Miami Dolphins coach Adam Gase had a pained look on his face as he assessed what was supposed to be a joyous housewarming game against the perfect tomato-can opponent.
Instead, the Dolphins barely escaped renovated Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday with a 30-24 overtime defeat of the battered Cleveland Browns, the worst team in the NFL.
A taciturn Gase said he was “irritated.” That’s a good word to describe how the Dolphins continue to torture themselves and their fans, particularly in this home opener that they would have lost if not for a third missed field goal by Cody Parkey, who was signed as a last-minute replacement for the Browns’ regular kicker, who injured his knee during a walk-through practice Friday.
It was going to be a mournful day no matter what. Everyone absorbed the news about Jose Fernandez, the Marlins’ ace who was killed when the 32-foot motorboat he was traveling in crashed into the South Point jetty at the entrance to Government Cut at about 3:15 a.m. Sunday. Fernandez, 24, was one of the most popular athletes in the history of South Florida sports, and the Dolphins began the game with a moment of silence in his honor.
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A sense of shock muted the afternoon as the Dolphins played on while the Marlins canceled their game against the Braves.
After Gase won his first game as a rookie head coach, his expression brightened only once — at the mention of safety Reshad Jones, who played with the kind of hustle and intelligence many of his teammates were lacking.
Jones led Miami with nine tackles, three of those for losses, and one assist. When Cleveland was threatening to take the lead in the fourth quarter, Jones halted a potential breakaway sprint by Isaiah Crowell, then saved another touchdown when he chased down Terrelle Pryor and pushed him out of bounds at the 23-yard-line.
With 3:24 left, Jones batted away a third-down pass to Duke Johnson, and Cleveland settled for the tying field goal. In overtime, Jones had a hand in the defensive stand that pushed Cleveland back to its 13-yard-line, which set the Dolphins up in advantageous field position for the winning 44-yard drive.
“Reshad has been one of our best leaders,” said Gase, who compared Jones to Eagles great Brian Dawkins. “He’s showing me what a really, really great defensive player looks like. Watching Reshad day in and day out — not many guys play with that much effort.”
But Jones can’t do it alone. A defense that was restocked in the offseason to make it faster, simpler and more aggressive gave up the winning touchdown at the end of the Seattle game, gave up 31 points against New England’s second- and third-string quarterbacks and almost gave up a home game against Cleveland’s third-string rookie quarterback, Cody Kessler.
Pryor, the former Ohio State quarterback, played quarterback, receiver and safety on Sunday (and should have been kicker, too). Cleveland coach Hue Jackson mixed it up and inserted Pryor on Wildcat plays. He constantly eluded the Dolphins and ran untouched into the end zone on a 3-yard keeper in the fourth quarter.
The defense that was supposed to be the strength of the team allowed the Browns to outgain the Dolphins in total yards, 430 to 426. Ranked 31st against the run going into game, Miami gave up 169 yards on the ground and an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
It’s going to be another long, losing season unless Ndamukong Suh, Byron Maxwell and Mario Williams — just to name a few — earn their keep and help out Jones.
Suh, Jones and Cameron Wake zeroed in on inconsistency and poor tackling as two of the defense’s most vexing problems.
“Sometimes it was three-and-out and then they’d pop an explosive run,” said Wake, who had a dramatic strip-sack negated because he was called offsides. “We have to make sure everyone is detail-oriented. It’s not one series here, one series there. The most important thing is to start out fast. We’ve been able to rally the troops and fight at the end, but that’s not the way this league works.”
On Parkey’s missed 46-yard kick with four seconds left in regulation, Wake said the Dolphins were “willing it wide left. But we shouldn’t have been in that situation to begin with because odds say that’s a made field goal. We shouldn’t have to rely on someone else’s mistake.”
Gase refused to say an ugly win is still a win. He was having none of that, nor was Jones.
“We didn’t play well,” said Jones, who has gone from contract holdout to exemplar of unselfishness. “I had a pretty good game, but that’s my job. Coach said he wanted me to be more vocal and be a leader. I took on that role because I wanted to step up and do whatever I could to help the Dolphins win.”
Let’s see if his teammates can step up as well. The next test comes quickly, at Cincinnati on Thursday. The Dolphins have no more time to dither.