No team was hotter than the Dolphins leaving November for December with a five-game winning streak, a share of first place in the AFC East, holding a tie-breaking edge over Buffalo, and a quarterback coming off three straight three-touchdown, no interception outings.
They were 8-3 overall and, more impressively, 8-1 when Tua Tagovailoa was dishing the football to playmakers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. With Tua an emerging MVP contender, brainy and quirky head coach Mike McDaniel was a leading candidate for Coach of the Year.
Things were so good the offseason stench of tampering and allegations of tanking and discrimination disappeared from public senses, as if carried away by a cool ocean breeze. A month later, much in Miami has changed.
Once blazing, the Dolphins are losers of four in a row. Tua is in concussion protocol for the second time since October, as Teddy Bridgewater preps to start Sunday in Foxborough. And McDaniel is exactly where fired predecessor Brian Flores was this time last year; entering the New Year with an 8-7 record. Only, in McDaniel’s case, he’s doing it with a pricier, more star-studded roster.
Playoff prospects that recently burned bright are still aglow, but reduced to embers in December’s final days. Their aqua and orange light is dimmed by recent defeats, doubts over Tua’s future — near and long term — and defensive adjustments by opponents who’ve learned to take the ‘in-between’ out of Miami’s offense.
No mistaking, the Fins are explosive. Namely Waddle and Hill, the league’s lone tandem of teammates to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards apiece.
Waddle, whose 18.8 yards a reception lead the league, can catch a 10 1/2-yard crosser, flip his hips and accelerate from zero to 21.68 miles per hour (per NextGen Stats) in an 84-yard instant, as he did Sunday vs. Green Bay.
Hill, the aptly nicknamed “Cheetah,” is capable of running through and past a secondary to wait on a long lob covering half a field to come his way. His 52-yard grab against the Packers was the seventh catch of 50-plus yards he and Waddle have combined to make in their 15 games together.
They’ve also totaled 13 100-yard performances. Each had one on Christmas Day. Waddle’s five catches gained 143 yards. Hill’s four receptions netted 103 yards. That’s an average of 27.3 yards per completion to them, and a big reason Miami picked up 8.4 yards a play overall.
The catch for the Fish, however, is that they did little else.
During the final 32 minutes, the Dolphins lost a fumble, missed a field goal and gave up three interceptions. Twenty-two second-half plays amounted to 100 net yards and no points. Thus, they lost, 26-20.
Miami’s recent slide began with a Week 13 defeat at San Francisco, where McDaniel dialed up a 75-yard TD pass from Tagovailoa to ex-49er Trent Sherfield on the first play from scrimmage. The quick lead didn’t last, as Nick Bosa added to his reputation as the likely defensive player of the year with three sacks and the legend of Brock Purdy, relieving an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, was born.
Save for another long touchdown pass to Hill, Tua mostly struggled, playing 3,000 miles from home and facing one of the NFC’s best teams with one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses. A reality check, for sure. But hardly cause for season-altering concern.
The following week in Los Angeles was another matter. At 6-6 going in, the Chargers were without a half dozen defensive starters, leading oddsmakers to make them a home underdog by more than a field goal.
Instead of being passive, the Bolts got aggressive, employing press coverage on roughly a third of their defensive snaps.
“When you let fast guys run down the field — with as fast as they are — and you let them run through zones with no one around, then it’s going to turn into a track meet,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley explained. “Guess what, you’re not as fast as they are. No one is. That’s why you see them do to people what they do because they’re really, really good. If you want a chance, you have to get closer to them.”
The Chargers also dropped intermediate defenders deeper than usual into passing lanes. Typically, Tagovailoa is a ‘ball’s-out-immediately,’ anticipation thrower. He throws to where he anticipates his receivers will be and, as importantly, where defenders won’t be.
But opposite LA, Tua’s timing with receivers was disrupted and spaces usually left open were filled by deploying defenders. The Dolphins ended the night with 17 points — seven from a flukey fumble return by the freakishly fast Hill — and just 219 total yards. On NBC, ex-Patriot great Rodney Harrison — albeit hyperbolically — called Staley’s defensive design “the game plan of the century.”
The following Saturday at Buffalo, Miami bounced back with 29 points and pushed the Bills to the brink, mainly by running early on a cold, snowy night. The Dolphins rushed for 126 yards in the first half alone, including 108 yards from Raheem Mostert. Meanwhile, Tagovailoa had 101 passing yards at the break.
In the second half, Miami ran the ball just 11 times, only three by Mostert. Conversely, Tua’s nine completions amassed 123 yards and included two touchdowns. Overall, the Fins finished with 217 yards passing and 188 yards rushing.
But following a third-down incompletion, accompanied by a declined illegal shift, with roughly 6 minutes left in a 29-29 tie, Miami never got the ball again. Buffalo killed the clock and won the game on a last-second field goal by Tyler Bass.
Four losses. Four very different types of games. Surrounded by four separate sets of circumstances.