It’s Week 13 of the 2023 NFL season and the 4-8 Washington Commanders will be facing a 8-3 Miami Dolphins team in Raljon.
Washington’s playoff hopes have evaporated, the Defensive Coordinator was fired in a “re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic” exercise, and most fans are counting the days before the season ends. Conversely, the Dolphins look like a powerhouse that has a real shot at being the AFC representative in the Super Bowl. Two teams headed in completely opposite directions.
To try to retain some intrigue during the ass end of this lost season, I asked Kevin Nogle of the Phinsider five questions about the state of the Dolphins and what to look for in this game.
1) Mike McDaniel is one of the more interesting personalities in the NFL, and he’s winning which means most people will find his quirkiness endearing. What do Dolphins’ fans think of McDaniel at this point? Are there any aspects of his approach that fans would like to see improved upon?
He is still a second-year head coach, so there are still areas that can be addressed. He cannot seem to win challenges - even when they seem to be good challenges, somehow he loses. It is a weird aspect of his coaching tenure thus far. He is 2-7, and I was actually surprised because I thought it was 1-7 until I double-checked that stat.
The Dolphins have been a much more balanced offense this year, throwing on 57 percent of their plays, compared to 62 percent last year. That said, McDaniel will still get away from the run if they are unable to establish it early. When you have Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill, and Jaylen Waddle firing on all cylinders, getting away from the run is not necessarily a bad thing. But, it can be frustrating when it happens because if the offensive line cannot keep up with the pass rush, and the defense knows the Dolphins are in pass-first, pass-often, pass-only mode, Tagovailoa will take unnecessary hits and the timing of the offense can be thrown off.
Overall, Dolphins fans are largely supportive of McDaniel and the coaching staff. You are exactly right - his quirky behavior has everyone loving him, in large part because it has been paired with winning. He is fun, he relates so well to the players, and he is comfortable with who he is. It has been a breath of fresh air in Miami, and it is obviously working really well.
2) Things have been relatively quiet regarding Chris Grier - at least outside Miami - since Brian Flores was unceremoniously canned early last year. That controversy overshadowed the fact that Grier has had some very nice drafts in the past few years, and has also been pretty aggressive in acquiring vets (e.g., Tyreek Hill) during that time as well. McDaniel obviously gets a lot of credit for the Dolphins’ success, but this is really the team that Grier built. What do Dolphins fans think of Grier and his dust up with Flores?
Grier’s approval rating has improved with the team’s success. Grier and Flores were clearly in a fight for power with the team, which is strange because everything Grier does in his role as GM has been to find the players the coach wants and worked to make sure the system and the players match. He often defers to what the coach wants to do, but I think the Flores drama really did center on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Hired before the “Tank for Tua” year - I still do not agree with the semantics of the team “tanking” but that is a different discussion - Flores should have been on board for the team selecting Tagovailoa with the fifth overall pick in 2020. Almost from the moment the Dolphins sent in the card for Tagovailoa, Flores was looking to replace the team’s new quarterback. Flores began looking to add more and more power, while Grier continued to try to get his coach what he wanted for the roster, and acquiesced to some of the power grab. Eventually, however, it came down to Flores or Grier in the eyes of owner Stephen Ross, and, even after the Dolphins finished the 2021 season with a winning record, Flores was fired.
Obviously, Flores filed a lawsuit against the NFL, the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, and Houston Texans alleging racial discrimination while also alleging the Dolphins had tried to pay him to lose games. That became the story, but at the end of the day, the Dolphins fired Flores for the same reason coaches get fired every year - it just was not working with the organization and it was time to move on.
Grier is a really solid general manager who does a great job of supporting his coaching staff. He is willing to be aggressive and go get pieces, like Hill, Bradley Chubb, Jeff Wilson, Jr., Terron Armstead, etc., etc. He sees that the Dolphins window for success is open right now, and he will do whatever is needed to make sure they capitalize as best they can. He is not perfect, and the repeated trades, signing, and draft picks used on the offensive line show that, but overall, the Dolphins really are where they are right now because Grier is doing a good job.
3) I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the Dolphins have the third most team sacks in the league at this point. Tell us a bit about this defense, who seems to often be overshadowed by the team’s high octane offense.
I think a lot of Dolphins fans would be surprised to hear that the Dolphins rank that high in sacks. The defense struggled early in the season, but has definitely come on strong lately. Not having Jalen Ramsey was a huge loss for the first half of the season. Then the team also had to get up to speed on new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s system, and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who should be considered among the elite interior defensive linemen in the league, had to shake off the rust from his “hold in” during training camp and the preseason.
Over the last few weeks, the defense has looked completely different. They are getting after the quarterback, creating pressure without overly relying on the blitz, and having Ramsey and Xavien Howard at full health has given the secondary the boost it needed. Fangio also seems to have adjusted his system some. Under Flores (and Josh Boyer after Flores was fired), the Dolphins system was designed for exotic blitzes, with the front seven often standing at the line of scrimmage in an amoeba-style attack, where anyone could be rushing or dropping. Many of the players on the Miami defense were brought to the team for that system. Fangio typically relies on four to create pressure, freeing up the linebackers to cover or stop the run. As the year has progressed, we are seeing Fangio add more blitzing to the defense - which probably accounts for the sacks.
Losing Jaelan Phillips to a torn Achilles tendon last week will leave a huge hole in the defense, though.
4) Tell us a bit about one player, both on offense and defense, who we might not know about, but who you think we should. Who excites you in terms of their potential?
We will start on defense, because it ties into the loss of Phillips. Linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel should see an increase in playing time, and production, as Miami tries to replace Phillips’ role on the field. AVG always seems to make a play whenever one is needed. An outside linebacker for the most part of his career, the Dolphins have been working him as a third-down inside linebacker this year, but we probably will see him as a full-time outside linebacker now that Phillips is out. Emmanuel Ogbah and the newly signed Jason Pierre-Paul should see rotational time as well, but AVG is someone who most fans outside South Florida do not know, but he has the chance to see his name-recognition increase over the next several weeks.
On offense, rookie running back De’Von Achane would have been an answer here, but, even after missing time due to knee injuries, he may be someone people have heard of now, given he has a 200-yard rushing performance and an average near 12 yards a carry. Since he has picked up some coverage on highlight packages, I will turn to tight end Durham Smythe. He is not going to be a seam-threat, big-stat receiver in this offense, but he can be the possession-type receiver that the offense needs. Having Tyreek Hill and Jaelan Waddle is awesome, but there needs to be someone underneath to be trusted with the short-yardage gains to keep the chains moving. Smythe has that potential, and he could be a player who makes an impact, not for a big gain or a huge touchdown, but for the 4-yard reception that keeps a drive moving.
5) What are you expecting the final score of the game to be this week? DraftKings Sportsbook has the over/under set at 50.5. How many points do you expect to be scored overall?
This could be set up to be a shootout, with the Dolphins offense averaging 30.8 points per game and the Commanders averaging 20.5. Miami is allowing 22.8 points per game on defense, while the Commanders allow 29.2. The Dolphins offense has not been up to full speed the last few weeks, but they know they have to get things back on track. I think this could go over, but I think Miami’s defense, as they are getting better over the last few weeks, makes the difference here. Something like 34-21 feels right.
Thanks again to Kevin for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Dolphins. Be sure to check out Kevin’s companion piece over at the Phinsider.