With a loss to Tennessee still on his mind and another unsatisfactory Thursday afternoon practice before his bleary eyes on the screen, Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase decided something had to change or the 2016 season was going to go from disappointment to disaster.
And so in his office that late evening two months ago, Gase decided to basically start over with his offense.
He had already shelved his beloved no-huddle attack the week before. And now he decided if he didn’t get more basic and more adaptable for his players, the offense that broke records and went to the Super Bowl in Denver was going to put his rookie season as a head coach in the cellar of the AFC East.
So after all his players and most of his assistants had gone home, Gase began to trim down that offense. Options got tossed. Reads got changed. The approach on the running game was tweaked.
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Adam Gase changed significant portions of the Dolphins offense overnight.
The next day -- a Friday -- he installed it with his assistants and then the players.
And, yes, his offensive line at the time was coming together. And running back Jay Ajayi had been showing signs he was ready to be a bell cow NFL running back. And, yes, quarterback Ryan Tannehill was progressing with his reaction times and reads.
But two days after Gase reworked his offense the 1-4 Miami Dolphins seemed like a different team in beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-15. That was the first of nine wins the next 10 games. That was the moment the Dolphins 2016 season turned on its axis and onto its current postseason course.
And that is one reason I will be casting a vote for Adam Gase as the NFL coach of the year next week.
I have a vote with the Associated Press and I’m using it on Gase not because he’s the home team guy. It’s not about that.
It’s about the fact I’ve seen a lot of bad football played by the Miami Dolphins the past decade or two and I’ve seen the turnaround these Dolphins have made this season, starting that fateful week against Pittsburgh.
So I understand what a difference outstanding coaching can make for an NFL team.
The difference for these Dolphins is as stark as finishing last in the AFC East with a 6-10 record last season and making the playoffs and going into this week’s season-finale with a 10-5 record.
I never believed last year’s Dolphins to be as deficient in talent as their record suggested. Yes, the offensive line was not up to par and there were other issues, but not to the tune of 6-10.
It has talent.
The receiver corps.
But this team also has holes and flaws. Talk to people within the organization and they freely admit this is a three-year build that is only in its first season.
The linebackers not named Alonso, the tight end position, the offensive line (again), the defensive line will all need improving this offseason. And yet with a team that has obvious flaws, Gase has thrived.
That’s without even addressing the injury issue. These flawed Dolphins have also been hit with a rash of significant injuries. Reshad Jones, a Pro Bowl player last year, is on injured reserve. Mike Pouncey, a Pro Bowl player last year, is on injured reserve after playing only five games. The team’s second-round pick missed nine games. The team’s starting tight end has missed 10 games and is on injured reserve.
The starting running back in the season opener retired -- not just one but twice.
That’s right, Arian Foster stepped away from the NFL Oct. 24 after injuring a calf muscle against Buffalo. What few people know is that he first approached the Dolphins about quitting immediately after injuring his groin and hamstring in the Sept. 18 loss at New England.
The reason Foster re-thought the idea of retiring after wanting to quit the first time?
He had forged a bond with Gase and didn’t want to disappoint the 38-year-old coach.
The bottom line is this: The Dolphins had a starting lineup set for the Sept. 11 season-opener at Seattle. And those 22 starters have missed a total of 89 games due to injuries or retirement.
Jelani Jenkins -- six games missed and counting.
Earl Mitchell -- seven games missed.
Albert missed four games.
Starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill has missed two games.
And yet Adam Gase’s team is 10-5.
“Obviously when you lose starters and you’re playing with backup players, you’ve got your young guys that are backups now and it’s a concern but it’s the next guy up,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “Everyone’s in the same meetings. Everyone’s practicing the same system, so we expect guys to fill in and do their job. So is it a concern? Absolutely. But is it a big, big worry? It can’t be. That’s who we’ve got.”
You know who decided these Dolphins would never complain about injuries? You know who decided to install a culture within the organization that makes everyone including coaches and backup players accountable?
The head coach.
Gase, by the way, declined to be interviewed for this column. I met with him Wednesday and tried to convince him to speak with me about possibly winning the coach of the year award in his rookie year. NBC’s Rodney Harrison has said Gase should be coach of the year. Other pundits have echoed that sentiment.
