If you read the most knowledgeable of football writers nationwide, you will find that a majority are strongly in favor of stability within a football organization. Generally, the biggest building block of this is the coaching staff. When the Miami Dolphins made the decision to fire former head coach Tony Sparano in-season, and to mostly clean house of the entire coaching staff in the off-season, they pleased many fans but also went against this piece of conventional wisdom. So far this year, the front office has to be thrilled with their decision; the coaching staff is this week’s unsung hero.
New head coach Joe Philbin didn’t come to the team with a huge national profile. While he was the offensive coordinator of a juggernaut offense for the Green Bay Packers, he was not the play caller, and thus head coach Mike McCarthy was thought of as the offensive genius. Regardless of his involvement in designing and maintaining one of the best offenses in the NFL in Green Bay, what Philbin clearly was privy to is the leadership, preparation, and aggression necessary to maintain an NFL club.
While it is difficult to question Sparano’s leadership without being a staple inside the locker room, one thing that was clear from Sparano’s time as head coach was a general lack of preparedness in dealing with in-game situations and a lack of aggression when presented with such situations. While Sparano’s game management was always blamed on an inferior roster that led itself to a conservative style, Sparano’s new role as offensive coordinator of the New York Jets has proven to be a continuance of Sparano’s play-not-to-lose strategy. The Jets acquired Tim Tebow and preached of how he would be an integral part of the offense, used in creative ways that could revolutionize the NFL…
Personally, I don’t consider a QB as a personal punt protector to be revolutionary.
Sparano’s use of Tebow on offense has been pedestrian at best and inept at worst. Tebow has been used even less creatively than Ronnie Brown, a running back, had been used in Miami’s wildcat in 2008, likely because that package was designed primarily by then QB coach David Lee. The fact that Tebow, a quarterback, has thrown only two passes all season out of the formation is a shocking misuse of an asset. Regardless, the lack of creativity and aggression in New York highlights the stark contrast between Sparano’s Dolphins and Philbin’s version being seen this season.
In the last two games alone, Philbin has run an impromptu onside kick and a fake punt. Over the course of the season, he has been unafraid to let rookie QB Ryan Tannehill take shots on offense and has been willing to throw for first downs in late game situations rather than pound it up the middle for three downs and punt. His attention to detail has seemed borderline obsessive-compulsive to some, but one can only assume this translates to a preparation level that rivals the best head coaches in football.
As far as the rest of the coaching staff, former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs, whom are only one of the most disappointing offenses in the NFL this season. New offensive coordinator Mike Sherman certainly has some failures on his resume, but he brings head coaching experience that is valuable for a rookie leader like Philbin. His offensive scheme is aggressive, modern, and fits what is successful in today’s NFL.
Former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has moved on to the Atlanta Falcons, where he has certainly been successful to date. Nolan was by no means a failure in Miami, but his defense was inconsistent. In the first half of 2011, the Dolphins had the 26th ranked defense in Football Outsiders DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), but in the second half they were the second rated D. This sort of inconsistency is not what winning teams are made of.
New defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle has come in and executed the usually difficult transition from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 with little to no hiccups. His defense has put pressure on the quarterback and has made competent a once suspect defensive backfield. Unlike the Dolphins of old, they do not sink into a prevent style defense at the first sign of a lead.
One hold over from the previous regime is special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi. Rizzi had already proven a successful coach in Miami, taking over from John Bonamego in 2010 and righting the ship on what was a horrendous special teams unit at the time. In 2011, the Dolphins unit performed solidly if unspectacularly. In 2012, the special teams have been a huge strength for the Dolphins, as Philbin has allowed Rizzi to be more aggressive and exploit weaknesses in the opponents. The stunt ran by CB Jimmy Wilson to exploit the aforementioned punt protection of Tim Tebow against the Jets this past week was a thing of beauty and the type of thing never seen under the previous regime.
While coaching impact can be hard to quantify, game management has its most noticeable impact in close games. While the Dolphins have lost two tight games in OT this year, their record is reflective of their performance to date. A +24 point differential should generate approximately 4 wins thus far using Pythagorean record expectations. It may surprise many however, that the Dolphins actually had a positive point differential last season at +16; this should have translated to 9 wins!
A lack of success in close games can certainly be attributed to Sparano’s game (mis)management, and this is something that was a staple of the Dolphins in years past. While it is too soon to determine whether Philbin is the next Bill Belichick or just a league average coach, he has no doubt exhibited the ability to properly manage a game and exhibit the necessary aggression to give the team the best opportunity to win. In establishing a strong coaching staff, he has built the foundation the Dolphins can use to win in this season and years beyond without causing a scene or calling attention to himself. For that reason, the Dolphins coaching staff are this week’s unsung heroes.