The Miami Dolphins were arguably the N.F.L.’s least relevant team from the turn of the 21st century until two Sundays ago.
They were never truly great during that span, but were rarely terrible enough to be comically entertaining, either. They produced few stars or personalities and fewer memorable moments. The Dolphins of the last two decades appeared to exist solely to provide a place holder in the A.F.C. East standings to visibly illustrate the chasm between the New England Patriots and the Jets.
All of that was beginning to change when the rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made his highly-anticipated debut as a starter on Nov. 1 against the Los Angeles Rams. The Dolphins have won two straight games with Tagovailoa leading their offense and are now enjoying their first four-game winning streak since 2016.
Tagovailoa has been solid-but-unspectacular in his first two starts. His two-touchdown performance in Sunday’s 34-31 victory over the Arizona Cardinals was encouraging, but he did little in his first start except hold the steering wheel and sit in his defense’s lap while it forced four turnovers. Tagovailoa makes the Dolphins interesting, but it’s second-year head coach Brian Flores who is making the team competitive.
The Dolphins spent the 15 seasons between the slow collapse of the Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wannstedt eras and Flores’s arrival operating at cross purposes. The organization cycled through head coaches (Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, Tony Sparano, Joe Philbin, Adam Gase, and some temps) and personnel executives (Randy Mueller, Bill Parcells and his lieutenants, Dennis Hickey, and Dan Marino for three not-so-memorable weeks) to a syncopated rhythm that sometimes resulted in head coaches working for general managers who did not hire them while trying to win with quarterbacks whom neither selected. By the time one regime swept away the previous regime’s decisions, a third regime was often poised to exert itself.
The years of friction and indecision trapped the team in a holding pattern. The Dolphins finished between 6-10 and 8-8 10 times since 2006, reaching the playoffs just twice and only winning the A.F.C. East in 2008, when Tom Brady’s anterior cruciate ligament injury forced the Patriots to take a gap year.
Chris Grier became general manager in 2016 and hired Flores after consolidating control over football operations in 2019. Grier was a Parcells protégé who spent 20 years climbing the Dolphins organizational chart, and Flores had worked his way up from a Patriots scouting assistant to Bill Belichick’s de facto defensive coordinator. Yet despite their resumes, there was reason to be skeptical of the Grier/Flores administration: Grier was a lifer in an organization that appeared to need fresh voices, and Belichick’s disciples have a well-earned reputation for inheriting all of their mentor’s dictatorial grouchiness but none of his wisdom.
Sure enough, the Dolphins began the 2019 season with seven straight losses, the first four by a combined margin of 163-26. There appeared to be a silver lining though: The Dolphins were positioning themselves to select Tagovailoa, who helped the University of Alabama win the national championship in 2017, threw 43 touchdown passes while leading them back to the title game after the 2018 season and was considered a can’t-miss prospect by most experts.
Tagovailoa suffered a severe hip injury last November, causing his draft stock to dip. Flores began leading the Dolphins to occasional victories at about the same time. Enjoying just enough success to sabotage their future draft opportunities would be very on-brand for the Dolphins, but Flores was rewarded for his late-season effort to salvage the team’s dignity when a healthy Tagovailoa remained on the board until the fifth overall pick in the draft in April.
Celebrity journeyman-for-hire Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first six games of this season while Tagovailoa completed his N.F.L. orientation. Fitzpatrick then sparked a minor controversy by complaining about his demotion, which came before he could earn his customary annual benching after a multi-interception meltdown. Flores appears to have changed quarterbacks at the proper time, however: Tagovailoa looks as prepared as any rookie, and there have been no signs of any locker room division.
Flores projects a very different image from other recent Belichick protégés. Detroit Lions Coach Matt Patricia, who upstaged Belichick in the mid-2010s by strutting along the sideline with a pencil behind his ear like Kevin Smith directing “Jay and Silent Bob Take the SATs,” has developed a reputation for alienating star players by enforcing petty rules.
Bill O’Brien, famous for his in-your-face approach with Brady (who was already a superstar when O’Brien began coaching him), spent six years demolishing the Houston Texans roster and front office before getting fired in October. Flores, by contrast, appears to practice the process-driven, detail-oriented, even-tempered approach that Belichick and the Patriots have long preached.
The Dolphins are not close to being Super Bowl contenders yet. There are two rookies starting on their offensive line, their defense is bulwarked by Patriots castoffs, and Tagovailoa will inevitably experience some growing pains. But the youngsters are developing and the veterans are playing fundamentally-sound football. Furthermore, Grier stockpiled extra first- and second-round picks in 2021 by trading offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil to the Texans during one of O’Brien’s generous moods, so the Dolphins should enjoy a talent infusion next year.
The Dolphins now appear to have both a franchise quarterback and the type of “winning culture” that inspires N.F.L. insiders to compose refrigerator magnet poetry. It’s not much, but after 20 years of directionless mediocrity, it’s finally a start.