The Miami Dolphins are better than you think
There are plenty of ways you can discount the Miami Dolphins’ 3–0 start to the 2018 season.
- They haven’t scored 30 points a single time this season.
- They’ve played two of their first three games at home, bringing two teams into the stifling heat and humidity of Miami in September.
- Two of the three wins they’ve had so far are against teams who very likely won’t make the playoffs this year.
- The Dolphins don’t have a single player in the top 20 in passing yards, rushing yards, nor receiving yards.
- Three different quarterbacks have more rushing yards than any of Miami’s running backs.
- Seven different tight ends have more receiving yards than Miami’s top wide receiver (Kenny Stills).
But while the media fawns over juicy talking points and the fans fawn over fantasy football stats, the only thing that matters in the NFL is wins or losses.
And the bottom line is, Miami has three of the former and zero of the latter. They can’t control the fact that their first opponent’s quarterback situation is a disaster, their second opponent was starting a rookie quarterback, and their third opponent’s coaching and personnel management situation is a disaster. If you’re playing lousy teams, your job as an NFL team is to “take care of business” — and that’s exactly what Miami has done so far.
Regardless of how you feel about their early-season strength of schedule, it’s worth noticing that interesting things are happening in South Florida.
Mounting a defense
For a team that’s coached by Adam Gase, who was seen as a rising star in the coaching ranks because of his track record of productive offenses, it’s Miami’s defense that’s been the real key to their 3–0 start.
The Dolphins are among the top seven in rushing defense and passing defense DVOA through three weeks. As pointed out by Robert Mays & Kevin Clark of TheRinger NFL podcast, there’s a sense of “Ewing Theory” to Miami’s defense, now that they’ve jettisoned the high-priced-but-underachieving Ndamukong Suh; in an ironic twist, all six of Miami’s six sacks this season have come from members of the defensive line. The rotation of Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor (Miami’s 5th and 6th round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft) plus Akeem Spence (whom Miami acquired off Detroit’s scrap heap for a 7th round pick) have more than capably filled Suh’s old spot.
At linebacker, Kiko Alonso — who was something of a throw-in piece in the 2016 trade between the Dolphins and the Philadelphia Eagles — is second in the NFL in tackles right now, after finishing 14th in the league in the same category last year. He’s also the leader of a young and athletic linebackers group that features former Ohio State Buckeyes like Raekwon McMillan (Miami’s 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and Jerome Baker (their 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft).
With all of that said, Miami’s biggest strength might be found in its secondary. Reshad Jones is one of the top safeties in the NFL that nobody really talks about. He led the league in total (128) and solo (94) tackles by a safety in 2017, while intercepting two passes and recovering three fumbles. Miami handed free safety T.J. McDonald — the son of former NFL great Tim McDonald — a contract extension this past offseason, as they love what he’s growing into as a free safety, opposite of Jones.
And saving the best for last: you can legitimately make the argument that Miami has the best group of cornerbacks in the AFC, this side of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Cornerback Xavien Howard has gone from an athletic-but-unpolished prospect out of Baylor University to a rising star in the NFL. He’s currently tied for the league lead with three interceptions through three games, and has six interceptions. Miami was comfortable shifting fourth-year cornerback Bobby McCain to the other cornerback spot outside of Howard because of his experience and versatility, and it’s worked out. And the icing on the cake is rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick, an off-the-charts talented, culture-changing, “five-tool” defensive back who egregiously dropped outside of the top 10 picks in this past NFL Draft.
(Side note: five years from now, we’re going to be looking back at the 2018 NFL Draft and incredulously asking ourselves how EVERYONE with a top 10 pick decided it’d be a good idea to pass on Fitzpatrick and safety Derwin James).
Swimming to a postseason berth?
But you (still) have every right to still remain skeptical. After all, over the past five years, one-third of the teams that started out 3–0 still missed the playoffs. And the Dolphins are still playing in a division with the New England Patriots, who’ve basically owned the AFC East since 2001. New England has won the AFC East 15 times over the past 17 years, and is riding a streak of nine-straight division championships.
Yes, Miami’s match-up on Sunday against the Patriots — in New England — is perhaps the team’s biggest test in the Gase regime. Beating the Patriots would give Miami an early three-game lead over them in the AFC East standings; although, history has proven that the worst time to ever play the Patriots is when their pride is wounded and the media scribes fire up the “New England’s dynasty is over” story lines.
But there’s still very much a path to Miami making the playoffs this season, even if it doesn’t come via an AFC East division crown. According to Football Outsiders, Miami has the easiest strength of schedule over their remaining 13 games of the season, and the second-easiest strength of schedule when weighted against preseason expectations.
In general, it’s still way too early to start talking about which teams will be playing in the postseason. For all intents and purposes, September is still a glorified version of the preseason, as teams are still building cohesion with themselves and their schemes, given the ever-decreasing amount of time they’re able to practice in the summer and training camp.
But with New England being the division’s kingpin, Buffalo coming off their first playoff appearance in 17 years, and the New York Jets finally having a savior at the quarterback position, it’s time we give the Miami Dolphins — who’ve become something of an NFL outpost since Dan Marino hung it up almost two decades ago — their moment in the spotlight.
Week 4 picks
Minnesota at LA Rams (-7) — pick made prior to the game
Miami at New England (-7)
Houston at Indianapolis (-1.5)
Cincinnati at Atlanta (-5.5)
Buffalo at Green Bay (-10)
Detroit at Dallas (-3)
NY Jets at Jacksonville (-7.5)
Tampa Bay at Chicago (-3)
Philadelphia (-4) at Tennessee
Seattle (-3) at Arizona
Cleveland at Oakland (-3)
San Francisco at LA Chargers (-10.5)
New Orleans at NY Giants (-3.5)
Baltimore at Pittsburgh (-3)
Kansas City (-4.5) at Denver
Last Week: 4–12
Season To Date: 20–27–1