Adam Gase’s Twelve Steps to Rehabilitating the Dolphins: Step 6


The Miami Dolphins are hoping that Adam Gase can mold the team into a playoff contender. The road to get there is not a matter of one big leap, but rather, a series of small steps.

One of the first things Adam Gase realized upon becoming head coach of the Miami Dolphins was the urgent need to change the dynamics between the locker room and the coaches, and that of the many relationships he needed to forge, none would be more important than that between himself and quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

This is hardly surprising. After all, it is no secret that tensions existed between Tannehill and former head coach, Joe Philbin. Nevertheless, can a good relationship between Gase and his QB really help turn the former first round draft choice into a franchise quarterback? Will it even be enough to lift the youngster past his struggles with pocket awareness, 3rd down conversions and ineffectiveness late in games? Rather than looking to the future for answers to these questions, perhaps, Dolphins’ fans need to turn their gaze back to Dan Marino, the greatest player in franchise history.

Many among the Miami fan base will, of course, immediately reject any comparison between Marino and Tannehill, but in all fairness, through the first four years of their careers, their numbers are actually quite compatible. In fact, when we consider just those parameters, Tannehill’s average yearly statistics are actually superior to Marino’s in 5 of the 8 major categories used to evaluate quarterbacks?

AttsCompComp %YdsYds Per PassTDsINTsQB Rating

Even so, any fan waiting for Tannehill to evolve into the second coming of Marino is destined for disappointment. Dan “The Man” was a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, shooting lightning bolts across the sky on the way to rewriting the record books during an era that was far more accommodating to defenses. Yet, to imply that Marino accomplished his superhuman feats alone would be a great disservice, not just to Tannehill, but to the one figure in Dolphins’ history who is held in even higher esteem than number 13…….the legendary, Don Shula.

It is simply not possible to overstate the impact Shula had on Marino, and the advantage that gave him over Tannehill at the onset of their careers. For starters, Marino was welcomed into the NFL by a head coach who had already amassed a record of 221-76-6, 12 playoff appearances and 10 divisional titles. He had also made 5 Super Bowl appearances, winning two championships, and captained the only perfect season in the history of the game. To put that into perspective, Shula had already coached 303 games in the NFL prior to working with Marino, while Joe Philbin, Dan Campbell and Adam Gase had served as head coaches in exactly 0 games before being hired to guide Tannehill. This discrepancy in coaching experience is so monumental that to brush it aside as inconsequential would be the equivalent of standing at the base of Mount Everest and saying, “What mountain? I don’t see any mountain!”

Regardless, numbers alone cannot fully explain the effect of Shula’s tutelage on a budding Marino. For, as I have already mentioned, the legendary coach had previously led 5 teams to the Super Bowl, and did so using five different QBs, Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese, Earl Morrell, David Woodley and Don Strock, or WoodStrock, if you prefer.

"“To me, that’s what coaching is all about,” recounted Shula, to Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant, on the eve of becoming the winningest coach in NFL history. “It’s getting the most out of the players you have, not trying to jam your system down their throat. The quarterbacks position is a perfect example. Unitas had his own style. Bob Griese was very different from Unitas, and Dan Marino, they were all different players and different personalities. You have to try to adjust to get the most out of their talents.”"

Unlike Philbin, Campbell and Gase with Tannehill, by the time Marino came along, Shula didn’t need to learn how to coach a team while simultaneously bringing along a young QB. He’d already done it several times over, building championship caliber teams by playing up his various quarterbacks’ strengths, and just as crucial, masking their weaknesses. That’s precisely why he made no attempt to “jam” Marino into the conservative mold that had previously produced his other great protégés, Hall of Famers Unitas and Griese. Instead, he changed the entire dynamics of the Dolphins’ offense and allowed his young QB to unleash the gunslinger at his core. The rest, as they say, is history.

In contrast, the present has not been as nearly as kind to Ryan Tannehill. Instead of a coaching genius to help jump start his career, he was saddled with Joe Philbin, a rigid and controlling autocrat that led from a perspective of fear and insecurity. Far worse still, as came to light after he was fired, Philbin also worked behind closed doors to deflect attention away from his own inadequacies by blaming Tannehill for Miami’s woes.

