Any list of reasons why the Dolphins suddenly have become more competitive in the past month start with Ryan Fitzpatrick’s competent play at quarterback; the development of several playmakers, led by Preston Williams, Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker and Mark Walton; better than expected work by an unheralded group of defensive backs; suddenly serviceable offensive line play; and a semblance of a pass rush spearheaded by Taco Charlton and Vince Biegel.
But beyond all of those quantifiable factors and an easier schedule, a couple of other things have changed that players say have contributed to Miami going from an 0-4 record and a minus 137 point differential in the first quarter of the season to a 1-3 record and a minus 16 point differential since then.
“The last three weeks of practice now going into this one, there’s been a shift in attitude of guys really working hard and being really focused,” Fitzpatrick said this week. “It has been a noticeable difference of good energy.”
Two players confirmed that this week, and they believe they know the reason why: The players have settled in and feel more grounded, more comfortable with teammates and more understanding of what coaches want from them after a tumultuous three-week stretch, from Labor Day weekend through the second week of the season, in which 14 players were added and the team’s most accomplished offensive players — Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills — were traded.
Ask defensive back Eric Rowe why the team is more competitive now, and he has an immediate response:
“Finally people getting to know each other,” he said. “We all know, the first two weeks, everyone was brand new. Everybody was a little hesitant. Now guys are starting to know each other finally. It starts clicking in here [in the locker room and then] it starts clicking on the field.”
So does importing a bunch of new players to the locker room in a short period make that big a difference in on-field performance?
“That makes a difference,” Rowe said. “Chemistry, they say you’ve got to trust the guy next to you. It’s not we don’t trust [you as a person]. But it’s like, I don’t really know him. I don’t know if he really gets this call, whatever play we’re [running]. Time goes on, you get to know the guy and stuff starts clicking.”
Linebacker Jerome Baker put it this way: “First few weeks we were trying to learn each other’s names, learn the plays. It was a new team, kind of like our preseason all over again. We were scrambling so much, losing big, trades were happening. Guys left the team. We were just scrambling.
“That bye week [after four games] was, ‘Everybody relax. Everybody get their mentality right.’ That next game [against Washington], we lost but we played so hard. Next week [at Buffalo], we played so hard again. We [began to believe] we can definitely do this.”
Everything, Baker said, “just feels different [now]. Even our practices feel different. Guys are holding each accountable. It’s not just the captains; it’s not just the older guys. The young guys are saying something. The mentality is different. The way we approach every week is different.”
Rowe said: “Guys after meetings [now] are going over what the game plan is. If guys are late, we’re starting to get on them now instead of [saying] ‘whatever.’ Come on, get to meetings on time. Little stuff like that.”
As one player said, a win was vital not only for players’ psyche, but also to convince everyone that what’s being asked of them by this coaching staff is justified.
“Even those on the practice squad see the process put in - if we do it constantly and do it the right way every time, we’re going to win games,” Baker said. “This past week, to finally see it work out upped the spirits of everybody.”
▪ Safety Reshad Jones (chest) and cornerback Ken Webster (ankle) were ruled out for Sunday’s game at the Colts. Center Daniel Kilgore (knee; limited in practice all week) and guard Evan Boehm (hip/practiced fully Friday) are questionable, with decisions pending on both. Offensive tackle Julien Davenport, eligible to return, said he’s still working his way back from a September leg injury.
▪ Two players the Dolphins consider to be among their better run defenders are also questionable: defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (limited all week with a shoulder injury) and defensive end Avery Moss (limited all week with an ankle injury).