Armando Salguero

Miami Dolphins’ ‘five-star players have to play five-star football’ to avoid historic December woes

AP

After a week of nursing a strained hamstring that required hours of treatment and some missed practice time, Kiko Alonso went onto the field against the Baltimore Ravens last Sunday and promptly re-injured that hamstring on the game’s first play. Then, on the second play, Alonso broke his right thumb.

And for a while after that, Alonso was busy between snaps making sure the troublesome thumb didn’t twist in strange angles.

“It kept dislocating and I kept trying to pop it back into place,” Alonso said.

Alonso eventually missed some plays as he went to the locker room and the thumb was set in a cast. But he came back. And for several days after having thumb surgery, missing practice, and treating the stubborn hamstring some more, Alonso still wanted to play against the Arizona Cardinals until the decision came down late in the week he should sit instead.

So why try so hard to play when it seemed obvious all along that doing so with only one leg and hand was a bad idea?

“I love to play,” Alonso said, “and this is a big game. It’s important.”

Welcome to December, football fans.

Welcome to consequential, important, season-deciding games that require the highest caliber of performance and perhaps even extreme sacrifices in exigent circumstances.

“I think your five-star players have to play five-star football in December,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. “That’s what you pay that top 10 percent of guys extra money for — it’s for these games. They do get important. I do think that. I do think those five-star guys have to play five-star or you’ve got problems.”

The Dolphins have historically not gotten five-star football from enough of their players when the calendar’s pages flip to December. That’s probably the reason the team hasn’t had an undefeated December since 2008.

The Dolphins have actually had only two winning Decembers dating to 2001. The 2008 team used its great December work to make the playoffs. The 2013 Dolphins were 3-0 in December and poised to make the playoffs before being derailed by consecutive season-ending losses that eliminated them from playoff contention.

So December hasn’t been kind to the Dolphins this century. And while that is only history and not a topic of conversation within the organization, coaches last week did make the point to players that they are expected play their best football this month.

“We talked to our team Wednesday … and said, ‘If you’re a lineman, your pass sets should be the best they’ve been because you’ve been doing it for three months. You’ve been working together for three [months]. You’ve got the calls for three [months]. You’ve worked on your three-step drop for three months. It ought to be the sharpest it’s been,’ ” Christensen said.

“The bad teams are worried about their offseason now and start making offseason plans, and the good teams are doing what they do extremely sharp, because they’ve been doing it and they focus on it and it’s getting better and better and better.”

Yeah, that’s what should be happening. But it didn’t happen last week against Baltimore in this December’s first game. Indeed, that was the worst Dolphins showing in two months.

Coach Adam Gase said he didn’t think anyone played exceptionally well, which is damning because 43 guys played in the game. And it gets no easier with the desperate Cardinals on Sunday and games against AFC East rivals after that.

The Dolphins do need to get outstanding play from their outstanding players. And that means …

Defensive end Cameron Wake, who was held without a sack against Baltimore for the first time in six weeks, has to regain his form. There’s a good chance of this as Wake has been very good in December the past three years he’s been healthy enough to play that month.

(Wake had  5 1/2 sacks in December 2012, two sacks in December 2013 and three sacks in December 2014.)

Offensive tackle Branden Albert, who kept Terrell Suggs without a sack last week, has to remain on that arc.

Cornerback Byron Maxwell, who has accounted for four turnovers the past four games including two last week at Baltimore, needs to do more of the same the rest of this month.

It also means players who haven’t been playing well, or haven’t been playing to expectations, or haven’t been playing at all, need to step forward. So …

It would be good for center Mike Pouncey and cornerback Xavien Howard to finally get back on the field starting next week at New York after missing a long stretch of games with injuries.

It would be good for Mario Williams to be a factor. He has 1 1/2 sacks this year. He hasn’t had a full sack to his credit since the regular-season opener.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is coming off a three-interception outing against Baltimore. That is not December quarterback play for a playoff team.

“I think our big-time players have played big time a lot of the times,” Gase said. “Has there been a couple of games where I’m sure some guys would rather have back or a couple plays back to get them over that hump of really impacting the game? I’m sure.

“You want as many as you can. It might not be 16 for 16. But if we’re getting 13 or 14 like that, that’s a big step for us.”

Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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