DAVIE, Fla. — There is no mystery about what awaits the Miami Dolphins following their first playoff appearance in eight years. There will be more doubters who will view them as one-hit wonders, more skeptics who will predict their demise under the weight of a tougher schedule and more naysayers who will scrutinize their overall flaws. It comes with the territory of ascending when nobody really sees you coming. It’s also a reality that Miami couldn’t care less about this offseason.
The first thing to know about these Dolphins is this: Head coach Adam Gase expected them to be a playoff team when he arrived last January. Now, here’s the second thing to understand: Gase is thoroughly convinced that this year’s group is legitimate enough to reach the postseason again. He can see that in the maturity they displayed in 2016 — when they overcame a 1-4 start to finish 10-6 — and he can sense it in the exuberance they’ve displayed during offseason workouts. As much as the Dolphins love the game of football, they clearly love being around each other even more.
It’s that chemistry that propelled Miami to its best season in over a decade. It also might be enough to keep the Dolphins competitive in a division that the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots have controlled for most of the last 16 years.
“We’re trying to put last year behind us while also learning from it,” Gase said. “We learned a lot about guys because almost every game came down to the fourth quarter and we had to make plays. People can call it luck, but there’s no such thing. You create your own luck. We found out when it gets tight, who will step up. And we had a lot of guys with no experience step up and make plays. When we get into difficult times, my confidence will be up.”
Gase is referring to the fact that Miami won eight games by seven points or less. Even with the Dolphins playing a last-place schedule, those types of numbers do speak to the mental toughness he instilled in a relatively short time. He’s also well aware of the main reasons why the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated them in a 30-12 AFC wild-card loss. As good as the Dolphins were in the clutch, they also made the kind of mistakes that can keep a young, talented team from reaching its full potential.
This explains the amount of time Gase and his staff have devoted this offseason to showing players how seemingly small errors can have a profound impact in big games. In that loss to Pittsburgh alone, two blown assignments cost them a shot at a possible 14 points.
“We’ve really been focusing on attention to details,” Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills said. “We looked at a lot of the mistakes we made last year, and we realized that sometimes you have to be put in a certain positon to learn from a mistake. We did a really good job of going through the mistakes we made last season and correcting them. We’ve made a big emphasis on the idea that (one) person’s mistake is everyone’s mistake.”
The most obvious area where the Dolphins need to improve is on defense. They fielded a unit that ranked 29th in the NFL in total yards allowed (a franchise-record 6,122 yards) and 30th in rushing yards allowed (140.4 per game). Those numbers are even more disturbing when considering the schedule Miami faces after finishing second in the AFC East. Of the 16 games they’ll play this coming season, eight will involve teams that finished in the top 10 in scoring last season (including the three most potent offenses in the league last season: Atlanta, New Orleans and New England).
Gase believes the Dolphins will have more talent to help offset these issues, including the signing of free-agent linebacker Lawrence Timmons and the use of a second-round pick this year on linebacker Raekwon McMillan. They also return safety Reshad Jones, who missed 11 games with a season-ending shoulder injury after making the Pro Bowl in 2015. Just as important is the comfort level the Dolphins will have with a defense that now is being run by former linebackers coach Matt Burke after last year’s coordinator, Vance Joseph, was hired as the Denver Broncos head coach. Gase specifically wanted Burke on his staff last season to avoid any lack of cohesion if Joseph moved on to a better opportunity.
That seamless transition gives Gase the confidence to think his defensive players will play faster and with fewer mental errors. He also believes an offense that struggled in its own right needs to do more. The Dolphins only converted 36.7 percent of their third-down opportunities in 2016, and they also ranked 24th in the league in total yards. The way Gase sees it, a little more balance will go a long way toward making that defense look much better.
Said Gase: “It goes hand in hand. Our defense was trying to keep us alive when we weren’t doing anything on offense early. We had the least amount of plays in the league (last year). This year, if we can keep more of a balance between offensive and defensive plays, I do think our defense gets better. We’ve added experience, but we’ve also added guys who are ball hawks, like getting Reshad back.”
The one thing Gase doesn’t have to fret about is the Dolphins‘ culture. It took him all of one year to turn a middling franchise into one that believes it can win any game, regardless of the circumstances. Gase acknowledged that it feels like “10 years went by in one season,” but this team is clearly energized in ways it hasn’t been in a long time. That was evident in the way the players were competing and celebrating big plays on what is the last work week of the offseason. That’s not something that is lost on the veterans.
“It’s hard to get an idea of what was going on last year because it was so much so fast, and it was our first year with this coach,” Stills said. “Now we’re learning so much and we’re playing so much faster that it feels like a professional team. There were times last year when we’d go through little details and guys wouldn’t know their assignments and you would be wondering what’s going on. We’d have days when you didn’t really feel like a professional. Now we’ve set a standard and we keep raising that bar every day.”
That is the best evidence Dolphins fans can hear about the direction this team is heading. It’s taken a while for Miami to return to relevancy because, as Gase admitted, “You get forgotten in the AFC East with everything New England has been doing for so long.” That fact isn’t going to be an issue for the Dolphins as they head into this coming season. If anything, there will be more eyes on them than they’ve encountered in an extremely long time.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.