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The Dolphins’ Late-Season Surge and the Problem of Peaking Too Late

After starting the season 1-7, Miami has won seven in a row, putting a playoff berth that once seemed improbable in play

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.” —A quote popularly attributed to Sun Tzu

“Well, I’m not a genie so I’m not going to say that I did foresee that.” —Tua Tagovailoa, December 27, 2021

The ups and downs of the 2021 season have opened up unprecedented paths to the playoffs; the question is whether teams can take advantage of them. The Miami Dolphins, winners of seven straight, are a prime example. No team has ever made the postseason after starting 1-7, which the Dolphins did; nor has any team ever had a seven-game losing streak and a seven-game winning streak in the same season. After beating the Saints on Monday Night Football to move to 8-7, Miami moved into position as the AFC’s seventh seed. The Dolphins control their own destiny; if they beat the Titans and the Patriots to close out the regular season they’ll be guaranteed a playoff spot.

Miami has accomplished something unprecedented in NFL history, though it’s not exactly a great triumph to dig oneself out of a 1-7 hole. The Dolphins will be the underdog against Tennessee and New England, which is why they still have only a 32 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight. Their turnaround has come against one of the easiest schedules and some of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL, including on Monday night against the Saints, who played fourth-string quarterback Ian Book and a roster ravaged by injuries and COVID-19. There’s very little about Miami’s recent success that doesn’t come without some type of qualifier, except for this: They’re still here, they’re still playing hard, and they still have a chance. It’s impossible to know how many 1-7 teams in the past missed the playoffs because they were bad enough to go 1-7 in the first place and how many did because they got to that point and gave up, but the Dolphins have already proved themselves too determined to be the latter.

“I think this team stuck together really the entire year. I think obviously we dealt with a lot of adversity early in the year and I think it revealed a lot,” Miami coach Brian Flores said Monday. “I would say it revealed the character of the guys in our locker room. Revealed that some people are with you and some people were on the fence and I think our guys just kept fighting. They kept sticking together and I think they support each other, they work hard, they give great effort. And when you do those things you put yourself in position to get the results you’re looking for.”

The Dolphins’ winning streak has been driven by defensive improvements. Since Week 9, Miami has had the best defense in the league by EPA per play allowed, according to Overall, Miami has the 10th-ranked defense by points and is eighth in defensive DVOA. They’ve been particularly successful at generating big plays, leading the NFL in sacks with 45 and ranking 10th in takeaways. Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard leads the team with four interceptions.

It was this same defense that was among the NFL’s worst for the first half of the season. Through the first seven weeks of the year, Miami was last in the NFL in yards allowed per game (414.9) and 31st in scoring and third-down percentage, allowing opponents to convert 51.6 percent of the time. They were also 28th in defensive EPA and searching for answers.

“We just stayed the course throughout the whole season,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said Monday. “We didn’t grow weary. We just stuck with the program, stuck with what we knew and even when things were tough we just took it one day at a time, one game at a time, and that’s what we’ll continue to do the rest of the season.”

Results changed midway through the season when the winning streak began, around the same time that Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer decided to recommit to the blitz and, especially, to send defensive backs regularly on blitzes.

This was also, however, about the same time when the Dolphins, er, stopped facing good quarterbacks. Miami has played the fourth-easiest schedule in the league this season according to Football Outsiders. The teams Miami has beaten during its winning streak are a combined 25 games under .500. The defense has executed its turnaround against quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor, Lamar Jackson (who was struggling), Joe Flacco, Cam Newton, P.J. Walker, Zach Wilson, Mike Glennon, and Book.

These are not exactly the types of passers who should give a defensive coordinator pause about blitzing heavily. Miami is the second-heaviest blitzing team in the NFL by total number of blitzes and blitz percentage, behind only Tampa Bay in both categories. So far, the strategy has worked—Miami pressures quarterbacks on 27.7 percent of dropbacks, fourth in the NFL.

Better opponents would be more likely to make the Dolphins pay for regularly sending defensive backs and taking them out of coverage, but even though Miami blitzes a lot it’s still shown the ability to get pressure without blitzing when necessary. Six of the Dolphins defense’s eight sacks against Book and the Saints came with four or fewer pass rushers, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, and Miami leads the NFL with an 11 percent sack rate on non-blitz plays during its win streak. They’ll have chances to see whether they can replicate those results against stronger competition in New England and Tennessee; Miami has only two wins this season against teams with winning records.

While Miami’s defense has improved dramatically, the offense has been steadily average. The Dolphins’ ability to stretch defenses vertically is limited by Tagovailoa’s limited arm strength and Miami’s weak offensive line, but they’ve done their best to use motion, misdirection, and the playmaking of rookie receiver Jaylen Waddle to compensate for those challenges.

Tagovailoa is tied for the third-lowest mark in intended air yards at 6.9, even with Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger, and Newton and ahead of only Mike White and Jared Goff, but is doing about as well as he could in making the most out of those dinks and dunks. Tagovailoa leads the NFL in completion percentage and is getting the ball out in 2.51 seconds, fourth-fastest among starting quarterbacks and a practical necessity behind Miami’s porous pass protection.

In this context, Waddle has been a revelation. His speed and abilities with the ball in his hands give the Dolphins an element of offensive explosiveness they lack from their deep-passing attack. Waddle ranks first among rookie receivers in receptions (96) and targets (126), second in receiving yards (941), and tied for second in receiving touchdowns (five). He was, again, the driver of Miami’s offense on Monday, moving the chains six times for first downs and gaining 57 of his 92 yards after the catch. Waddle is adding 4.6 yards after catch per reception on the season, according to Next Gen Stats. On Monday, Tagovailoa was asked whether he could have foreseen his connection with Waddle continuing from their college days at Alabama to the NFL, to which Tagovailoa replied that he is “not a genie.”

Every season, plenty of things happen that teams don’t see coming. The trick is still being around to take advantage of opportunities when they’re presented. The Dolphins may not make the playoffs, and they will not be the toughest out in the bunch if they do, but they stuck around even when results were bad and were rewarded with an opportunity. The Ravens led the AFC at one point; now they’re one of the bodies in the river. Whether or not they make the playoffs, the story of Miami’s season is that they waited by the shore long enough to see the others float by.