We’re only three weeks in, but it’s already clear that this NFL season is destined to be a weird one. Backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has led the Buccaneers to a 2-1 start while becoming the first quarterback in league history to pass for 400-plus yards in three straight games. Patrick Mahomes II has been indescribably amazing, setting the record for most touchdown passes in the first three weeks of a season (13). The Browns won a game. The Bengals and Bears are both in first place; The Steelers, Packers, Vikings, and Patriots have all, at times, been bad. And perhaps wackiest of all, the Dolphins are 3-0.
Along with the Rams and Chiefs, Miami’s one of three still-undefeated teams, and they got there with a balanced and explosive offense and a ball-hawking defense. After spending most of the offseason thinking the Dolphins would be just another boring, sub-.500 also-ran in the AFC, Miami’s got me sitting up to pay attention—but is the team’s hot start the real deal or just a flash in the pan?
It’s easy to be skeptical when a team makes a big jump from one year to the next, but when a quarterback change is involved—even when it’s from one known quantity like Jay Cutler to another in Ryan Tannehill—anything is possible. NFL teams can rise and fall on their quarterback play, and after missing all of last season to a knee injury, Tannehill’s been sharper than ever in the Dolphins’ first three games.
This season the seventh-year pro has completed 73 percent of his passes for 687 yards, seven touchdowns and two picks for a 121.8 passer rating. He ranks fourth at 9.3 yards per attempt and third with a 9.5 percent touchdown rate and in-the-pocket passer rating (124.0)—trailing behind only Mahomes and Fitzmagic in the last two categories. This year, that’s good company to have.
The key is that Tannehill’s not trying to do too much. He’s playing the role of point guard in head coach and play-caller Adam Gase’s scheme, quickly distributing the ball to the team’s top skill-position players. That’s by design: The Dolphins’ pass protection has been middling—it ranks 22nd per Football Outsiders—an issue mitigated by quick passes (Tannehill’s average time to throw thus far has been a mere 2.41 seconds, second fastest of any passer), play-action (27.1 percent of his dropbacks, seventh-most), and lots of running (Miami’s 52.3 percent pass-to-run ratio ranks 30th in the league). Gase has run a nice balance of short passes and deep shots to keep defenses off-balance. And he’s even thrown in some jet-sweep plays to stress opponents horizontally as well.
One noticeable theme for Gase’s scheme this year has been the focus on featuring the individual talents of his top playmakers. He’s called a number deep shots to Kenny Stills, who has the long speed to get behind just about any defense in the league. In Week 1, Tannehill looked off the safety to the left then launched this bomb downfield to Stills, who beat cornerback Malcolm Butler one-on-one for a score.
On Sunday, Tannehill found Stills again, who split the difference between two defenders with a looping corner route out of the slot, then outran them both to the back of the end zone.
Gase has put his most elusive players into space. On this catch-and-run touchdown in Week 2, veteran receiver Albert Wilson showed off his open-field prowess and, after reeling in a pass on a slant route, got across the field before using a rocker-step move to beat his defender up the sideline.
Gase has started to get rookie tight end Mike Gesicki, a 99th-percentile SPARQ athlete, out into space too, where his movement skills can be better deployed. Last week, Gesicki lined up out on the wing and ran a drag route underneath a pair of his teammates’ deeper routes. Tannehill found him open in space, and the big tight end picked up chunk yardage after the catch.
Against the Raiders, Gase called a few well-timed sweep plays, first to the speedy Jakeem Grant late in the third quarter:
Then another to Wilson, providing the score that sealed the Dolphins’ win:
Gase has also been more willing than a lot of coaches in the league this year to utilize his quarterback’s athleticism as a runner. Despite the fact Tannehill lost the 2017 season to an ACL injury, he’s still shown that he can be pretty quick with the football, and Gase has dialed up a handful of designed quarterback runs to make defenses pay if they cheat in a given direction. On the very first play of the Dolphins win over the Jets in Week 2, Gase called a naked bootleg keeper for his quarterback, and when New York’s defense collapsed down the line thinking it was a run to the left, Tannehill ran untouched for a 20-yard gain.
The read option has been a tool in Gase’s toolbox, too. Late in the game, leading by eight with 5:56 to go, the Dolphins ran a pair of zone-read plays to help grind the clock to dust. On the first, Gase sent three receivers and a tight end far out to the wing, with each feigning screens at the snap. This spread the Jets defense out and gave running back Kenyan Drake a light box to run against (just six defenders). Tannehill handed off on the read, and Drake picked up 20 yards.
Later on that same drive, in a third-and-6 situation, Gase went back to the same look. This time, the Jets closed in on Drake, and Tannehill kept it, running for a first down that sealed the win.
