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.
Adam Gase brings many positives to the Miami Dolphins head coaching job. At 38 years old, he is considered by many to be the best young mind in the NFL, an offensive genius, and a quarterback whisperer. Yet, of his many impressive attributes, perhaps the greatest is his ability to inspire and lead men.
Yet, oddly enough, the secret to Gase’s leadership skills may rest in the fact that he understands a simple truth. That the art of team building, at its best, is a job no one man can do alone. As such, one of his primary goals is to establish a new mindset within the Dolphins’ organization, a clear avenue of communication that stretches from the practice field to the upper echelons of the team’s front office.
To this end, he has already established a very successful partnership with Mike Tannenbaum, the team’s executive vice president of football operations, and general manager Chris Grier. The three are now working together to create a new mindset within the organization, a competitive atmosphere that breeds players with the kind of killer instinct necessary to win Super Bowls, be they existing Dolphins, veteran free agents, or rookies.
“I believe we are here to serve the coaches,” said Tannenbaum, leaving no doubt the front office is in perfect accord with their new head coach, according to Andrew Abramson of the Palm Beach Post. “Obviously, those players we’ve acquired were purposeful and by design. It fits an overall scheme.”
That scheme will rely heavily on seeking out and developing competitive personalities the team has dubbed “Alpha Males”. This season, that search may have reached its zenith with the Dolphins’ intriguing sixth round draft choice, 5’ 6” Jakeem Grant, the most productive receiver in Texas Tech history.
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Grant, as the clip below shows, may well be the fastest man in NFL history, having been clocked at 4.1 seconds in the 40 yard dash. And as if that weren’t impressive enough, the little guy runs with attitude .
As such, Grant is precisely the kind of brash alpha male the Dolphins are looking to build their future around.
“He walks in the room and he thinks he’s the biggest guy on the field.” Chris Grier explained to Abramson.
But there is no need to take Grier’s word for it. Grant has no problem speaking for himself.
“I have faith in myself. I feel like once you get the ball in my hands, there’s nobody that can stop me,” he stated in an interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I’m as healthy as a horse. I’m fast. I’m quick even if I don’t have the size. But you can’t hate what you can’t get.”
Grant backed up his big talk and college success in the Dolphins 27-10 preseason win over the New York Giants by catching 4 passes for 68 yards. He also showcased his versatility by returning a pair of kickoffs for 53 yards, and four punts for 68 yards, including two breathtaking runs. The first was a 12-yard scamper in which he weaved his way through traffic while a slew of Giants grasped for air, and the other, a 28-yarder where he was one defender away from breaking it for a touchdown.
While Grant has enjoyed the most success of any Dolphins’ rookie thus far, he isn’t the only so-called alpha male the Dolphins targeted in the draft. Wide receiver Leonte Carroo, from Rutgers, isn’t exactly short on confidence either.
“(With) what I accomplished in college,” he said, according to the Sun Sentinel’s Chris Perkins. “I felt like I was the best receiver in this draft class.”
The Dolphins wanted the brass youngster so much that they traded up into the third round to secure his services, and with good reason. Carroo backs up his claims with an aggressive playing style that made him the most dangerous receiver in Rutgers history. He is the team’s all-time touchdown leader among wideots with 29, and ranks third in receiving yards with 2373, thanks, primarily, to his uncanny ability to test defenders deep, as his 19.5 yards per catch proves.
Still, it is his fearlessness across the middle of the field and willingness to fight defenders for the ball that earned him the alpha male tag among the Dolphins inner circle.
Second round pick Xavier Howard is another of the strong willed personalities the team targeted in the draft, and like with Carroo, Miami coveted the cornerback so ardently that they traded up to get him. Howard, a perfect fit for the Dolphins’s new aggressive press-style coverage, racked up an impressive list of accomplishments while helping the Baylor Bears to the most successful run in team history. In his three years as a starter, he totaled 84 solo tackles, including 5.5 for losses, broke up 23 passes, pulled down 10 interceptions, had 1.5 sacks, forced a fumble, and recovered another, which he returned for a touchdown.
