Dolphins coach says, ‘Don’t count on getting into Tom Brady’s head in Sunday’s game.’
As the old saying goes, when you marry someone, you’re also marrying their family.
The same goes with football coaches.
And more often than not, that hasn’t worked out for our teams this decade.
When Al Golden landed the Miami Hurricanes coaching job, that meant we were stuck with his buddy, defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio, the equivalent of a cantankerous, stubborn mother-in-law.
When Mark Richt got the UM coaching job, he brought along a strength and conditioning coach (Gus Felder) who was sharply criticized by players and immediately replaced (by David Feeley) when Manny Diaz got the job.
When Adam Gase took the Dolphins job, that meant the Dolphins would become home for his “guys” - past-their-prime Jay Cutler and Julius Thomas and others who had a history with him, including David Fales, A.J. Derby and Josh Sitton. Because of injuries or declining play, there wasn’t a single “Gase guy” who made much of a difference here.
And now Brian Flores arrives with his group of assistants with whom he has a history, including three key on-field assistants who came directly from the Patriots (offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea, assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Shuplinski and cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer), and a few others with whom he once worked, including defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
Flores ultimately brought only a handful of Patriots players along with him, with the cooperation of general manager Chris Grier: cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Jomal Wiltz and tight end Dwayne Allen (who was cut). And former Patriots practice squad member Trent Harris was claimed off waivers after preseason.
So will these “history with the head coach” examples work out better here than Gase’s? It’s far too soon to judge after one game, but the first game wasn’t an auspicious start. Examining each:
▪ Graham and O’Shea, both first-time coordinators: In his Dolphins debut, Graham - who worked in various roles, including linebacker coach, with Flores in New England from 2009 to 2015 and was most recently linebackers coach in Green Bay - devised a defensive strategy that yielded the most points and yards in a regular-season game in team history and he inexplicably played Reshad Jones and Raekwon McMillan well under half the snaps.
O’Shea spent the past 10 years as the Patriots receivers coach and Sunday marked the first time he has called plays in a regular season game at any level.
Asked why he entrusted two first time coordinators with those jobs, Flores said: “They’re two guys that I know very well, that I trust, that are bright, that are good football coaches and guys I felt have what it takes to be good coordinators. I’m confident in both guys and I’m looking forward to watching them grow and improve.”
Players have taken a wait-and-see approach.
Internally, there was some criticism of the Graham/Flores defensive game plan against Baltimore. And Allen, before he was released, said “we’ll see with time” whether O’Shea - with whom he worked in New England last season - has the qualities needed to be an effective offensive coordinator, but added that “he was exceptional in his job when he was up there.”
O’Shea said he prepared for the job by consulting with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and soliciting input from the three former offensive coordinators on Miami’s staff: Jim Caldwell and George Godsey (both former NFL coordinators) and Karl Dorrell (a former college coordinator).
It’s fine for Flores, a first-time head coach, to entrust two first-time coordinators, but a safer move would have been hiring at least one coordinator with experience in that job, even if it was someone he didn’t know. In fairness, Caldwell - a former NFL head coach - would have been helpful to Flores if he hadn’t needed to take a leave of absence because of an undisclosed health issue.
▪ Rowe: Flores was convinced there’s a lot more to be extracted from a player who began last season as a Patriots starter but lost the job after the second week because he played with a groin injury against Jacksonville - a decision he regrets - and was beaten on several plays.
But his Dolphins debut couldn’t have gone any worse; he allowed all six passes thrown in his coverage area to be caught for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Flores has praised Rowe as effusively as any player on the roster: “Eric is smart, tough. He’s tall, long, good speed, tackles. There are a lot of things we like about him.”
But there are two concerns: Recent performance and injury issues. He has allowed bloated 106 and 126 passer ratings in his coverage area the past two years, though last year’s body of work was limited to just 13 throws against him. But in 2016 with the Patriots, his passer rating against was an excellent 61.9.
And there’s the durability question; he played in only 21 games over the past three seasons, ended last year on injured reserve and missed some time in August.
Bill Belichick has said: “He’s a smart guy. He’s able to handle multiple assignments. Every team needs players like that on the roster.”
That’s fair. But the issue with Rowe becomes this:
Should Minkah Fitzpatrick be on the field more than Rowe? This staff doesn’t believe so; Rowe played 72 of 77 snaps Sunday; Fitzpatrick played 49.
[LATE THURSDAY NIGHT UPDATE: Fitzpatrick has asked for a trade and has received permission to seek one].
Though Fitzpatrick should be playing more than Rowe in my view, Rowe - signed to a one-year deal - is the type of player that a rebuilding team should take a chance on - a young former second-round pick who has had some success when healthy. Whether he proves to be a piece worthy of a post-2019 investment is another story.
If Antonio Brown makes his Patriots debut Sunday, Rowe and Xavien Howard will need to contend with Brown, an All-Pro, and former Pro Bowler Josh Gordon on the boundary.
▪ Wiltz: He spent the past two years on the Patriots practice squad as an undrafted free agent, after intercepting two passes in two years at Iowa State, but has earned the trust of the staff.
He received 15 defensive snaps in the opener, 12 of them in the slot, and struggled badly, allowing both passes against him to be caught for 72 yards and a touchdown.
Fitzpatrick was the NFL’s best slot corner statistically last season. But curiously, this staff gave Wiltz and Fitzpatrick the same number of slot corner snaps Sunday.
This Sunday, whoever is in the slot will need to defend Julian Edelman, who has 80 catches for 833 yards and six touchdowns in his past 13 regular season games.
Cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer said Wiltz “has got good coverage skills, has got good quickness, good speed. He’s not the prototypical guy - height, weight [at 5-10, 180 pounds, but] he’s mentally and physically tough [and] been productive.”
▪ Linebacker Trent Harris: He exceeded all expectations at UM, producing 8.5 sacks as a senior in 2017, then spent last season on the Patriots practice squad, working with Flores, the de facto defensive coordinator, who liked the skill set and athleticism.
When he was cut by the Patriots Labor Day weekend, “I thanked coach Belichick for my first opportunity to get in the league. He told me I’ve been improving. I’m thankful for another chance to prove myself to help this team.”
Rather than playing as a defensive end, the Dolphins are using him as an edge rush linebacker, similar to how the Patriots were grooming him. “I love standing up to see the formation on the field better,” he said.
He missed Sunday’s opener with a foot injury and has missed both days of practice this week.
The question is not whether to surround yourself with people you know; most coaches do that. The question is finding the right ones.
Perhaps these Patriots additions will bring more to the Dolphins than Gase’s “guys” did; it’s way too soon to judge. But the first regular-season impressions weren’t good.
Starting right tackle Julien Davenport sustained a knee hyperextension and slight tibia fracture during Thursday’s practice and is expected to miss several weeks, sources told The Miami Herald. Veteran J’Marcus Webb could join left tackle Jesse Davis as the starting tackles.
Receiver Albert Wilson (calf) and safety Reshad Jones (ankle) again missed practice, though Flores said there’s “hope” Wilson can play Sunday.
Here’s my Thursday piece on two Dolphins roster moves today and a 2018 Dolphins veteran who feels sad for 2019 Dolphins veterans.
Here’s my Thursday piece on what could be our best team, the Panthers, and news out of media day on the eve of the start of training camp.
Here’s my UM 6-pack from Thursday, including more rules Manny Diaz has implemented for recruits.