Charting a Course: What Adam Gase’s Past Teaches Us About the Dolphins’ Future
Asking why is exhausting. It doesn’t simply involve making observations about your team, the man that lines up under center, or the defense they trot out every Sunday. It involves determining why the team faces the same fate week after week.
Most fans (and in most cases, professionals) who follow the Miami Dolphins don’t have the energy to ask why. It’s understandable; the team’s inability to breed a watchable product has led to an entire lost decade, with the team struggling to maintain any sort of identity.
Earlier this week, the concept of identity was brought to my attention, thanks to a tweet from NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal.
Those who follow the NFL are aware of what the Dallas Cowboys can accomplish on the ground, featuring the league’s rushing leader (DeMarco Murray) in 2014, and now Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the NFL in yardage through the first four weeks of 2016.
On paper, the Cowboys’ defense really isn’t very good. Scratch that; on paper, Dallas’ defense could be actively bad. However, the team has been able to win games this season with first-year starters at QB and RB and, in Week 4, without their top receiver.
Each week, Miami collapses for another reason. Either the defense didn’t scheme right, or a scapegoat is identified on offense. Sometimes it’s both.
So, what is it that makes the Miami Dolphins so fragile – swayed towards defeat by the slightest lapse from a member of their starting lineup?
Well, Gregg’s tweet sent me down the wormhole of NFL statistics, studying this year’s new wave of teams succeeding by chewing clock in the ground game. It also led me to dive deeper into the 2015 Chicago Bears and how Adam Gase was able to improve an offense that downgraded substantially at a number of positions from the previous year.
There lies the answer of how the Miami Dolphins will have to attack the challenge of turning around a team that appears to be dead in the water on both sides of the ball.
The New Wave:
In football, three statistical categories are believed to exist above all others: The gridiron gospel tells you to keep your attention on time of possession, turnovers and third down efficiency.
Three categories. If you win two of the three, usually you’ve done enough to notch the W.
I believe that for teams with weaker defenses, time of possession is the most important number to look at. You can keep your defense off of the field if you manage to sustain drives offensively.
I started the investigation with the Cowboys, who I found to be the most extreme example of teams winning games by stretching out offensive drives to avoid sending their defense onto the field.
Before I start this, I should note that the Cowboys’ offensive line is the best in the NFL, and it might not be close. Their team is built to succeed with almost anybody serviceable at QB and RB. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as a template.
The Dallas Cowboys are the best team in the NFL on third downs. They are currently converting 50% of the time, leading to their place among the NFL’s best for time of possession as well. They rank second, with an average of 36:47 per game.
Who’s number one? The rookie-driven Philadelphia Eagles.
Now, most would initially point out that the Eagles are converting on third downs and extending drives because of Carson Wentz’s outstanding play. However, the sustaining force that is leading them down the field actually comes on the ground.
The Eagles are currently ranked second in the NFL in rushing first down pickups per game, averaging eight on the ground. The Dallas Cowboys, also led by a rookie quarterback, are the top team, averaging 11 rushing first downs per game.
Given that third downs are the hardest possible situations for young passers, these two teams have been able to help keep drives alive by pounding the ball and moving the sticks.
The Cowboys’ defense currently ranks 18th in the NFL. That doesn’t sound very good, until you consider where they could be ranked.
Pro Football Focus gives every single starter on the Cowboys’ defensive line below a 50.0, meaning they are far below average. One starter, Tyrone Crawford, actually received a 39.7, meaning he is the 111th player at his position. By comparison, the Dolphins’ defensive line only features one player below a 50, with Jordan Phillips posting a 43.7. This would still be good for the third best grade on Dallas’ line. Meanwhile, Miami has Suh and Wake both above 80.0. Wake’s 80.1 is above average, while Suh’s 84.5 is good for top five at his position.
In the secondary, Dallas’ starting cornerback, Brandon Carr, has received a 52.9 grade on the season. For scale, that is worse than Tony Lippett’s grade, which is a 68.2.
The Cowboys only have one linebacker, Sean Lee (graded at an 83.0), who comes in as a serviceable player via PFF’s grades. They are no better than the Dolphins there either.
