There was this strange vibe in the Miami Dolphins locker room and even with coach Adam Gase in his press conference after this game. It was weird because this winning thing is way better than losing. And winning amid a performance that rises and falls like a rollercoaster is maddening but also satisfying in the end.
Yet after the Dolphins hung on to this 20-12 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, after playing well at times and poorly other times, I heard a lot of talk about getting better and aiming higher.
I heard a lot about how too many opportunities were wasted.
I heard about how more work is needed.
You know what I didn’t hear a lot?
How good the Dolphins think they are.
And that, friends, is wonderful. Because we’ve heard past Miami teams that didn’t merit patting themselves on the back -- the 2017 team, for example -- do exactly that with talk of how talented they were and how successful they were going to be.
Those empty words ultimately rang hollow by season’s end.
But this group, even at 2-0 and leading the AFC East for the first time since 2013, isn’t talking about how good they are. Because this group isn’t close to running on all cylinders.
And they are self-aware enough to know it.
The Dolphins on Sunday won a game in which they sputtered and made mistakes and, frankly, looked comically bad at times -- like when quarterback Ryan Tannehill fumbled when the ball slipped out of his hand or when center Daniel Kilgore rolled a shotgun snap that turned into another turnover.
The Dolphins won despite giving up 334 passing yards to rookie quarterback Sam Darnold in his first home start ever.
The Dolphins won despite getting outscored 12-0 in the second half.
The Dolphins won on a day Tannehill passed for all of 168 yards.
All these factoids that in a vacuum suggest the Dolphins got clobbered didn’t result in that clobbering. These game elements, potentially lethal to recent Dolphins teams, were marginalized by this team.
The Dolphins limited the bad throws or bad coverage or bad center snaps to unimportant details overshadowed by bigger things. Better things.
Yeah, Darnold threw for a lot of yards. But he also threw two interceptions (thanks T.J. McDonald and Xavien Howard) and the Dolphins benefited when the New York coaching staff badly mismanaged the team’s clock and down-and-distance operation just before halftime -- resulting in New York reaching the Dolphins one-yard line without, you know, actually scoring before time ran out.
“He’s going to be a good quarterback in this league one day,” Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain said of Darnold afterward. “Just not today.”
Not this day because the Dolphins allowed the Jets to end only one of their 12 drives with a touchdown. The rest ended thusly:
End of half.
Field goal and field goal.
The Dolphins made the Jets’ running game moot, limiting them to 42 yards. So the one-dimensional team had to settle for field goals.
Yes, the field goals made the game interesting. But championship teams score touchdowns instead of field goals. And the Jets are not close to that now.
Championship teams also limit opponents to field goals. And the Dolphins did that this game. But don’t you dare suggest they’re anywhere close to championship quality. Because they’re not.
And they know it.
“Just on the surface it was good,” defensive end Cameron Wake said. “But there’s more to be desired. There’s more out there. You ask any defensive guy or coach and they’ll tell you there’s more out there.
“We’ve got more work to do. We want to continue to improve week in and week out. I’m looking forward to improving next week. And the week after that. And the week after that. I think this is a good start. But satisfied? No, not yet.”
Love hearing that.
And I love hearing Tannehill, who delivered a 123.1 quarterback rating after throwing two touchdowns without an interception, talking about how poorly things got in the second half instead of spinning the narrative exclusively to the good first half.
“We didn’t string enough together offensively,” Tannehill said. “I think we had plenty of opportunities. We had good play calls and we had too many mistakes. All the way around I think every group had their mistakes and it starts with me.
“So we have to clean those things up. We can’t come out and play like that in the second half. We have too much opportunity to leave that much out there on the field.”
You want something more encouraging? I pitched Tannehill a softball during his press conference. I practically begged him to talk about how wonderful things went in the first half when Miami took a 20-0 lead.
And Tannehill wouldn’t bite. He spent a sentence or two recapping what went right. And then got back to ripping himself and the offense.
His mindset was not to celebrate but to ameliorate.
“We felt great coming in at halftime,” Tannehill said. “We had a great plan for the second half, but like I said, we had too many mistakes all the way around. Tons of opportunity and it’s nothing drastic but little mistakes here and there will kill drives. And we have to be able to eliminate those and string drives together.”
This is great perspective. This is great self awareness.
This is what winners do.