You remember the offseason when hope for the 2018 Miami Dolphins was high? The Dolphins were in the middle of a drastic roster turnover that spit out stars and replaced them with lesser known players.
Akeem Spence instead of Ndamukong Suh.
Danny Amendola and Albert Wilson instead of Jarvis Landry.
Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe drafted to replace Julius Thomas.
Frank Gore taking the spot left open by the trade of Jay Ajayi.
And, of course, the additions of Josh Sitton and Daniel Kilgore to get the offensive line right.
Most of these moves, on the surface, seemed to make the Dolphins a less talented team. But the Dolphins, starting with coach Adam Gase, made the point that they were building a good team rather than stacking talent on the roster.
The Dolphins said they were in many cases replacing me-first players with team-first players. Gase and others spoke of bringing in football-first guys after ushering out some marketing-first guys.
The phrase many, including me, used to summarize the work was culture building.
The Dolphins were addressing and upgrading their culture.
And for the first three weeks of this season the new culture was on a roll. Gase talked openly about how he loved his locker room and the work ethic of the players in it. Players talked openly of how they liked being with each other and pulling for each other. And, yes, the Dolphins were 3-0.
But the last two weeks? Amid consecutive defeats at New England and Cincinnati?
The new culture has taken a whipping.
The club, you’ll recall, addressed the culture issue to offer better answers in the face of adversity. Gase specifically is aware a football season cannot pass without major challenges and he wanted a roster built to overcome the challenges without fraying.
But here’s the thing:
Culture, like everything else in the NFL, is judged on results.
And the results that seemed so positive before the games started are inconsistent now.
It started with the trip to New England three weeks ago. The Dolphins had a chance to beat a reeling New England team whose own long established culture was enduring a severe test after losing consecutive games.
Well, the Dolphins didn’t win. That happens.
But the Dolphins also didn’t seem to show up in a 38-7 beat down. And a team with a strong internal culture doesn’t fail to show up for a big game.
Mirage, right? After that bitter loss, Gase said Miami’s culture kicked in. The team licked wounds for a couple of days but the following Wednesday showed up resolute.
“When you get kicked in the you-know-what, you’ve got to bounce back on Wednesday,” Gase said. “The turnaround is quick. You’ve got to reset and you’ve got start over. The energy level Wednesday was outstanding. Guys were fired up to get back out there and kind of get going for this week because you’re on to the next opportunity and it allows you to eliminate what happened the week before.’
So the culture was paying dividends. And then the fourth quarter of the Bengals game came along.
The Dolphins owned a 17-3 lead entering the final quarter of that game. Culture doesn’t blow two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter, folks.
And yet, the Bengals rallied. Miami’s culture couldn’t do a thing about it.
Miami’s culture failed again.
The adversity has not ceased. The Dolphins’ culture is working overtime to deal with significant injuries.
Defensive end Cameron Wake has been nursing a bad knee. Receiver DeVante Parker has played only one of five games because of various issues. Offensive linemen Sitton and Kilgore are on injured reserve. Defensive end Andre Branch has missed games. Safety Reshad Jones missed games. Cornerback Bobby McCain is questionable Sunday with a knee injury.
Atop that the Dolphins must end a losing skid before it swallows all postseason chances. A strong team culture, you see, does not allow for three straight losses. A strong team culture may suffer consecutive road losses, as the Patriots did, but in the ensuing home game, something good better happen.
So, yes, Miami’s culture is on notice.
And this is where I recall words Wake said before the season began. One of the club’s most experienced veterans — the guy has been around for five head coaches — was talking about the offseason focus on culture.
And Wake put culture in perspective.
“Words have never solved a problem,” Wake said. “It’s always come down to actions. It has to happen. It’s not something that we can just go out and say. It’s not something that you can speak into existence.
“You have to act it into existence. We can go out there and rah-rah-rah all we want, whether it’s culture, stop the run, get to the quarterback, score points, all of that. It sounds good. It makes good T-shirts. But you have to bleed. You have to do it and that becomes who you are. Whether you want to say I’m a rah-rah guy or I’m a tough guy, if you don’t go out there and be tough, what difference does it make?
“So Sunday will show what this situation is, who you are individually, as unit, a team, so on.”
I cannot fully agree with Wake. Words are powerful and can solve problems, contrary to what he believes.
But he’s right that words must be backed by deeds. The players the Dolphins brought in as pillars of their new culture must go beyond being good for the locker room. They have to tangibly affect the outcome of games.
Amendola needs to get open and catch passes that extend drives.
Wilson needs to deliver a big play or two.
Gore needs to be allowed to, you know, convert an important third-and-one.
Otherwise all the seemingly good work the Dolphins did this offseason to address issues of team chemistry and locker room culture will seem like much activity — without much achievement.