NFL winners and losers: Beware of Dolphin attack

NFL winners and losers: Beware of Dolphin attack

There was never any reason to doubt that Mike McDaniel and Miami would have success. The stunning part is how quickly that success has come. A 20-7 win over the rebuilding Patriots in Week 1 was a feel good performance for fans, but didn’t really tell us who these Dolphins were. Their 42-38 comeback against the Ravens absolutely did. It was a statement, one the rest of the NFL should pay attention to if they have Miami on their schedule.

Unless you were out of cell phone reception all day Sunday, or decided to take a vow of celibacy against the NFL this season (which, if true, good for you), then you know the basic exploits of what happened in Baltimore on Sunday. Lamar Jackson was having one of his most convincing games in recent memory, torching Miami both through the air, and on the ground and leading the Ravens to a 28-7 halftime lead with no sign of slowing down. It was poised to be the blowout of the weekend … until it wasn’t.

Returning from the break like a brand new team, McDaniel and co. drew up one of the most brilliant offense gameplans in recent memory, which didn’t just mitigate, but eradicated all of Tua Tagovailoa’s weaknesses and turned him into a football assassin. This, aided by the offense’s confidence in simply letting Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle do their thing, without too much restraint on their route running, gave the whole offense this freeform, experimental jazz flavor that the Ravens had no answer for.

Miami hung 28 points on the Ravens in the fourth quarter alone, and when the dust settled not only had the Dolphins won, but records were left in their wake. Tagovailoa tied a franchise-record six passing touchdowns, matching efforts by Dan Marino and Bob Griese, while Waddle and Hill became the first receiving tandem in NFL history to each have 170+ yards receiving, with two touchdowns each.

McDaniel and his coaching staff employed a brutally simple, but genius concept that’s far too often ignored in the NFL: They planned around their players, not to a platonic football ideal. How often do we hear about a quarterback or a team failing because they “can’t execute a coach’s vision”? Well, that cuts both ways. Coaches are often too proud, too intractable to change their ways — and would rather die by their own sword, than dare search for a different weapon.

 

Tagovailoa’s passing chart really says it all. Despite throwing FIFTY times on Sunday, only five attempts required him to throw more than 20 yards through the air. Half of his total pass attempts only asked him to throw five yards or less downfield. This might cause snobs to scoff at the total stat line, but seriously, who gives a shit? This is about winning football games, not ribbons reading “elite quarterback.” Everyone knows the limiting factor on Tua’s ability as a passer is that he doesn’t have great arm strength, or the mechanics to compensate for this lack of physical strength. So, instead of forcing the square peg into the round hole, the coaching staff chiseled out that hole.

This ability to learn by coaches is absolutely critical, because it’s a key reason why Tua was fine, but nothing particularly special in Week 1 against New England. It’s also why he played like a Hall of Famer on Sunday. Look at the difference in his passing targets and locations from week-to-week, removing battled passes at the LOS or throwaways.

Tua Tagovailoa passing — 2022

Week 1 . . . . . Week 2 . . . . .
Week 1 . . . . . Week 2 . . . . .
Distance Attempts Complete Touchdown Interception Pass Share Distance Attempts Completion Touchdown Interception Pass Share
0-5 13 12 0 0 39% 0-5 25 21 2 0 50%
6-10 7 6 0 0 21% 6-10 8 2 0 1 16%
11-20 6 4 1 0 18% 11-20 11 8 1 0 22%
21+ 5 2 0 0 15% 21+ 5 4 3 1 10%

The team realized their best path to victory was through leaning on Tua’s decision making and timing in those first five yards to put the ball in players’ hands so they could gain YAC, but beyond that, the receiving charts for Hill and Waddle show just how much freedom they were given on the field.

The receiving charts are full of concepts, but short of clearly designed routes. It’s almost as if Hill and Waddle were given a general idea of what they should do, but more or less told to “just get open” on plays — and they did.

