Gase’s Barometer: How Notable Head Coaches Fared In Their First Playoff Game

Ahead of the Dolphins’ first taste of playoff action in eight years this can’t be stressed enough: Despite whatever happens at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon, this season has been an overwhelming success. Adam Gase took over a team that looked set to wander into the cold football wilderness nearly a year ago. To be exact, on January 9, 2016 the Miami Dolphins announced Gase as the franchise’s 12th head coach. Now, a little under a year later and he’s prepping his team for their postseason matchup against the

Adam Gase Photo.jpg

(Photo: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Pittsburgh Steelers. However, if the story of this remarkable Dolphins’ turnaround were to be looked at through black and white lens it wouldn’t be doing it justice.

The fact of the matter is Gase’s men did indeed wander into the cold NFL wilderness. Whenever you hear Gase mentioned in Coach of the Year talk the Dolphins’ turnaround after the 1-4 start seems to always come up as a topic of conservation. That’s because while other teams have rescued all but lost seasons, the way Adam Gase was able to propel his team with this current roster of players is in a way, unprecedented.

If the Dolphins suffer a lopsided loss in Pittsburgh—some will be sure to dismiss Gase’s seismic success as a rookie head coach. While a head coach’s first playoff game is a milestone just like it would be for a player, there is a tendency to put too much into a single game. Win or lose on Sunday, the final score shouldn’t be used as a great indictment on Gase’s overall success this season.

What I mean is this: outside of Miami making a deep run in the playoffs (which is unlikely), whatever the result is on Sunday won’t change Gase’s most notable triumph in the 2016 season: turning the Dolphins around. History also seems to back the suggestion that Sunday shouldn’t be some sort of barometer on the Dolphins’ head coach’s first year success. Some of the most decorated coaches, both past and present, didn’t necessarily ace their first playoff cameo. History also shows some coaches who aced their first postseason showing weren’t all their debut playoff win cracked them up to be.

Let’s start off with Adam Gase’s counterpart come Sunday, Mike Tomlin. The Steelers’ head coach took over the helm in 2007. In the same year, he took his franchise to

Mike Tomlin.jpg

(Photo: USA Today)

the playoffs only to be beaten at home by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Handing Pittsburgh another home playoff loss is Miami’s main goal this weekend. In Tomlin’s playoff debut the issue was turnovers. However, as the road team, the Dolphins taking care of the ball is even more imperative. If the ‘Phins are to have any shot in advancing to the divisional round, they will need to take care of the football and hope Ben Roethlisberger struggles like he did against the Jaguars in the 2007 Wild Card Round. The Steelers’ signal caller threw three interceptions in the forgettable 31-29 loss to Jacksonville.

While Tomlin indeed lost in his playoff debut, he helps prove how insignificant the result truly could turn out to be in the grand scheme of things. The following year, his Steelers went on to win the Lombardi Trophy. The general consensus is that these Dolphins are finally on the right path, but a year still seems like a bit of a stretch in terms of becoming a perennial Super Bowl contender. It should be noted that the team Tomlin took over hadn’t been too far-gone from the promise land; the Steelers were coming off their Super Bowl XL win under Bill Cowher.

If the Dolphins manage to pull off the upset at Heinz Field, Gase will be pitted up against Bill Belichick for the third time this season; in the first two meetings Belichick’s team handled Gase’s team with relative ease. In Belichick’s case, his playoff debut foreshadowed a successful career for the head coach (boy was it ever). While Belichick didn’t reach the postseason until 1994, his 4th year as the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, he beat none other than the New England Patriots in his playoff debut by the score of 20-13.

Two trends that were very noticeable while researching the success of notable coaches in their playoff debuts were how success seemed to follow suit with winning the turnover margin and the ability to effectively run the football.

For instance, in Bill Belichick’s first playoff win, his Browns rushed the ball 34 times for a total of 125 yards as well as a touchdown. Meanwhile, the Patriots rushed the ball 16 times for only 57 yards. Not to mention, the Browns were a plus two in the turnover margin.

The last time the Dolphins were in the playoffs it seemed they had found the answer at head coach with Tony Sparano. While the 2008 rendition of the Miami Dolphins was truly built on a gimmick (the wildcat), many chose to overlook questions regarding the newfound success because Sparano had found a way to win games and reach the playoffs as the AFC East winner. Sparano and his Dolphins were in for a rude awakening against another rookie head coach and his formidable squad: John Harbaugh and the Ravens.

Not only did Baltimore pick off then Miami quarterback Chad Pennington four times, but they also literally ran rampant against the Dolphins. The Ravens ran for 151 yards on 35 carries and a couple of scores. The Dolphins’ wildcat was rendered useless in a forgettable January afternoon in South Florida; Miami lost by a final score of 27-9.

In no way am I alluding we should still be on the fence about the legitimacy of what Adam Gase has accomplished. This franchise turnaround is real and it’s tangible. While you could say the magic from the 2008 season was tangible because it happened it didn’t feel sustainable; at least not as sustainable as this success feels under Gase.

Don Shula #2.jpg

(Photo: SI)

Even the Dolphins’ legendary head coach, Don Shula, lost his first playoff game. Shula’s first taste of the postseason came in his second year as the head coach of the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL season. The Colts were shutout by a score of 27-0 against the Cleveland Browns in the championship round. Even all the way back in 1964, turnovers remained the main issue; Shula’s Colts were a minus three in the turnover margin. What also didn’t help was a fellow by the name of Jim Brown who ran for over 100 yards, while the Colts failed to reach the century mark on 25 team carries.

Come late Sunday afternoon, win or lose, the conservation is sure to be had by local media, fans and maybe even pundits that pertain to the national media. What does this result mean for Adam Gase and the Dolphins? The answer should be simple yet (for some) most likely confusing: Nothing. Miami’s rookie head coach has already proven everything he needed to prove in year one. Gase has shown he can respond well in the face of adversity, get his players to believe in what he preaches and, most importantly adjust to what the game presents and to what his players feel the most comfortable with.

If Adam Gase finds a way to give any more this season it’s simply the cherry on top of the Dolphins’ already tasty sundae.

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