Pushed to the Playoffs: Ranking the Reasons for the Dolphins’ 2016 Turnaround

In a sports world that is, at its core, obsessively drawn to rankings, most hierarchies are pieced together in groups of five. So, you might be wondering why this list has been assembled to rank the six reasons for Miami’s turnaround in 2016.

When the NFL’s schedule was released, I predicted that the Dolphins would go 6-10 on the season.

In the early weeks of this year’s campaign, it looked like I would be close to correct. The team’s potential had them sticking with the Seahawks and Patriots, but falling short against competition of a higher pedigree. Then, a near-loss to the Browns followed by tough defeats at the hands of Cincinnati and Tennessee showed that I was clearly wrong about 6-10.

At that time, it looked like it could be much worse.

Then, against the Steelers in Week 6, the team finally showed the ability to capitalize on their potential and greatly overachieve compared to any expectations for 2016. After a long journey, the Dolphins have now (mostly) solidified their position heading into Week 17 and should have one eye on the postseason.

Resilience, focus and talent all made the season possible, but what specifically is to thank for Miami’s stretch of nine wins in ten games? To celebrate the mistake of a 6-10 prediction, here are the six reasons that the Dolphins were able to finally push their way into the postseason.

6) Luck:

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Every NFL team has to get lucky. Nobody wins 10-11 games purely on skill or purely on preparation – it just comes down to which way the (strangely shaped, wildly unpredictable) ball bounces.

Strokes of good fortune can be seen dating back to the team’s first win – Cody Parkey’s field goal would have dropped Miami to 0-3, but his miss gave the Dolphins a chance (which they capitalized on) to win the game. Leading into their game against Buffalo, the Dolphins’ couldn’t have been upset to hear of LeSean McCoy’s injury in practice, which kept him at 50% (generously) for the team’s meeting.

Against the Jets, luck combined with skill to create Kenyan Drake’s kickoff-return touchdown. How often does a team get a chance to run in a second kick after having a special-teams TD called back earlier (as Miami had with Jakeem Grant’s non-return)?

On the West Coast, the Dolphins faced Philip Rivers in a week when the Chargers’ QB tossed 4 INTs. Each year since 2011, Rivers has had at least one game with 3+ INTs. Fortunately for the ‘Phins, 2016’s came against them.

Then Miami was able to face two fledgling squads, but in games that ended up much closer than they should have. Jared Goff was unable to produce anything on offense late, contributing to the amount of time Ryan Tannehill had to work with on his two game-winning drives. The following week, Colin Kaepernick came inches away from bringing the 49ers back from a huge deficit.

In Week 16, the Dolphins benefitted from Dan Carpenter’s two critical missed field goals, Charles Clay’s failure to get his feet down on a fairly routine play in the end zone and finally Rex Ryan’s negligence that led to Jay Ajayi facing only 10 defenders on his 57-yard OT run.

Luck is far from the only reason that the Dolphins have been able to win, and there’s no shame in having some things turn your way by chance during a season. However, some positive breaks have played a role in where the team currently sits, holding a ticket to the postseason dance.

5) Cameron Wake: 

Usually, discussion for how a team would fare without any given player comes down to extrapolation; rarely is an opportunity presented to have direct contrast between a unit without that one individual contributor while the other 10 men remain the same. However, the first five weeks of 2016 provide a chance to look at what the Dolphins’ defense was with Cameron Wake on the field for limited snaps.

Recap: It wasn’t good.

In Weeks 1-5, the Dolphins were atrocious. The defense couldn’t make plays, and the lack of a pass rush made exploiting the team’s undermanned secondary an easy task.

Starting Cameron Wake, and playing him for a majority of reps, was a turning point for Miami’s defensive front. In addition to the four sacks that Wake has had called back due to penalties, he has gotten to the passer for 11.5 takedowns in the backfield this season, 10.5 of which have come since Week 5.

Great Play - Cam Wake Sack 1.gif

Wake’s return is a huge part of the story that will be told about this Dolphins team; recovering from a torn Achilles at age 34 to return in under a year, and in his current form, is somewhat unheard of, even with the freak athletes that grace the NFL.