Let’s be clear: Nobody’s route chart looks like a play on Madden. These are humans who can’t run a perfect right angle at will — but if you look around the league there’s far more obvious patterns on the route tree. You see clear slants, posts, and drags, but nothing with as much early route freedom which sees a receiver branching off an intended route to find a path through defenders, rather than trying to beat them on their established line. Giving players carte blanche to simply “get open” isn’t something coaches are typically willing to allow their No. 1 and No. 2 options do without immense trust — especially when it comes to a first year head coach, who are often more inclined to believe in their system, rather than their players.

Mike McDaniel is a different cat though. We knew this before he ever landed in Miami. His demeanor is different, his approach to football is different, and his offensive philosophy is all his own. It’s what allowed the 49ers to surge, despite offensive limitations, and turned Deebo Samuel into a 1,700 yard all-purpose monster. Now he’s playing the hits again in South Florida, this time with a better supporting cast, and it’s turned the Dolphins into the team to watch early this season.

This is no longer a team to ignore or write off, but an absolute force — and in Week 3 they play the Bills. Get your popcorn ready. The Dolphins are my first winner of the week.

Winners: The Chiefs AND Chargers

Remember those teams who played on Thursday night? Yeah, they’re pretty damn good. Know who isn’t good? 75% of the AFC. Yes, before you start typing angry comments the other two teams I’m talking about are the Bills and the Dolphins, they are both good — but nobody won more this week when it comes to the season as a whole than Kansas City and Los Angeles.

Why? Because suddenly the AFC West looks like a cake walk for one of these teams, and a wild card feels like a certainty for the other. Leading into 2022 I would have said this was the most difficult division in the NFL, but after two weeks I can’t say that’s true anymore. The Broncos are having incredible growing pains with Russell Wilson under center, which I don’t think can correct themselves quickly enough to mount a real challenge, and the Raiders, well, there’s not much good I can say about the Raiders right now.

Where’s the wild card challenge to come from if you look beyond the AFC West? The Colts have no receivers outside of Michael Pittman Jr. who missed this week due to a quad injury, the AFC North is a dumpster fire of ineptitude right now, and if you want to believe either the Patriots or Jets are for real after their Week 2 wins then I very much would like to let you in on the ground floor of my new NFT collection I made in Microsoft Paint.

There are really four teams who control this conference at this point, then a mammoth gap to the rest. I fully expect the Chiefs and Chargers to duke it out for first in the division later this year, with the Bills and (potentially) Dolphins doing the same in the AFC East, assuming their form holds.

Loser: Russell Wilson

If you want to tout a 16-9 comeback win over the Houston Texans as some sort of moral victory, I’m not going to stop you. I’m a huge believer in the power of coping mechanisms, so long as they’re not a permanent substitute for therapy.

There is absolutely no sugar coating the last two weeks of Broncos football as far as I’m concerned. It’s sucked out loud, and Russ has been a big part of it.

There never would have been a need to fight from behind against the Houston-friggin-Texans if not for Russ’ awful first half play on Sunday, and nah Broncos fans, y’all don’t get to defend him after booing his ass out of Mile High for much of the afternoon in Denver. This is past a simple problem of acclimation. Wilson doesn’t look remotely prepared — and doesn’t even look like the same quarterback. He’s missing open throws, his mechanics are sloppy, he looks uncomfortable in the pocket, and has very little trust for his receivers, guys who are good enough to be worthy of trust.

I never bought in to the lofty Super Bowl expectations hoisted on Denver, mainly because these things take time, despite what the Buccaneers and Rams would have you believe. That said, I didn’t think Russ would come out looking so awful based on his past performance. Since Wilson’s arrival in Denver was heralded much like Peyton Manning in 2014, let’s compare the two after two weeks, shall we?

  • Peyton Manning (2014): 43-for-62, 511 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT — 126.48 passer rating
  • Russell Wilson (2022): 43-for-73, 559 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT — 86.5 passer rating

Wilson has been quite literally worse than Teddy Bridgewater was for the Broncos in 2021 so far. Obviously Russ is the better QB, that’s not the point, but you don’t trade away every ounce of future draft capital you have, and sign a quarterback to one of the biggest contracts in the NFL to have him play to a passer rating lower than Daniel Jones — and God help me, that’s a real stat.

