There was so much to get lost in Sunday as the Miami Dolphins opened their season with a home win, and I’m not even talking about the four hours of lightning delays that made it a game unlike any other — the longest in NFL history.
There was quarterback Ryan Tannehill making his first start since Dec. 11, 2016.
There were cymbals-and-neon plays all over the field. Jakeem Grant’s 102-yard kickoff return score. Kenny Stills’ 75-yard touchdown catch. Reshad Jones’ two interceptions, including one returned 54 yards to set up another score. Top draft pick Minkah Fitzpatrick’s TD-denying goal-line tackle in his NFL debut.
There was so much going on it was almost easy to overlook something that stood out more quietly:
The Dolphins have a running game.
Potentially a great one.
What looks like their most dynamic ground presence in years.
Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore are going to make Tannehill’s job so much easier. In tandem they are going to bring offensive balance uncommon around these parts.
“It’s huge,” said Tannehill after Sunday’s much-delayed win, of a consistent, quality ground game. “If you can run the football that opens up a lot of things for you.”
Tannehill says his blocking front is the best he has had in seven years in Miami, which in turn will enhance Drake and Gore’s ability to both open up the game for Tannehill and also ease the pressure on him.
Miami is better when Tannehill throws less, which correlates pretty directly with how the ground game is going. Two facts to mull:
▪ The Dolphins are 22-33 (.400) when Tannehill throws 30 or more passes a game. They are 16-7 (.696) when he throws fewer than 30 times, which includes Sunday’s 27-20 outlasting of Tennessee.
▪ The 14 seasons in which Miami has rushed for at least 2,000 yards as a team, the Fins have had a winning record 12 times and made the playoffs nine times.
There is a correlation, folks. Throwing less has worked better for Tannehill. And running more, historically, has worked better for Miami.
Enter Drake and Gore, both of whom ran for 10 yards on their first carries of the season Sunday. Gore would total 61 yards on only nine carries, and Drake 48 on 14. At 35, Gore’s workload will be carefully managed (much like the Heat manage Dwyane Wade’s minutes). Even so, low double-figure carries for Gore each game and at least 20 for Drake should be the standard.
Coach Adam Gase must commit to the running game in a big way. Let the Dolphins enter an era when 3rd-and-2 isn’t an automatic passing down and when going for it on 4th-and-1 doesn’t seem such a daunting gamble. He has the weapons now. The skill back there.
Miami hasn’t had a tandem of runners gain 700-plus yards each the same season since Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in 2005. And before that it hadn’t happened here since 1981.
Drake, 24, led the NFL in rushing the final five games of last season and averages a robust 4.8 per carry for his young career. He should be a top-10 rusher leaguewide, with 1,000 yards a low bar for him. Gore? He is 15 yards shy of becoming the NFL’s fourth all-time leading rusher — and he’s still hitting holes like he’s angry because they hit him first. Canton-bound, he has never rushed for fewer than 961 yards in a full season, and defying all preconceptions about when running backs are used up.
Anybody old enough to remember when the team played at the Orange Bowl or at “Joe Robbie Stadium” knows that the franchise gold standard for RB duos remains Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, who both rushed for 1,000 yards (totaling 2,117) in magic 1972. Brown and Williams were the best tandem since then.
Now Drake/Gore have a chance to be the best since them.
The combination is an unlikely alliance that will be a personal triumph for Gase, if he trusts it and allows it to work.
Gase and the Dolphins got criticized (including by me) for trading away Jay Ajayi in the middle of last season and going with Drake.
They got criticized again (even ridiculed) for signing Gore, the NFL’s oldest running back, in free agency in March.
Now both moves are looking smart. Drake is one of the NFL’s best under-25 backs, and Gore is the perfect veteran mentor and complement, a fireplug who maintains his burst, is in tremendous shape and still is capable of being a major contributor if used smartly.
Those occasional 75-yard touchdown strikes to Kenny Stills might make the highlights and light up the crowd.
But the fundamental business done by Drake and Gore will be what keeps this Dolphins season in the running for a playoff spot.