The end result of all that scheming is that the Dolphins have been efficient both through the air (sixth in DVOA) and on the ground (ninth), and rank 11th in points (25.0 per game) through three weeks. The foundation for that success has been Tannehill, who’s run the offense with aplomb, throwing well from play-action (14 of 20 passes for 200 yards at 10.0 yards per attempt, with one touchdown, no picks, a 70 percent completion rate, and a 118.8 passer rating, per PFF) and on non-play-action throws (40 of 54 for 487 yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions, a 74 percent completion rate). His non-play-action passer rating of 123.0 ranks second only to Mahomes this year.
Tannehill has gotten plenty of help thus far from his swarming defense, too. Miami’s offense is 23rd in yards per drive and 22nd in drive success rate, yet ranks 11th in points per drive at least in part due to the fact they’ve inherited the best average field position of any team in football (first in average starting line of scrimmage per drive, per Football Outsiders). The Dolphins have racked up eight takeaways on the year (tied for second in the NFL), a flurry of picks (seven) and a fumble recovery, the net sum of which have put Tannehill and the offense in plenty of favorable situations.
Led by burgeoning superstar corner Xavien Howard (three interceptions), the plucky Dolphins defense has given up just 17.3 points per game (sixth), ranks first in opponent passer rating (65.6), and has surrendered just two passing touchdowns on the year (tied for first). It helps that Howard’s shown a knack for picking off passes in opponents’ end zones.
Howard—who has registered an opponent passer rating of 32.2 on 125 coverage snaps and allowed just five catches on 15 targets—is joined in the defensive secondary by the versatile and talented Minkah Fitzpatrick (62.3 passer rating against in coverage), Bobby McCain, T.J. McDonald, and veteran Reshad Jones. Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan have made plays patrolling the middle. And up front, Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake have been effective off the edge, combining for 17 pressures (two sacks, two hits, 13 hurries) in three games. The defense has talent at all three levels. It’s got a balanced combination of up-and-coming stars and wily veterans. It’s been strong against both the run and the pass. And it’s playing with an energy and toughness we didn’t see often last year.
So what does Miami’s start tell us about how the team can finish? Obviously, we’re still going off a small sample size, one that’s skewed by the fact the Dolphins have benefitted from an easy early-season schedule. Tannehill has yet to go up against one of the league’s best defenses, while Howard and Co.—who have notched impressive performances against Marcus Mariota (and Blaine Gabbert) and the Titans, rookie Sam Darnold and the Jets, and Derek Carr and the Raiders—are still waiting to prove their mettle against a top-tier quarterback.
Good teams should beat bad teams, though, and Miami’s done that while playing incredibly efficient ball. The Dolphins rank second in Football Outsiders DVOA (which doesn’t adjust for opponents this early in the season) after three weeks, and fifth in DAVE, which weights for preseason projections to forecast how well a team will play the rest of the season. History says that about 75 percent of teams that start 3-0 end up in the playoffs, and with a two-game lead in the division, Football Outsiders’ models now give the Dolphins an 82 percent chance for a postseason berth. That’s helped along by the fact that per DAVE, Miami faces the second-easiest schedule in the NFL over the final 14 weeks. There’s still plenty of time for the Dolphins to regress back toward the 6-10 team we saw last year, but it’s not going to be because their schedule down the stretch gets tougher.
Instead, I’ll be watching to see whether the Dolphins defense can keep their torrid turnover-creating pace alive. If the picks dry up, Howard, Fitzpatrick, Wake, and Quinn will have to find other ways to stifle opponents. Offensively, Miami’s going to go as far as Tannehill can take them. I’m not expecting the 30-year-old passer to maintain a 121.8 passer rating all year long, but if he can continue to play efficient, turnover-light football, keep defenses guessing with his legs, and hit the occasional deep-bomb to one of his speedy downfield threats, that will give the Dolphins a chance to make some noise in the AFC East. Of course, it won’t hurt if the Patriots continue to struggle, too.
This weekend’s matchup in Foxborough should provide an interesting litmus test. The Dolphins haven’t won at Gillette since the infamous 2008 Wildcat Game, and to beat New England on its turf, Miami may have to pull a few more rabbits out of their hat. Last week, we saw the Doplhins run the Philly Philly variant for a score. This week? Who knows. But based on the team’s first three games, I expect Gase to stress the Patriots both vertically—with deep shots to Stills and DeVante Parker—and horizontally, utilizing sweeps and screens to his speedy underneath threats. If the Dolphins can hang tough with the Patriots on Sunday, we might have to start taking this team a little more seriously.