Another contrast was provided for Miami’s defense on Sunday against the Bills. According to PFF, Wake earned his lowest grade of the season, which most could have guessed given the fact that he was a nonfactor in the second half. In that second half, the Bills’ offense was able to pick apart Miami’s D, finding lanes for passing and rushing.

Not only does Week 16 highlight the difference between the Dolphins’ defense with and without wake, but you can also see the contrast clearly from the team’s performance on that side of the ball early in the year compared to how they have fared since Week 6.

4) Vance Joseph: 

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(Al Diaz/AP Photo)

Wake’s lack of reps in Weeks 1-5 wasn’t the only reason that Miami’s defense was struggling; the unit was genuinely playing terrible football at that time.

Opponents were ripping off yardage with ease, showing an ability to simply recycle calls from Miami’s previous foe to exploit a seemingly unprepared group. They were making the same mistakes week in and week out, and it looked like predictions of a historically poor performance from the unit could have been accurate.

Maybe it just took time to settle into the system; maybe it really was just Cameron Wake, and the pass rush, returning to form; maybe Joseph had a revelation about changes necessary to find success. Regardless of what happened, the turnaround has been obvious in South Florida defensively.

Vance Joseph’s unit has established an identity as a group capable of coming up with big plays in perfect moments. Joseph puts players in the right position to make monumental moments out of ordinary plays, compensating for the lack of snap-to-snap talent within the ground.

Great play Xavien - Uses length to make up for distance.gif

Joseph’s background as a former-DBs coach has been more evident in the later portion of the season. Byron Maxwell has been one of the league’s most consistent corners statistically, and Tony Lippett has regular growth and improvements in key areas of his game. On top of that, Joseph has been able to get his unit ready to play with Xavien Howard starting, preparing the rookie to take substantial reps with just a few weeks of actual NFL experience.

The thought process in assembling Miami’s defense is now clear: If a pass rush can be established up front, then Vance Joseph’s coaching history could allow him to get the Dolphins’ defensive backs to a point where they can survive as long as Wake, Suh & Co. are getting to their marks.

Andre Branch, Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and the rest of Miami’s rotation up front have been stellar (probably thanks in part to Jim Washburn’s coaching), but none of the team’s turnaround would be possible without the improvements Joseph helped instill in the Dolphins’ defense.

3) The Trade With Philly & Tunsil’s Tumble:

Great Play - Kiko Pick 6.gif

Heading into the draft, the Dolphins had unfilled needs at inside linebacker, cornerback and guard. Realistically, only two rounds will contain players that you can bank on as instant starters who could hold their own in major roles. Anything else (the Dak Prescotts of the world) are pleasant surprises.

Before the selections were underway in Chicago, the Dolphins made a highly controversial trade to acquire two players who they felt could contribute in the defense. Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso were brought on board in exchange for the 8th overall pick. Philly, sending the 13th overall pick, felt that Miami’s spot would allow them to grab a high-level player and gave them a chance to offload assets they didn’t need.

Maxwell’s contract and Alonso’s injury history made both players huge gambles. However, they were gambles that the Dolphins were willing to take based on the sheer numbers game of trying to fill all of their roster’s holes with a limited number of picks.

Vance Joseph helped turn Maxwell into a highly effective corner within the system (not a shutdown option, but a reliable player in the confines of what he is asked to do). He also has designed a system that allows Kiko Alonso to minimize his vulnerability in coverage, while affording him the luxury of being able to come up and make big plays.

So, one would think that regardless of how the draft turned out that this trade was a victory, right? At the end of the day, the rich just ended up getting richer.

Great Play - Laremy Powers Through.gif

Laremy Tunsil, a client of an agent who happens to represent Adam Gase, Ndamukong Suh and Mike Tannenbaum, fell due to sabotage on his social media accounts, as videos of him smoking marijuana from a gas-mask bong were released. The Dolphins, given their research on Tunsil, familiarly with his agent Jimmy Sexton and need on the offensive line, pounced on a chance to take arguably the draft’s best prospect.

Tunsil became a plug-and-play starter at a key position for the Dolphins and has been an enormous asset in his ability to pay left tackle in addition to left guard in wake of injuries that have held Branden Albert out for stretches of the year.