If his dysfunctional relationship with Tannehill weren’t bad enough, the former Green Bay offensive coordinator proved woefully inadequate when it came to connecting with the team as a whole. His awkwardness was on full display in the now infamous scene from HBO’s Hard Knocks, when Philbin cut Chad Ochocinco following the receiver’s involvement in a domestic violence incident. Unfortunately for the Dolphins, that uncomfortable scene was only an inkling of things to come.

Over the next three-and-a-half years, rather than focusing on helping Tannehill expand his game, Philbin spent a disproportionate amount of his time trying to put out fires that were, quite often, a direct result of his own lack of leadership. The most memorable of these was, of course, the Ritchie Incognito and Jonathan Martin affair, a fiasco of such magnitude that it didn’t just catch Philbin off guard, but went on to ignite a national conversation on workplace bullying that played out on CNN, Fox News and the View, just to name a few.

Miami Dolphins Lowlights 2012-2015

  • 2012 – Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson is cut following a domestic dispute.
  • 2013 – The Ritchie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying scandal.
  • 2014 – Dion Jordan suspended for 6 games due to violations of the league’s substance abuse policy.
  • 2014 – Head coach Joe Philbin and defensive lineman Jason Odrick have a heated exchange on the sidelines near the end of a 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
  • 2014 – Tensions flare when it is reported that receiver Mike Wallace refused to play in the second half of the season finale, a 37-24 loss to the Jets. Wallace refutes the reports, claiming he was benched by the coaching staff.
  • 2015 – Dion Jordan suspended for the season due to violations of the league’s substance abuse policy.
  • 2015 – Head coach Joe Philbin, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor are fired at different points throughout the season.
  • 2015 – Miko Grimes, wife of cornerback Brent Grimes, goes on a series of Twitter rants against the franchise, Tannehill and members of the Miami media.

Beyond the scandals and dysfunction, Philbin never made Tannehill a personal priority. Instead, he placed the youngster’s fortunes in the hands of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman.  A dreadful decision considering Sherman was the coach who initially sold Tannehill short at Texas A&M, moving him to wide receiver. Sherman then failed Tannehill again as a pro, saddling him with an inept offensive scheme so utterly predictable that it rarely put receivers in motion. The fact that Sherman was let go after two years would usually be enough to illustrate how far the former Green Bay Packer head coach’s skills had deteriorated, but not in this case. Sherman’s utter downfall is best illustrated by the fact that he spent the 2015 season as head coach of Nauset Regional High School in Massachusetts, leading the school’s team to a 1-10 record.

Tannehill’s next offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, wasn’t any better. He continued Sherman’s restrictive style of coaching by not permitting his QB to audible at the line of scrimmage. This, of course, left Tannehill completely vulnerable to blitzes, no matter how obvious, along with every other disadvantageous situation imaginable. As a result, Lazor was gone in little over a season. Dan Campbell, Miami’s next head coach, was gone even sooner.

The silver lining in all of this for Tannehill and is teammates may yet rest with Gase, who, despite being a rookie head coach like the others, has built his reputation by working with, and improving, quarterbacks of all skill levels and styles in much the same way Shula did so many years ago, by accenting their strengths while helping to improve their weaknesses. To repeat that success in Miami, Gase will need to establish as strong a bond with his new QB as the one he had with Jay Cutler in Chicago.

The importance of establishing such a rapport seemed evident to Gase from his first press conference in Miami.

“Ryan needs a guy that will have his back,” he stated firmly, leaving no doubt as to what he considered his top priority. “I will be working directly with him.”

“Ryan needs a guy that will have his back. I will be working directly with him.”

The young Texan, in turn, appears appreciative of his new coach’s mindset.

“I feel like Adam has my back 100%,” Tannehill told Tom Pelissero of USA Today, before alluding to the tensions between himself and Philbin. “It’s been a little bit of a changeup for me, so I enjoy it.”

Nevertheless, not everyone embraces the idea that a good rapport between the player and his coach will do much to raise Tannehill’s level of play. At least one member of the Miami media recently argued that Gase had, in fact, not improve Jay Cutler’s game in 2015, but merely masked his defects, as if that, in itself, were an inconsequential feat.