Whether it’s friction with Nathanial Hackett, issues with the offense, or still getting used to Denver, Russ needs to fix this fast. Losing to the Seahawks was forgivable because of coaching, almost getting beat by the Texans at home is not.

Winner: Dan Campbell

Is anyone loving life more than Dan Campbell right now? On Sunday the Lions coach got to see everything he dreamed come together on the field, and he’s getting all the love off of it too.

On paper beating the Washington Commanders might not seem like the kind of tentpole achievement worthy of praise, but it is. This is a team who two years ago never could have imagined hanging 36 points on a decent opponent in a toss-up game. Campbell has everyone believing, and he’s still making sure absolutely everything is done his way.

This balance of “enjoy the moment, but get ready to work” is small, but meaningful. Don’t get me wrong, I still think Detroit is at least one more season away from really competing — but we are seeing this team come alive. The Lions are no longer an easy out. They have to be accounted for on the schedule, and he has his players buying in like no other coach in the NFL.

In the above video you can hear the team chanting “Skip.” They did this for offensive guard Dan Skipper, a long-time practice squad player who has been cut, re-signed, and clinging onto hope that one day he might actually stick. On Sunday his number was called, he had an amazing game — and instead of relegating him to a footnote, Campbell put Skipper front and center.

It is absolutely impossible to hate Dan Campbell.

Loser: Matt Rhule

From a coach it’s impossible to hate, to one who’s impossible to like. Hi Matt Rhule, welcome to the losers column for the first time in 2022. I’m sure we’ll see you here often.

I feel a burning need to list Rhule as a loser as many times as are fair this season, mostly because he will never, ever do it himself. The NFL’s king of passing the buck, Rhule and the Panthers fell to 0-2 on Sunday with a feckless, cowardly brand of offensive football that started with “let’s try not to lose” and never found another gear. Rhule blamed it on “an inability to handle the Giants’ pressure on third down.”

Get the hell out of here with that nonsense. New York was without its top two pass rushers. They were missing several other key defenders. You don’t get to try, once again, to blame the players every single time something goes wrong. Instead, maybe try blaming out of the real problems:

  1. Not adding additional protection in the form of a blocking tight end of fullback when it was clear the Giants were stacking the box to stop Christian McCaffrey.
  2. Dialing up nothing but short passes on third down that were never designed to get first downs, but just limit turnovers. It was coward’s football, and y’all paid for it.
  3. Hiring Ben McAdoo in the first place to be your offensive coordinator, which was primarily a move to ensure someone non-threatening was in a coordinator position who could take over for Rhule if he was fired.

I’m screaming into the void here. Rhule will remain, because owner David Tepper is petrified of admitting he’s wrong and GM Scott Fitterer doesn’t have much power because of Rhule’s stupid “complete control” contract.

The only thing that can save the Panthers now is Nebraska and a giant, safe college contract that will send Rhule’s ass 1,000 miles away.

The general sense of 2022 for the Browns was that this team didn’t need to do anything special for the first 11 weeks, just maintain the status quo. Two weeks in and the Cleveland defense is failing at that miserably.

Sure the team in 1-1, but that was on the back of a very near loss to the Panthers in Week 1 (see my treatise on Matt Rhule above), then following by getting torched for 300+ yards and four touchdowns by Joe Flacco. If you’re trying to come up with an excuse right now, don’t. You lost to the Jets and it was sad as hell.

Myles Garrett did work, because he always does — but this Browns secondary is bad. These should have been two simply gimme games to start the year, and now it’s an unconvincing win and a loss. Now the team is on a short week before playing the Steelers, who are bad in their own right, but look infinitely better than Cleveland does right now.

Looking at the schedule out until Week 12 when Deshaun Watson comes off suspension there’s a very real chance this team could be 3-8. Kiss any playoff chances goodbye at that point, and then cross your fingers for 2023, hoping selling your soul for Watson was worth it.

It’s honestly a complete shock the Browns look this bad so early in the season, and it really isn’t a product of Jacoby Brissett alone. I mean, he hasn’t been great — but the issues in Cleveland run far deeper.

Winner: The Packers, for opening their third eye

Whatever works for you.

About the Author: camille r mercer

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