So, why are they posting a higher level of play? Because they are being kept off of the field by an offense that uses the ground game not only to make life easier on their quarterback, but also to run clock and make sure that their scoring drives also reduce the time given to the opposition.
The ability to keep your defense off of the field once again comes down to ground productivity and conversion percentages in key situations.
Where do the Miami Dolphins stand in rushing first downs per game, time of possession, third down conversions and rushing attempts? They fall within the bottom three teams for each category.
Back to Chicago:
*Cue Kanye West’s “Homecoming” with a slow pan over the sprawling Chicago skyline*
Just wanted you to know how the “30 for 30” would look.
Adam Gase worked with Peyton Manning to engineer the most productive offense in NFL history during the 2013 season. By 2015, he and John Fox had their bags packed for Chicago.
Gase took the reins of Chicago’s offense with one major task at hand: to help improve the play of embattled quarterback Jay Cutler.
For the most part, Gase did this. He was able to take Cutler and make him more effective in key situations, had him running through progressions correctly and helped him to throw the fewest interceptions for any year in which he started at least 15 games.
This led to a misconception about Adam Gase’s Bears offense. Many thought that the improvement to Cutler occurred in a pass-happy system, with an army of running backs simply subbing in as bodies.
This is far from the case and actually the opposite approach that Gase took to improving Jay Cutler’s performance.
The Bears actually ran the ball often in 2015. They averaged 29.2 rushing plays per game, which ranked 5th in the NFL. Many believe that they did this entirely through a committee, but that is far from the truth. Only two players for the Bears went over 160 rushing yards in 2015: Matt Forte and Jeremy Langford.
Jacquizz Rodgers and Ka’Deem Carey were serving a strict backup role, not taking a substantial number of carries until someone had to step up into the No. 2 spot.
Much like our discussion of the Cowboys’ and Eagles’ offenses on third downs, it is important to look into how the Bears were picking up their first downs.
In 2015, the Bears were the NFL’s 6th best team on third downs, converting on 42.47% of attempts. How were the Bears moving the chains? Predominantly on the ground.
Through the first four games of 2015, the Bears converted 36.99% of their third downs by using run plays. This ranked 5th in the NFL. Their passing game accounted for 52.05% of their first downs, which ranked 30th in the NFL.
This led the Bears to a spot as the 14th ranked team in time of possession, holding onto the ball for an average of 30:38 per game. This doesn’t sound like an outstanding number, but it would have been far worse considering the porous defense that the Bears fielded in 2015.
Consider how poorly the team’s time of possession would have fared had Chicago not been the league’s 6th best team on third down and had they not picked up so many firsts on the ground.
Adam Gase did not take Jay Cutler and miraculously mold him into an efficiency-driven field general. How would he have been able to, with a team that lost a first round WR to injury before Week 1, traded away Brandon Marshall, had Alshon Jeffrey hobbling all season and had the top tight end in the trainer’s room for much of the year?
We have now established that Adam Gase improved the Bears’ offense in 2015 not by installing a revolutionary passing concept, but by using the run to set things up through the air. So, the real question becomes how do the Dolphins fit into this?
Where Do the Dolphins Fit In?
The easiest way to put the Miami Dolphins’ struggles into perspective is by returning to two of the three holy football statistics.
The Dolphins are currently converting on an average of 27.2% of their third down attempts. For scale, if this number stays the same until the end of the season it will be the worst percentage since 2010 other than the 2012 Cardinals and 2015 Rams.
What happens when you don’t convert on third down? You give the ball back to the other team. The Miami Dolphins are currently the NFL’s worst team in time of possession, with the offense holding the ball for an average of 24:16 per game. If the team were to finish the season with this number, it would be the worst performance in that category since 2003, when Team Rankings started recording average T.O.P.
Through the first four games of 2016 the Miami Dolphins are historically bad on third down and in time of possession. Their head coach, Adam Gase, led a Bears team with a somewhat similar talent level to much greater heights in these categories during 2015. What changed?
The Dolphins cannot run the football.
Right now, the Miami Dolphins rank last in the NFL with an average of 18.5 rushes per game. Meanwhile, the team is averaging 34.5 passing attempts, which ranks 21st in the NFL. (This provides some scale to how severe the time of possession issue is; the Dolphins are in the bottom half of the league in attempts for both play types.)
