Miami is a special place. It is about sun and fun and good times and vacations and vibrant energy. And the way people down here grew up watching football -- with Dan Marino throwing the ball all over the place -- defined a generation. It also colored the opinion of a generation.
That’s why South Florida has been so anxious about finding the next Marino the past 16 years.
That’s why even as Ryan Tannehill stepped up and played quarterback for the Dolphins better than anyone before him (except Chad Pennington for one year), everyone kept wondering when Tannehill would look more like and play more like Marino.
And when Tannehill didn’t, as he rarely has, fans have convinced themselves the Dolphins’ quarterback search has to continue.
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Well, no it doesn’t.
It doesn’t because these Dolphins have done something that no other Miami team or iteration of the organization has done: These Dolphins gave up on trying to replace Dan Marino and instead are replacing Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick.
(Those guys, by the way, were so good in their day they won two Super Bowls. Just saying).
The Dolphins running game and indeed the emerging talent in the Dolphins backfield is becoming the core weapon for this team. Behind a good offensive line, Jay Ajyai, rookie Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams are helping to carry the offense now.
On Sunday, for example, Ajayi carried the rushing load again. He gained 111 yards on 24 carries. That happened against the No. 1 ranked run defense in the NFL. Ajayi’s downhill running fits the Csonka mold and role for this group. Indeed, Ajayi has become the face of the offense.
As he goes, the offense goes and the Dolphins are going to feed him no matter what.
“That’s always going to be our goal,” coach Adam Gase said. “He knows exactly how I want to call the game as far as I’m never going to go away from him. His job is to keep hammering it and wait until the fourth quarter. If teams can stay with him, and they can tackle him, then they’re probably going to win the game.”
Drake returned a kickoff 96 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the 27-23 victory over the New York Jets. The Dolphins, who had a 74-yard punt-return touchdown from rookie Jakeem Grant in Week Five (October 9 vs. Tennessee), are the only team in the NFL this season with both a punt-return and kickoff-return touchdown.
Drake’s 96-yard kickoff-return touchdown is the second-longest by a rookie in franchise history. Mercury Morris had a 105 yard kickoff-return TD on Sept. 14, 1969. So Drake’s role and his incredible speed (4.38 in the 40) is starting to resemble Morris a little bit.
A quick aside here: Credit the Dolphins coaching staff for forcing the Jets to re-kick after the Jets were called for offsides on their first attempt. No, Jakeem Grant didn’t get a good return. He only made it to the 19. But the decision to re-kick was tough because Dolphins players were just as winded as the Jets were after the first kickoff. So the second one tested the team’s conditioning and desire as well as technique and blocking.
“The return got called back because they were offsides and basically so it was like we got to make a play, have to run down the field again,” Drake said. “They were a little tired, come back down and they kicked off to me again, the little border kick. I couldn’t get around the edge. This time it was a better return. I tried to hit the seam as fast as possible. Front line did a good job double-teaming. I didn’t get touched until I got to the kicker and I couldn’t let him tackle me so it was a great team win honestly.”
Williams , meanwhile, is flying under the radar despite being a favorite of the coaching staff. He is starting to do a little Kiick impersonation. He served in the backfield to give Ajayi a breather and gained 29 yards on five carries -- a 5.8 yard per rush average. He also caught two passes for 20 yards.
This guy is showing all purpose back abilities. Kind of like, well, Kiick.
And the amazing thing of this team’s transformation, as it has stopped searching for Dan Marino and found those guys in the backfield, is that the passing game has become secondary.
Ryan Tannehill threw for 149 yards on Sunday. His QB rating was a modest 86.8.
Jarvis Landry caught two passes for 19 yards.
Kenny Stills caught one pass for 11 yards and was sick and didn’t play the second half.
DeVante Parker caught one pass for four yards.
Yet no one is publicly complaining. And Tannehill is fine with this.
“I just want to be the type of football team that finds a way to win,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, this team is willing to do whatever it takes to win, and you play to win the game, so I am more than happy to be a part of that.”
Now let me say this: Yes, there will be games the Dolphins will need a heroic comeback via the passing game. Yes, the passing game and everyone involved in it have to continue to strive to get better. Even the 1970s Dolphins had Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield playing at an 25-yard per catch level. (He was amazing).
But make no mistake, these Dolphins have a script they’re working off of now for playing and winning games. The running game is the star of that script. The passing game is but a featured player.
I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
Sorry Miami. You’re a glitzy city that wants fireworks from your NFL team.
You’ve got a sledgehammer instead.