While Grant, Carroo and Howard’s intensity is impressive in and of itself, Gase and the rest of Miami’s brain trust are hoping it translates into something more.
“When you add a bunch of those guys to your roster and to your core,” Grier said, speaking to Perkins. “That’s just contagious and makes your team better.”
Yet, if the Dolphins are to have any hope of reaching the playoffs this year, they need the kind of contagious intensity no rookies, regardless of how talented they may be, can conjure. In other words, Gase must find a way to help quarterback Ryan Tannehill step up and seize command of the team like never before.
"“I want to see, can he take charge? Can he lead? Can he make the plays that he knows that he needs to make to be an elite quarterback? Can he be instinctive and just play football and not so much in a sense be robotic in doing what he’s asked to do?” explained former Dolphins’ receiver, Greg Jennings, speaking to Brooke Cersosimo of NFL.com. “Can he not only do what he’s asked to do, but can he supersede that? I think, in this league, to be considered one of the elite guys, it’s when you’re doing that thing that a coach can’t ask you to do. It’s that “It Factor” that we all need to see from Tannehill.”"
Jennings asks several justifiable questions. Unfortunately, none of them come with an easy answer because, according to a series of articles by Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, rather than being encouraged to take control of the offense, Tannehill has been handcuffed and undermined by the very coach entrusted with his development.
The strange series of events detailed in Salguero’s articles, which are highlighted by failures in leadership at all levels of the organization, began to unfold shortly after the 2013 season. At the time, Philbin was embroiled in a feud with general manager Jeff Ireland over who was at fault for the offense’s shortcomings. Ireland placed the bulk of responsibility on the coaching staff. Philbin, in turn, was adamant that the blame rested on the players Ireland had brought together, with Tannehill, in particular, suffering the brunt of his criticism despite showing considerable improvement over his first couple of seasons.
RYAN TANNEHILL 2012 & 2013 STATISTICS
Rather than siding fully with one camp or the other, Stephen Ross, the team’s inexperienced owner, came up with a compromise decision that set another series of troubles into motion. He fired Ireland, but insisted Philbin move on from offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. Needless to say, this did not sit well with Philbin, who was dead set against firing his former mentor. Regardless, he had little choice but to go along with Ross’ decree.
In the aftermath of that incident, it appeared as if Philbin had finally gotten on board with Tannehill, publicly stating that his QB was improving. Yet, just days before the 2014 draft, Philbin shocked the Miami brass with a last minute request that the team pursue Derek Carr as a replacement for Tannehill. According to Salguero, it wasn’t just the front office that was caught off guard. As it turns out, Philbin hadn’t even voiced the desire to move on from Tannehill to his assistant coaches until then.
Why Philbin kept his wish to replace Tannehill quiet until the last moment remains a mystery to this day, but what isn’t in doubt is that his move was an unqualified failure in leadership. Not surprisingly, Ireland’s replacement, general manager Dennis Hickey ignored Philbin’s awkward last second plea and opted, as planned, to draft right tackle Ja’Waun James in the first round. It was a clear indication from the front office that, rather than rid themselves of Tannehill, they were determined to build an offensive line to help him succeed. Unfortunately, that decision didn’t end the team’s internal strife. If anything, from that point on, it became clear the organization and their coach were moving in opposite directions.
To make matters worse, according to Salguero’s sources within the organization, Philbin’s attitude towards Tannehill had a very negative effect on newly hired offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor. As a result, Lazor began his tenure with serious misgivings about his QB, denying him the right to audible at the line of scrimmage, or to play a role in game planning. Despite feeling frustrated, Tannehill supported Lazor in public, but behind closed doors, their relationship became strained. For all practical purposes, Tannehill was a Dolphin treading water in a poisoned well.
Meanwhile, Philbin’s resentment over Hickey’s decision to pass on Derek Carr continued to fester, finally boiling over during the early part of the 2014 season, just prior to the Dolphins’ London showdown with the Oakland Raiders, who, as it happened, were quarterbacked by Carr. With the Dolphins’ offense off to a rocky start under Lazor, Philbin took a regular meeting with the media and, in yet another titanic failure in leadership, turned it into a major distraction by refusing to confirm Tannehill as his starter for the game.
Tannehill responded to the slight by leading the Dolphins to a resounding 38-14 victory, completing 74% of his passes for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns on his way to a 109.3 QB rating. Carr, on the other hand, managed a lowly 76.4 rating before being benched early in the second half due to a high ankle sprain. His replacement, Matt McGloin, fared even worse, finishing the game with a QB rating of 61.0.
After the Raiders game, Tannehill’s season took a turn for the better, especially after the Dolphins brought in Dan Marino to mentor the young QB. As one would expect, Tannehill was thrilled to receive advice from the hall of famer, but according to Salguero’s sources, Philbin did not share his quarterback’s enthusiasm. Rather than being grateful for Marino’s help, he felt resentful, preferring Tannehill speak exclusively to Lazor and QB coach Zac Taylor. Regardless, Marino continued tutoring Tannehill, and it showed. The young QB’s play improved dramatically throughout the remainder of the 2014 season.
RYAN TANNEHILL 2014 STATISTICS
In spite of that, Philbin reluctant of supporting Tannehill, even after the organization cemented their stance by rewarding the QB with a four year $77 million extension prior to the 2015 season. Not long after, tired of the relentless internal conflict, and disillusioned by the team’s 1-3 start, Stephen Ross fired Philbin.
While Philbin’s exit and Tannehill’s contract extension should suffice to convince just about anyone that Ross held his coach, and not his quarterback, primarily responsible for the team’s lackluster performance, the Dolphins owner erased any doubts while speaking to the media earlier this year at the NFL owners meeting in Boca Raton.
“It’s never one thing,” said Ross. “Obviously, we made a decision on the coaching, didn’t we? I think that speaks for itself.”
Philbin was, of course, replaced by tight ends coach, Dan Campbell, but he too failed to understand the potential Miami’s upper brass saw in Tannehill, or, much less, their desire to see him elevate his game.
“What I’ve told Ryan is, ‘I don’t need Superman,” Campbell told Salguero, shortly after being named interim head coach. “I just want to make sure my message to him is don’t try to be someone you’re not. Just manage the game for us. Make the throws that are there, which he will.”
Whether Campbell’s conservative approach to Tannehill was influenced by Philbin, or the result a failure on the part of Miami’s front office to make their desires clear to him, it likely played a role in the team passing him over for the permanent head coaching position and offering it instead to Gase, who immediately adopted a very different approach to the young quarterback. In addition to declaring that he had his QB’s back during his first official press conference with the Dolphins, Gase has granted Tannehill what he has desired most….ownership in the offensive process, and to this point in training camp, the rookie head coach has no regrets.
“His intelligence is off the charts,” Gase insisted recently, speaking to Steven Wine of the Associated Press. “He has done everything we have asked him to do, and has spent a lot of time on things outside this building. It shows in the way he is able to call plays in the huddle, and how aggressive he has been in learning the offense.”
For his part, Tannehill appears equally pleased to be rid of the constraints placed upon him by previous offensive coordinators Mike Sherman and Bill Lazor.
"“With Bill’s offense, we were kind of locked in. What he called was what we ran,” Tannehill explained to Wine. “Now there’s a lot of freedom in what we do, and I think that’s going to make us always on the attack. We’re not going to have to sit on our heels and feel like the defense is coming after us.”"
While the aggressive aspect of Gase’s offense appeals to Tannehill, it is the responsibility that comes with it that he appreciates most, a good sign for Dolphins fans hoping he can develop into a formidable field general.
“This offense entails a lot of fun stuff for a quarterback to be able to direct traffic.” He continued. “I want to be a guy on the field that anyone can come to and ask a question, and I have the answer.”
The most definitive sign of Tannehill’s willingness to take charge came after the team’s recent scrimmage, in which the offense appeared sluggish and under-performed, garnering just one first down in eight possessions. While Tannehill did not direct all eight drives, and there were plenty of mistakes to go around, in the days that followed, he took it upon himself to elevate the entire unit’s intensity level.
“I think Ryan has done a good job of jumping in that huddle right away and being that guy chirping a little bit, getting the linemen going and then I think the rest of those guys have really just been doing their job,” Gase said, via the team’s official site.
Tannehill affirmed his coach’s observations while speaking to Salguero.
“I think that’s part of being a leader, pushing the guys around you to be the best they can be. That, obviously, wasn’t the best that we could be. You have to try to do everything you can to consistently push guys around you to elevate their game.”
Needless to say, this new, more vocal Tannehill is a far cry from the low key QB that the Miami fan base grew accustomed to seeing during the Philbin era, when he was far more likely to look confused or frustrated than in control.
Subsequently, one could conclude that Gase understands something the Dolphins’ former coach did not. In order to have a real shot at success, Tannehill and his teammates require leadership comprised of guidance, support, and most important of all, a fervent insistence that they take ownership of their jobs. In other words, Tannehill could not function as a leader prior to Gase’s arrival because he simply wasn’t given the opportunity to do so.
Curiously, Philbin did give other players the chance to step into leadership roles during his tenure. Cameron Wake, for instance, was asked to speak to the 2015 rookies about his journey from mortgage broker to four-time Pro Bowler. His presentation was so impactful that the organization taped it and gave copies to all of the team’s younger players.
While Gase is, no doubt, looking for leadership from established Dolphins like Wake, as mentioned earlier, he is also counting on similar contributions from recent veteran additions.
“I feel like with some of the pieces that we’ve added coming from outside of the building, some of these veteran guys are going to have to help us out. I know I’m going to lean on some of our guys that are already here that are some veteran leaders,” he stressed via the team’s official site.
Beyond marshaling veterans to his cause, Gase’s relaxed personality has enabled him to connect with his players in a way Philbin never did. A fortunate attribute, given that forging relationships is a key part of his team-building strategy.
“I love him, man,” said Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey, describing Gase to Chris Perkins of the Sun Sentinel. “He’s a player’s kind of coach and we’re excited. He wants to come in and build relationships before we talk about football, and that’s the best thing about him.”
Tannehill conveyed similar feelings to Perkins.
“I think he’s easy to communicate with. He’s open, he’s excited, he’s energetic, and all those things translate well to guys.”
Gase’s superior communication skills are keenly important to his brand of leadership, not just with players, but in defense of them as well. Just consider what occurred at a recent press conference when he felt some questions posed by the media were overly critical of his cornerbacks.
“They’re doing better than how negative you want to be about it. They’re doing good,” responded Gase, standing behind his players with a kind of profound confidence not seen from a Dolphins’ coach since Don Shula.
So, in the end, what do the examples cited here tell us about the mindset Gase is attemping to instill throughout the Dolphins’ organization? Well, in contrast to Philbin, whose coaching style could be described as stoic and removed, Gase seems to appreciate the notion that true leadership is a dynamic thing capable of taking on many forms. Sometimes it may entail trash talking with players during practice, or expressing frustration after a poor scrimmage. At other times, it might require placing his trust in a young man in order to help him build the confidence necessary to captain others. Most important of all, leadership in the NFL demands clear and upfront communication at all times, be it with players or the front office alike.
Beyond all that, Gase understands that winners rise to the occasion, adapt to whatever presents itself, and make the most of any situation. As such, it is little wonder that he hopes to build a new Dolphins’ dynasty atop the shoulders of young alpha males. Assertive warriors capable of achieving, not just the “It Factor” Greg Jennings spoke of, but of carving out their destinies alongside their coach, the one man in Miami even more driven than they are.
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