To refresh what was stated earlier, Adam Gase’s Bears offense ranked 6th in the NFL in third down conversion percentage, picking up the 5th highest percentage of their first downs on the ground.
Right now, the Dolphins are the 32nd team in the NFL on third down, and are only converting 21.54% of their third downs on the ground (29th in the NFL). Their percentage of pickups through the air? 70.77%, good for 4th highest in the NFL. That is not a category that you want to be 4th highest in.
Adam Gase’s identity in Chicago was to use run plays to extend drives, pick up first downs and make life easy for Jay Cutler. Entering Miami, people asked how Gase would make things similarly pleasant for Ryan Tannehill. The answer is by running the football. That’s where the Dolphins are running into a glitch.
They can’t run the football.
Right now, the Miami Dolphins have nobody who they can rely on at the running back position. Arian Foster should not be relied upon consistently due to injuries. Jay Ajayi has been an attitude issue for much of the season, despite showing some on-field improvement in Weeks 3 and 4. Kenyan Drake was known to be raw coming out of Alabama and will require extra time. Isaiah Pead and Daniel Thomas shouldn’t even be mentioned.
This is where we look back to the Dolphins’ offseason at one defining moment that could impact the career of Adam Gase more than any of us had expected.
When the Denver Broncos matched the Dolphins’ offer sheet on C.J. Anderson, they stripped Adam Gase of the rushing attack he needs for his offense to find success.
The Miami Dolphins put together a very competitive offer sheet for Anderson, and most expected him to be departing Denver. However, in the 11th hour, the Broncos decided to match the offer sheet, stunning both Anderson and the Dolphins.
The Dolphins then spent much of their offseason trying out new options at the position. They attempted to sign Chris Johnson. They had reported interest in Ezekiel Elliott at the time of the draft. They even brought in competition in the form of Isaiah Pead.
In the end, Arian Foster ended up being their solution at running back.
Entering the season with Foster as the No. 1 back was obviously a huge risk. The Dolphins knew that there was a chance that Jay Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, Isaiah Pead and Damien Williams could at some point be asked to carry the load.
Right now, the Dolphins are in a tough situation for allocating carries. They don’t love what they are seeing from anyone in the backfield at this time, and it is leading them to unfortunately marginalize any runner’s chance at getting into a rhythm.
While it’s easy to blame the entire situation on the C.J. Anderson misfire, Adam Gase is still making a mistake in Miami with allocation of carries. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who the best runner is; nobody will succeed if you don’t give them enough opportunities to settle into a rhythm.
In Chicago, Adam Gase didn’t go based on the hot hand for a specific drive. He went by the week. In Week 1 against the Packers, Gase gave Matt Forte 24 carries. In Week 2, they split more, but still gave Forte 15 with Jeremy Langford receiving 6. Forte had 20 in Week 3.
When Forte was injured later in the season, he didn’t switch to the approach he has now chosen (or been forced into) in Miami. He gave Langford 18 carries, with Ka’Deem Carey receiving 7 against the Chargers.
Later in the season he did split carries. However, it wasn’t a split among 4-5 backs. In the Bears’ huge Thanksgiving win over the Packers, Matt Forte had 15 rushes, and Jeremy Langford had 9.
As you can see, at no point last season did Gase go away from having either a declared singular starter, or two players who would split all of the carries. In Miami, the current leader in carries is Jay Ajayi. He has 18 in four games.
The graph on the left shows the 2015 Bears’ rush allocation. The graph on the right shows what the Dolphins’ rush allocation would look like if carries continue equally over the rest of the season. This example won’t prove to be completely accurate statistically with Arian Foster returning, but it is an illustration of how extreme the Dolphins’ committee approach has been.
On the left – a functional NFL team’s distribution. On the right – what is on pace to become one of the league’s most dysfunctional rushing attacks.
No player in Miami is over 100 yards rushing. No player has received 20 carries. The Dolphins cannot establish any semblance of a ground game, and it is taking away arguably the greatest strength of Adam Gase’s 2015 system.