Injuries have hurt Tunsil’s performance of late, but he showed enough this season to prove that the Dolphins were very fortunate to get a chance to select a linemen who appears on his way to becoming a cornerstone at the position for a long, long time.

2) Jay Ajayi:

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Not much needs to be said about this choice.

The Dolphins’ running game had been lackluster if not nonexistent since Reggie Bush’s 1,000-yard season. Lamar Miller was never able to get anything going due to issues with the coaching staff, and at times it felt as if the team’s only hope to gain a first down on the ground was if Ryan Tannehill were to scramble.

Early in 2016, Jay Ajayi’s progress hit a wall when he was left behind on the team’s trip to Seattle. His stint in the coaching staff’s dog house didn’t last long once they realized just what their newest weapon is capable of.

Ajayi’s greatest asset this season has been his unique combination of balance, quickness and power. He doesn’t get caught by tacklers behind the line, and he always manages to stay on his feet when running into traffic. In addition to this, when Ajayi is bottled up, he still manages to use the aforementioned combination of quickness and power to push forward for at least a marginal gain.

In Week 16, Jay Ajayi gained an unbelievable 132 yards after contact. This meant that well over half of his 206 yards came after he was touched by a defender. Pro Football Focus has Ajayi currently graded as 2016’s best running back. (Yes, over Ezekiel Elliott.)

In Week 13 against San Francisco, he had another stat line from Pro Football Focus that would make any coach happy. Of Ajayi’s 61 yards against the 49ers, 59 of them came after contact.

Ajayi doesn’t have the offensive line of a runner like Ezekiel Elliott, and he doesn’t have the passing game to divert defenses like Le’Veon Bell. However, he is establishing himself as one of the NFL’s best runners after contact, which is of incredible valuable to an offense. If you’re able to produce despite adverse circumstances, it proves a reliable option regardless of the situation.

The Dolphins have lacked options with that type of consistency in the running game, and so far the three time AFC Offensive Player of the Week and 1,200+ yard rusher has showed that he won’t just be a passing fad in Miami.

Count on Jay Ajayi becoming a cornerstone of the Dolphins’ offense for at least the next three years. 

1) Adam Gase: 

Was there really any doubt?

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There isn’t much that can be said about Adam Gase at this point that hasn’t been said. His X’s and O’s prowess has become evident to anyone who watches the Dolphins, a team that has managed to turn the corner and rank first in 40-yard plays (tied with Atlanta).

In addition to Gase’s offensive prowess, he has proven to be an effective leader. When the Dolphins faced a 1-4 record after hideous performances against the Titans and Bengals, Adam Gase was able to rally the troops. They did not focus on the past, but instead completed the immensely difficult task of tuning out the noise and working their way back week-by-week.

Think about this: The Dolphins spent an entire month climbing their way back to a winning record. Adam Gase was able to keep the players fully engaged and avoid hiccups as the team climbed back, eventually surpassing 0.500 and reaching 7-5 before a loss to Baltimore.

The Dolphins have also proven to be a strong team late in games thanks to the adjustments made by Gase and his staff. The Dolphins rarely play their best football in the first quarter; once Adam Gase is able to survey the opponent and reach a conclusion as to how he can best attack the defense, he puts his team in the best possible situation in the later (more important) stages of the contest.

Gase has also been able to help the Dolphins pull contributors out of the woodwork. Kenyan Drake, Damien Williams, MarQueis Gray and Dion Sims have all proved to be incredibly important pieces of the Dolphins’ run. Lesser-known players like that don’t find themselves in position to make plays without an intuitive game plan from the coach, and a high level of accountability within the building that keeps them ready to play.

Reestablishing the culture in Miami, through cutting several offensive linemen after the loss to Tennessee and through benching Jay Ajayi for Week 1, helped Gase earn the respect of the locker room. With that respect, he hasn’t ruled with an iron fist. He also isn’t going to be a full-on players’ coach. Gase has found a healthy balance between being able to relate to players while still commanding that they perform at the highest possible level.

So far, it looks like the Dolphins have found a man who can lead the franchise back to where it belongs amongst the NFL’s competitive upper echelon. After overachieving in the most dramatic way possible as a rookie head coach, the future couldn’t be more exciting with Adam Gase at the helm in South Florida.

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