind of play isn’t good enough now and for the future if it continues. So they are sounding alarms rather than offering ringing endorsements.
This Dolphins staff, headed by Gase, isn’t just saying this stuff in the media. It’s telling players that wins like this are not good enough.
That’s important because when players hear the right message from above — that winning the right way is important for long-term success — they start to believe it and start to repeat it.
“We’re three games in now,” Tannehill said. “We’re too far in to have the kind of mistakes we’re having.”
It’s important that team leaders such as Tannehill and Landry and players on defense see that not everything is rosy amid a victory. They can help spread that message to the players who were telling reporters the odor in their nose wasn’t garbage but rather really a rose.
“We shouldn’t have to rely on someone else’s mistakes to win,” Cameron Wake said. “We should be in the forefront with the game in our hands, whether it’s offense or defense because we have the guys in the locker room who are better than this and can do it.”
When that message spreads to everyone and corrections come, the Dolphins will be further on their way to avoiding the tough losses that invariably follow these uninspiring wins.