While the rushing attack is struggling, Ryan Tannehill is doing the same. The Dolphins’ low percentage of third down conversions via the run is indicative of two things. One, that Ryan Tannehill is putting the team in a difficult position. He often struggles to complete the short, quick passes required to keep moving in Gase’s offense. The second point is that Tannehill’s life is becoming much harder because there isn’t a consistent ground attack.
How often do you watch the Dolphins execute a good run on 2nd & 6 to give them a 3rd & 1? Very rarely. The rushing attack is designed to set up the pass in Adam Gase’s offense, and right now there is no viable threat on the ground. Without a viable threat on the ground, the offense falls squarely on the quarterback’s shoulders, needing to lead a one dimensional attack without the benefit of misdirections or play actions.
If Adam Gase’s team was so effective on third downs in 2015 thanks to the rushing attack, what do the Dolphins need to do to achieve a similar level of efficiency in the game’s most important moments?
From the Ground Up:
So, there’s one thing you might have realized while reading an elaborate breakdown of what worked in Adam Gase’s offense.
They really didn’t do that well.
Through the first four games of 2015, Gase’s unit averaged 17.0 points per game. Right now, the Miami Dolphins are averaging just a fraction higher, coming in at 17.8 points per game.
Granted, Adam Gase did not have Jay Cutler in Weeks 3 and 4, as Jimmy Clausen took over due to an injury. Weeks 1 and 2, with Cutler at the helm, the team scored 23 points in each game.
The Bears finished 2015 ranked 19th in average yards per game and 22nd in points per game.
We have now established that Adam Gase comes into Miami with an offense that runs the ball incredibly frequently and relies on the ground game in key situations. We also realize that his offense wasn’t really so effective in Chicago.
There are two places we can take this information. One is very bad. The other could give us a glimpse of how the Dolphins attack the process of building this team.
Let’s start with the potential negative. Maybe Adam Gase’s offense really doesn’t work that well. Sure, with Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno and that guy named Peyton, they were pretty good. However, strip away the shiny toys and things got ugly.
I do not believe this to be the case. What I do believe is that Adam Gase’s offense in Chicago was geared to account for lesser personnel (going from the Broncos to a team with a 60%-healthy Alshon Jeffrey could be tough) by running the ball to set up the passing game.
This leads us to where the Miami Dolphins could go from here.
Nobody knows where the Dolphins will be this January. Let’s assume that things look the same; Ryan Tannehill is uninspiring, the rushing game is lethargic and the defense is historically bad.
The Dolphins will not force the issue on replacing their quarterback. There won’t be a wild Rams/Eagles style trade that catapults the team up into the top of the draft. However, if a quarterback falls into their laps, I do believe they should pull the trigger to at least spur competition with Tannehill in camp.
Luckily for the Dolphins, they will be facing the perfect draft class to revamp the rushing attack. This year’s group will be ripe with incredibly promising young backs. If Miami wants to remedy the fact that they are the league’s worst rushing attack, they will be in the right draft class to do so.
(It will also be important for the Dolphins to find some actual guards. Laremy Tunsil and Jermon Bushrod are not run blockers, and we’ve seen that those on the roster who are run blockers cannot play in the passing game.)
The Dolphins’ defense is a 2-3 year rebuild. By the time the unit is functional again, there is a very good chance that they have replaced 2/4 starters on the defensive line, all of the linebackers, the nickel corner and their number one corner (Xavien Howard-pending).
The best thing for the Dolphins to do while the defense is rebuilding would be to simply keep them off of the field for as long as possible. Think back to Dallas; the Cowboys are having success by hiding their defense. The offense chews up huge chunks of the clock, thanks to the ground game.
If the Miami Dolphins can rebuild their rushing attack, it will allow them to improve time of possession, third down percentage and the ease of load for the passing attack. It will also allow Adam Gase to get back to the offensive strategy he used to engineer one of the NFL’s most efficient third down offenses, built with the Bears’ running backs as the foundation.
Moral of the story? If you’re a Dolphins fan, you’ll want to muster up some patience as the team enters the great unknown of working with a roster that is, for lack of an appropriate (non-four letter) word, broken.
Oh, and blame John Elway.