I think it should be Gase while recognizing he competes in the same division with Bill Belichick, who also basically deserves the award just about any year he works.
Anyways, Gase wanted nothing to do with my idea. He said that wasn’t his priority.
His priorities? His players. Their success. Winning.
And speaking of that, Gase has taken an interesting approach to instilling a winning culture in Miami. He is cocky. He is smart. He is borderline deranged.
The Dolphins won a hard-fought overtime game in Buffalo on Saturday and that helped propel them into the playoffs. After the game Gase was unhappy.
He grunted a few answers to questions during his postgame press conference. Then he got on the bus to the charter and flew home.
People within the organization tell me he was upset about something or other the team talked about and worked on during the previous week that was botched. And while that didn’t cost the victory, it cost Gase a good amount of postgame satisfaction.
I’m told other folks noticed Gase was unhappy after the victory when they expected him to be in a celebratory mood. So they told him he surprised them. They told him they didn’t expect that reaction from him.
“Don’t try to get in my head,” he answered them. “You can’t read how I’m going to react. I don’t even know what I’m going to do next.”
It’s not just about winning with this guy. It’s about winning the right way.
Gase got his first career head coaching victory Sept. 25 against Cleveland. It was an ugly 30-24 overtime affair. And Gase was angry after that game. Not disappointed.
“He can be a strange dude, sometimes,” one player told me in confidence.
Yes. This is a guy who obsesses to this day about the Seattle Seahawks because they beat his Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl. And then beat him again the next year. And the year after that.
(My guess is he’ll get them at some point).
Gase goes after his players. And he loves on his players.
Byron Maxwell, nursing an ankle injury, hasn’t been sure if he’ll play or not against the Patriots on Sunday. At one point this week, Gase suggested to Maxwell he should sit out.
Gase told Maxwell, who is among the league leaders in defensive holding penalties, that Sunday’s officiating crew has been known for calling games tight against defensive backs -- yeah, the Dolphins study that now. So take the day off, Byron, because you’d probably get flagged all day long.
That was the message to a prideful player.
I believe people who study the human mind call this reverse psychology.
When he arrived, Gase found some players that needed individual attention.
He had to get Ndamukong Suh to buy in to his program. Suh didn’t buy in at all last year. This year he’s still moody and often surly but is also a leader in the locker room among players.
Gase had to get Kenny Stills to buy in. Stills, disliked in New Orleans for unknown reasons, came to Miami via trade and just sort of treaded water in 2015. But Gase and he struck up a bond of some sort to the point the coach loves this player and the player is producing at a high level for the coach.
All that stuff goes unreported. Unnoticed.
All that stuff is coach of the year work.
So is this: Tannehill was supposed to be Gase’s biggest project this year. The QB guru was supposed to fix the guy who was due to get paid like a franchise quarterback but didn’t always play like one. Well, Gase recognized Tannehill was never protected by the last coaching staff. He was criticized publicly. Joe Philbin tried to replace him privately. And the offensive line was never quite right.
Now, Gase never criticizes Tannehill in the press. Never publicly. That’s the reason some reporters say Gase has a blind spot where Tannehill is concerned. What they don’t see is Gase rides Tannehill harder in meetings than he does most other players.
He does that because Tannehill can take it.
He does that to let the rest of the locker room know the head coach is indeed not playing favorites with the quarterback.
He does it his way because he believes he needs to critique his most important player but it is none of the public’s darn business if and when that happens because Tannehill and Gase are joined at the hip.
About the rest of the players: These Dolphins are not the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. There will not be a handful of Hall of Fame inductees tapped from this roster.
But Gase constantly tells them how great they are. Wednesday team meetings to start the week are meant to make players believe they can demolish the opposition. Yes, corrections were made two days earlier off the mistakes made the previous game. But the new week is about building, not tearing down.
This coaching staff makes a point of making all the players believe they are facing a flawed opponent and that they can and will defeat that opponent no matter what the public or records or reputations suggest. And that message is sent when the Dolphins play the Browns. Or the Seahawks. Or the Rams. Or even the New England Patriots.
“I think the entire team believes,” Joseph said. “We didn’t think for one second on Saturday that the game was going to be not won. So I think it comes from our total team culture.”
Adam Gase’s culture.
The NFL coach of the year’s culture.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero