Two months after looking like the laughingstock of the NFL on HBO, one gutsy play call has helped propel the Dolphins to a 3-3 record and a share of first place in the AFC East, and it may not be a fluke.
Clinging to a three-point lead with 4:15 to go, the Dolphins faced a 4th-and-1 from their own 40-yard line in their Week Six game against the Rams. RB Reggie Bush came extremely close to picking up the first down a play earlier, but Joe Philbin didn’t challenge, and Miami sent out the punt team. It all seemed nonchalant. Philbin would put faith in his defense.
Instead, the first-year head coach dipped into his bag of tricks, and no one saw it coming.
S Chris Clemons took the direct snap and ran for three yards, good enough for a first down. The Dolphins did punt a few plays later, but they took more than two minutes off the clock before pinning St. Louis inside its 5. When Greg Zuerlein missed a 66-yard field-goal attempt, the Dolphins headed into their bye with back-to-back victories.
“We felt like it was going to be there, we thought it would be a good call, we practiced it a bunch,” Philbin told reporters about the fake punt. “We told our guys last night in the meeting, the first point that Darren (Rizzi, the special-teams coordinator) made to the whole team was we’re going to be aggressive in the kicking game.”
The Dolphins are a far cry — especially in the eyes of those outside Miami — from what they appeared to be in the summer when their their training camp was chronicled on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”
But the reality show spent little time discussing DE Cameron Wake, who has 6½ sacks, all coming in the last three games. Or Brian Hartline, who, despite not recording a catch on Sunday, is among the NFL leaders in receiving yards. You also didn’t find out much about DTs Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, who are as dominant a defensive interior tandem as there is in the NFL, helping the run defense hold opponents to 3.3 yards per carry.
In August, the Dolphins were a consensus last-place choice in the AFC East, and a 30-10 loss to Houston in Week One simply reinforced that 2012 would be a rebuilding season. Since that game, the Dolphins are 3-2, and both losses came in overtime in games that the Dolphins let slip away.
Two things have been key to the Dolphins’ success: mistake-free football on offense and a stout third-down defense. QB Ryan Tannehill has not thrown an interception in any of the Dolphins’ three wins, and he seems to be improving each week and getting more comfortable in the pocket. Of Miami’s six lost fumbles, only two have come in their three wins — both at Cincinnati.
On defense, opponents are only 23-for-89 on third down this season (25.8 percent), which is best in the NFL. Quarterbacks are completing 44.8 percent of passes against Miami on third down, the lowest in the league on the most amount of attempts in the league: 67.
Tannehill’s accuracy and the defense’s performance on third down helped get the Dolphins their third win, especially when two of the Dolphins’ staples struggled. They rushed for an abysmal 19 yards on 18 carries and gave up a season-high 162 rushing yards (6.0-yard average). But Tannehill completed 21-of-29 passes, including two touchdowns, and the Rams converted only 3-of-13 third downs.
Looking ahead at the Dolphins’ schedule after the bye, it’s not ridiculous to think this team can make a run. The Dolphins’ next four opponents — the Jets, Colts, Titans and Bills — have a combined record of 10-13. The next five quarterbacks the Dolphins face are far from imposing: Mark Sanchez, Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Russell Wilson.
One other important thing working for the Dolphins is something we saw last season — this team has a lot of fight. After getting off to an 0-7 start, the Dolphins won six of their final nine games, rallying at midseason for lame-duck head coach Tony Sparano, and then late in the year to eliminate the rival Jets from the playoffs.
Philbin inherited some talented players, despite what you may have seen on HBO, and the rookie QB that the franchise is banking on has been impressive. This under-the-radar bunch can give opponents fits, and with a favorable schedule, the Dolphins could be primed for a special season. They might look back at the fake punt, which shows Philbin and this club have no fear going for the win.