On the morning of Oct. 25 last year, the Kansas City Chiefs awoke to a 1-5 record. Their roster seemed to lack talent. Their coaching staff seemed to lack answers. Their fans lacked hope.
And despite venom in the media and a bleak outlook for the remainder of the season, the Chiefs rallied. They didn’t lose again in authoring an 11-5 regular-season record.
It can happen.
Tony Dungy started his NFL coaching career with five consecutive losses. Joe Gibbs started his NFL coaching career with five consecutive losses. Jimmy Johnson started his NFL coaching career with a 1-15 record.
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Dungy and Gibbs are in the Hall of Fame. Johnson won two Super Bowls and was the architect of a team so dominant it won another Super Bowl even after he departed.
It can happen.
I say this not to suggest the Dolphins — your Miami Dolphins — are about to turn things around in such epic proportions. I’m not predicting that. I’m not raising expectations to those levels.
But this team can get better.
The first quarter of the season, a disappointing 1-3 exercise that has the Dolphins looking as irrelevant now as in any of their other disappointing seasons so far this millennium, was a learning experience.
It was a time for a young and inexperienced coaching staff to make mistakes and improve. It was a time for a new roster to find cohesion. It was a time for players unfamiliar with their offensive and defensive systems to play and succeed and, yes, to fail.
And learn from the experiences.
“I don’t think we are off course,” rookie coach Adam Gase said. “There are a lot of things we’d like to clean up. You go through this first part of the season and you just want to make sure that every game you’re trying to get better; you’re making improvements from the mistakes from the week before.
“Obviously, you want to win every game — you’re hoping you can win every game — and give yourself a chance in the fourth quarter to compete, because that’s what it comes down to in this league.”
Let me complete his thought: But even amid the failure, people are learning, growing, improving.
The Dolphins obviously have players not performing to expectations.
Right tackle Ja’Wuan James is suddenly, unexpectedly regressing. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is struggling. The cornerbacks are not good enough right now.
But the list of players improving is much, much longer.
Mario Williams is starting to come on and delivered perhaps his best game at Cincinnati. Laremy Tunsil is already pretty good and is getting better. Kiko Alonso has been good and is improving, Reshad Jones is playing great, Ndamukong Suh is playing very well, Cameron Wake is still an elite pass rusher, Jay Ajayi is coming off his best game of the season.
All is not lost.
This Dolphins season is salvageable, but serious issues have to be addressed, help needs to show up, and the coaching staff has to grow up.
Where is the help needed?
The cornerback spot, a position that I’ve been saying would not be good enough this season, has unsurprisingly been not good enough so far this season.
Xavien Howard is going to be fine, but he’s a rookie and still making rookie mistakes. Byron Maxwell has been disappointing. And Tony Lippett, a project player, was unfairly placed in a bad spot by coaches against the Bengals.
All three must improve. And the Dolphins are hopeful after the sixth game, veteran cornerback Chris Culliver, who is rehabilitating from a serious knee injury, can return to the field and help.
Let’s address the coaching staff: Gase is supremely confident and capable. He’s also very young. And his defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, is very young. And that youth showed in Cincinnati.
They benched Maxwell, who deserved it because he has been subpar for weeks. But their timing was terrible. They benched a veteran to light a proverbial fire under him and get him to respond, kind of like they did to Ajayi weeks ago.
Except that, unlike in the Ajayi situation, they didn’t have a capable player to insert into the void. And so for a prime-time game the entire nation was watching, they gave Lippett his first career start.
They put a player incapable of winning even 60 to 70 percent of the time against most matchups he faces into the lineup against A.J. Green, who is one of the NFL’s premier wide receivers.
The point is the Dolphins coaching staff wanted to make a point to Maxwell. Why couldn’t they make that point against Tennessee? Not facing A.J. Green? In a home game? Not in prime time?
Aside from that, this coaching staff has to address other issues:
The use of Wake, which is too uneven and simply not well thought out, needs correction. And if the Dolphins think no correction is necessary, they’re in trouble.
Converting third downs on offense is a huge problem. The Dolphins are dead last in the NFL on this. Gase is unhappy the defense stays on the field too much. One problem is the offense converts 26.7 percent of the time — last in the NFL.
There’s also the wacky use of running backs. Yes, the Dolphins can argue they have five good ones, which is the reason they’ve used them all. That’s spin. Coaches need to pick two on early downs, one for passing downs, and ride those three until they collapse.
This NFL season is one-quarter done. The Dolphins look finished. They are not. They can address their issues, correct their problems, let time help new schemes and systems sink in with players.
That will improve this team this season. It can happen.