Surrounded by the man who gave him the career opportunity of a lifetime and the star players who shone so brightly in a convincing victory, interim coach Dan Campbell stood in the middle of the Dolphins’ hushed postgame locker room and thanked his scout team and practice-squad players.
Campbell had just won his first game as interim head coach.
He had just helped breath life into a faltering team and offered buoyancy to a floundering season.
His shirt was still drenched from the celebratory Gatorade shower he got on the sideline. And he was still holding the game ball owner Stephen Ross handed him moments earlier.
That’s when Campbell saluted reserve linebacker Chris McCain and backup guard Sam Brenner and a list of other guys nobody thinks about after a game in which Cameron Wake has four sacks and causes two fumbles, or Reshad Jones returns an interception for a touchdown or Lamar Miller rushes for 113 yards.
Campbell’s Dolphins beat the Tennessee Titans 38-10. But the coach wasn’t basking in his own genius. He wasn’t flattering the big names. He wasn’t playing up to the owner who in a few weeks will determine whether the interim coach stays on the job permanently or not.
Instead Campbell was delivering a message that, interestingly, his players would later repeat to the media.
“Obviously we have football players that make big plays but we’ve got other guys you don’t know about,” Wake would say almost an hour later when he was the last player left in that same locker room.
“The Chris McCains, the Sam Brenners. The guys that push us every day in practice to make sure we are ready for the game. Those guys are not names you know about and don’t get the headlines but they’re the reason we’re making those plays today because those guys challenge us and prepare us all week.”
You know what it means when the team’s best player repeats the coach’s postgame speech almost verbatim to the media?
It means he has bought into the coach’s message. It means he believes in the coach.
And maybe it is too early to say the Dolphins have embraced Campbell. Difficult days ahead are not just possible, they are guaranteed. The schedule will get tougher when the opposing quarterback is no longer limping rookie Marcus Mariota but instead superstar veteran Tom Brady.
Those days and perhaps dozens more like it will be the measure of whether this new coach is it or not. Those days will measure whether Campbell has it or not.
But for now — today — this guy is good news for the Dolphins. Campbell has his players’ attention. He has their loyalty. And on this afternoon he got them to play as complete a game as a Miami team has played in a year or so.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to knock anybody, but coach Campbell gets you fired up,” said Rishard Matthews, who has unexpectedly become Miami’s most explosive receiver. “When he speaks, he gets in your blood and gets your hairs up. You just want to go out there and battle for him.”
That’s what the pundits are going to be saying today. The story is Campbell got the Dolphins to play up to their potential.
He got an offensive line that was beleaguered to play with nastiness and attitude — the kind we normally only see from center Mike Pouncey but Sunday spread like an epidemic from tackle to tackle.
He got the running game to be the featured offensive weapon instead of an afterthought. The previously pass-happy Dolphins rushed the football 32 times and passed it 29 times.
He got the defense to play like an attacking force rather than merely absorb punishment like punching bags.
“Coach has a different mentality,” Wake said. “Having fun. Enjoying playing the game. And guys bringing that energy to the playing field. That’s what we did.”
All that is great. What this team worked toward accomplishing in practices during the bye week translated to the game Sunday.
But here’s what is really smart about Campbell: While we’re talking about how he got this team to perform for this game, he has recognized one victory does not a coaching career make.
“I don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said during his opening statement to the media. “That’s one. That’s just one.”
And to get more, which I believe he will absolutely get, Campbell is taking a long-range view. He was plotting how he could use this win and this moment in front of his team to move forward to the next thing.
To the next win.
“I’ve changed the system and the model of what we’ve been doing, and [the players] were willing to hope,” Campbell said. “They felt it was a change in the right direction and they bought in for the week.
“They practiced hard. Now when you come out and play the way they played today, it reinforces that. And now they know moving forward it works. And now they’re going to trust me a little bit more. Pretty soon, whatever you say, they believe in.”
Keep doing this and pretty soon, whatever he says, everyone will believe.