To understand just how misguided this notion truly is, let us begin by pointing out that Cutler’s 92.3 passer rating in 2015 was not just the highest of his career, but that it reflected a complete change in the way the 10-year veteran approached the game. Under Gase, Cutler learned how to protect the ball, especially in crucial situations, dropping his interceptions from a league high 18 in 2014, to just 11 last season. He further crafted Cutler’s impressive metamorphosis by reigning in the quarterback’s famed volatility, ironing out the kinks in his throwing technique, and most important of all, improving his comfort level in the pocket.

It is that improved pocket presence that will be of most interest to Miami fans, as it’s been one of the main knocks against Tannehill since his rookie season. In Cutler’s case, that newfound awareness helped bring down his sack total by 9, and reduced his fumbles from 12 to 8. All totaled, thanks to eliminating sacks and turnovers, the Bears suffered 20 fewer negative plays and completed 16 more long passes than the year before.

Then, there are the intangibles, things we can’t measure on a stat sheet. By all accounts, one of the most telling changes in Cutler’s game came in the form of improved leadership. Prior to Gase, the brooding QB was rumored to be on the trading block, in part, due to his inability to gel with teammates. Yet, by year’s end, thanks to a few personality adjustments orchestrated by Gase, the entire franchise was singing their QB’s praises.

Cutler, himself, has made it clear that he does not agree with the doubters in the Miami media on the positives Gase brought to his game. In fact, he has gone so far as to suggest that Gase’s approach trickled down to other Bears’ coaches.

“The whole offensive staff does a really great job of making sure each week (that) we have what we need to be successful,” Cutler told Chris Emma of CBS Chicago last October. “And I think we do a really good job of adjusting in-game and coming up with solutions for some of the problems we see.”

The last portion of that quote may give Dolphins fans a sense of optimism because good in-game communication and trust at crucial moments can spell the difference between success and failure. Take, for instance, what occurred when Philbin, claiming to feel “queasy”, refused to throw the ball on third down during the final minutes of the Packers game back in 2014. The failed run that followed helped pave the way for a heartbreaking 27-24 last-second loss, further highlighted by Philbin calling a ludicrous timeout, not once, but twice, as the game clock was counting down. With that lack of faith in his QB, and subsequent poor decisions, Philbin allowed Green Bay, which had no timeouts remaining, time to regroup and score the winning touchdown with 2 seconds left in the game.

While the Green Bay game served as the perfect example of what a bad relationship between a coach and his QB can yield, former Dolphins tight end, Jim Mandich, used the example of a young Bob Griese to sum up just how career altering a quality coach can be.

“Griese was a guy who thrived on certainty, order, a systematic approach,” Mandich told Amore. “Before Shula, there was disorganization and disorder. He put Griese in an environment for success.”

According to Amore, Hall of Famer Paul Warfield, Griese’s favorite target during the Super Bowl era, also recounted a crucial moment in the Griese/Shula relationship.

“Griese was getting ripped in the papers,” explained Warfield. “Poor guy was ready to go behind the barn and slit his throat. One day Shula stood up at a team meeting and said, `Griese, don’t worry about [criticism]. You’re our quarterback. You got that?’ It was exactly what Bob needed.”

Interestingly, to that point in his career, Griese had performed well below Tannehill’s standards, with a record of 12-28-2, and 50 interceptions to just 46 touchdowns. In fact, about the only thing Griese and Tannehill’s NFL careers seem to have in common to that point is that they both began in an environment of chaos.

As such, Griese’s story is living proof that a good rapport between a coach and his players can change the trajectory of a career from failure to championships. Furthermore, regardless of what some members of the media have argued, it is downright foolish to claim that a coach like Gase, who eliminates mistakes and gameplans to his player’s strengths, isn’t improving his team. After all, that’s the formula that earned Don Shula 347 wins, two Super Bowl rings, and a place of honor in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

To read step 5 in this series, click

To read step 4 in this series, click here.

To read Step 3 in this series, click here.

To read Step 2 in this series, click here.

To read Step 1 in this series, click here.