The day after the New England Patriots and Dolphins played their third game this season they found themselves in similar trouble.
The Patriots, defending Super Bowl champions and boasting the NFL’s best scoring defense a year ago, had the league’s worst scoring defense at that point.
And the Dolphins, running head coach Adam Gase offense, had the worst scoring unit this season.
So the Patriots, No. 32 in scoring defense, were giving up more points than any other NFL team. While the Dolphins, No. 32 in scoring offense, were scoring fewer points than any other NFL team.
But what has happened since to those two teams and how the coaching staffs and players have handled their inauspicious early-season rankings is telling.
The Patriots dug themselves a hole but have since climbed out. The New England defense went from 32nd to 30th to 23rd, then to 18th, then 16th, then 14th and is now 12th in scoring defense.
So the Patriots, once giving up more points than anyone in the NFL, are now the 12th best unit in that all-important category. And while the Patriots addressed their problem of giving up too many points, the Dolphins were busy trying to figure out their problem of scoring too few points.
The problem is the Dolphins have failed to resolve their issue. That hole they also dug for themselves after only three games was apparently carved in quick sand because the Dolphins haven’t been able to climb out.
The Dolphins were 32nd in the NFL in scoring after their third game, their fourth game, and their fifth game. Consistency!
They climbed to No. 31 after scoring 31 points against the New York Jets, but then dropped right back to 32nd in scoring after being shut out by Baltimore. They remained there for the next three weeks.
Today, the Dolphins offense is 31st in points scored. Only Cleveland is worse.
Yes, the Dolphins can complain they lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill this year and that’s the reason they’ve been the worst scoring team most of this season. But that cannot be the sole reason because with Tannehill a year ago, they were solid but not great at No. 17.
The Dolphins can also contend they traded away Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi and that has hurt their ability to improve the running game, where they have only one rushing touchdown this season. That sounds good, but the truth is the Dolphins opted to make that move and are rushing for more yards per game since the Ajayi trade than before.
The excuses for the Dolphins are lame in other words. And more so considering the Patriots have endured their own problems.
Rob Ninkovich, a solid pass-rushing linebacker, retired when training camp began. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower, perhaps the team’s best defender, tore his pectoral muscle in October and is out for the season. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the team’s signature free agency signee in the offseason, missed an entire month between October and November because of an ankle injury.
The Patriots have played multiple games without either of their starting cornerbacks because Eric Rowe, who is nursing a groin injury, hasn’t played since Week 4 of the season.
So how have they done it?
“I don’t know,” Belichick fibbed. “We’ve just tried to keep working at it, just keep grinding away, better preparation and studying our opponents and trying to play well — keep things in long yardage and trying to play well on third down, red area and two minute. Play situational football.”
You didn’t actually expect him to outline the secrets to transforming a bad unit, did you?
Dolphins coach Adam Gase, meanwhile, has a different answer:
“A lot of it probably has to do with chemistry, practicing,” Gase said. “I’m sure that they’ve done a few things schematically, subtle little changes that most people don’t notice, but at the end of the day, for them, it’s probably coaching.
“Competing against these guys as many times as I have, it seems like as the year goes on, they usually get better the longer the season goes.”
Yes, and here comes the questions Gase and his coaching staff must address now as well as after this season:
Why is it the Dolphins’ offense, a lineup of players who have been together for some time, made so many mistakes through the first five weeks of the season, and hasn’t really addressed the other problems that have kept it out of the end zone?
The common answer from Gase has been, “It’s a combination of things.”
The fact is the Dolphins do indeed have a combination of problems, from an underperforming offensive line that affects both the running and passing games, inconsistent quarterback play, inconsistent tight end play and coaching from Gase that simply isn’t up to Belichick’s level.
So the question now is what can the Dolphins do to improve the final six games this season?
The Dolphins are trying to move the chains and stay away from long yardage. They’re content throwing 5-yard passes as long as those are followed by another seemingly unsatisfying 5-yard pass that earns them a first down.
In short, the Dolphins simply want to stay out of long-yardage, drive the football, and get inside the 20-yard line where Miami is tied for fourth in the NFL in red zone efficiency.
Sound like a consistent formula for winning?
It hasn’t been. But the Dolphins seem committed to it because that’s the best answer they have right now.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero