Learning Experiences: Legendary Coaches’ Early Struggles Predict a Tough Month for Adam Gase
The NFL is a conclusion-driven league.
Each season, months of blood, sweat and, more often than I’m sure some would like to admit, tears go into making the shortest regular season in professional sports count. Teams have 16 games to prove that they deserve a chance to play just a few more; sometimes deserving it isn’t even enough.
With such a skewed ratio of preparation to actual game opportunites, there is immense pressure to scrutinize each game and attempt to draw takeaways from a team’s performance. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? How can you stop it from going wrong again?
The issue doesn’t lie with the fact that teams undertake this type of post-game dismantling. It’s a problem that fans feel the same pressure to do so week in and week out.
On Sunday, the Dolphins fell by a score of 38-6 to the Ravens, snapping a completely unexpected six-game winning streak. When the team faltered, fans and media members rightfully asked why. It’s a totally reasonable practice, to an extent.
To an extent.
Last offseason, when the Dolphins made their decision to hire 38-year-old head coach Adam Gase, the team knew that this type of moment would occur.
Coaching in the NFL is like any other job – there is a clear expectation that a learning curve will be involved. Around the league, games like the Dolphins’ on Sunday can be chalked up to a learning experience for the game’s youngest head coach.
Fans might believe that the six-game winning streak indicated that Adam Gase understood what he needed to do, arriving almost instantaneously at a point where he can lead a team with a somewhat mediocre roster to consistent victories. However, it’s important to clarify a few things.
First, Adam Gase has always understood what he needs to do.
Second, he started to figure out part of what is required to do it.
Even more prevalent than the need for instant analysis in the football community is the need for sweeping analysis.
After Sunday’s performance, questions were raised about how real the Dolphins’ turnaround truly was. Is Ryan Tannehill coming back down to earth? Is the offensive line really not as good as they appeared to be in Weeks 6-13? Can Vance Joseph coach the team’s defense?
The assumption from those looking for definitive answers in Sunday’s game seem to fail to recognize that there is a point of evaluation in between “they’ll never lose again” “it’s the same team from earlier in the year.”
However, if you try to participate in evaluation that only lands on one of the extreme ends of the spectrum, you’ll almost never be right.
As I wrote earlier, the Dolphins knew what they were getting into when they hired Gase. Young coaches require time to learn how to handle different situations as a head coach. On Sunday, Adam Gase faced one of the league’s most well-respected and experienced coaching staffs, and it showed. They were outclassed by Baltimore both in scheme and execution.
Frankly, the Dolphins didn’t look ready to play December football.
However, a head coach’s first-year results are far from definitive about what they’ll be able to do as they gain experience and knowledge.
In 1963, a 33-year-old rookie head coach named Don Shula was hired to lead the Baltimore Colts. In Shula’s first year, the team reached a critical juncture at which point they were 3-3 coming off of back-to-back wins. At a key point in the season, how did the future-winningest coach in NFL history respond to crawling back into the hunt?
They lost three of their next four games.
Bill Belichick, named the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 1991 at the age of 39, entered Week 10 of his debut season with a 4-4 record. What did his team do in the remaining eight games?
The ’91 Browns lost six of their last eight games to finish the season 6-10.
Bill Belichick’s second season as a head coach had an even more horrifying ending; his team entered Week 15 with a 7-6 record, primed for a playoff push. However, they dropped their last three games (two of which they lost by double-digits) to end up 7-9.
Belichick actually has a somewhat similar background to Gase; while Shula played professional football and was seen as a sideline-motivator, Belichick only played at the small-college level and was seen as an X’s and O’s guru.
Belichick’s reputation grew as the defensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants, helping run the defense in which Lawrence Taylor thrived. Gase’s reputation was similar on the opposite side of the ball, working with a world-class player (hint: he’s one of the greatest QBs to ever play football, and has a really big forehead) to help maximize the athlete’s ability.
Another coach who had a reputation of schematic brilliance was Chuck Noll. While Noll did play, he grew his name as the defensive coordinator of a Chargers team that appeared in five AFL Championship Games.
When he got the call to become a head coach at the age of 37, Noll headed east to take the reins of a then-notoriously inept franchise: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Noll’s record in his first three seasons was a combined 12-30. During the 1971 season, his team followed a similar path to Belichick’s second-year squad.
Noll’s Steelers entered Week 11 with a 5-5 record and, much like Belichick and Shula’s early teams, a shot to end the season strong. However, the Steelers dropped three of their last four and finished 6-8.
The basic point I’m trying to convey is that the rookie season of an NFL coach should not be judged by the sum of its parts, AKA the team’s final record. It should be judged based on those individual elements of a season that tell a coach what they need to do better and what they’re already doing right.
Regardless of what happens over the next month, Adam Gase’s rookie season will go down as a success in terms of learning.
In Weeks 1 and 2, he learned how to deal with as difficult an opening stretch of schedule as one could be given.
From Weeks 3-5, he learned what a truly inept football team looks like.
In Week 6, he learned how to take a team that looked hopeless and show them that the season isn’t over (even if it does cost subpar players their jobs).
He learned how to take a team to the West Coast. He learned how to keep a team on the West Coast. He learned how to win ugly. He learned how to win when it looks like you’re going to win. He learned how to keep a sideline engaged and work with his players to produce two game-winning drives to climb back from a 10-0 deficit.
Last Sunday, Adam Gase learned what it takes to win a huge pre-playoff matchup on the road in the month of December. He also learned that his team didn’t do what it takes to win that game.
What separates good football minds from good coaches? Adjustments.
In Week 16, Adam Gase will have another shot to lead his team into a situation that is similar to the one they faced in Baltimore. When Gase & Co. prepare to face the Bills in freezing upstate New York, a playoff spot could be on the line.
It will be on Adam Gase to show that he and his staff learned from their experience in Week 13 and can put up a fight at New Era Field.
However, it isn’t worth harping on the fact that the Dolphins couldn’t get it done in Baltimore. During a head coach’s premiere season, especially a coach as young as Adam Gase, everything becomes a learning experience. You want these moments for a young team and staff that need to see what it takes to play against the NFL’s best teams when it matters the most.
NFL teams don’t hire a 38-year-old with no head coaching experience and expect flawless results instantly. If there were an exceptional candidate with years of experience and a proven record, they’d already be with a team. If you value instant results over the potential long-term benefit of hiring a promising young option, you could end up with a Jeff Fisher.
Mistakes will be made. Mistakes have been made. What matters is how Adam Gase handles and learns from those mistakes. We’ll all get a strong indication of how that is in Week 16 in the tundra of upstate New York.