A veteran NFL scout answered his phone this week like so:
“Do they know how good they are?”
He was talking about the Miami Dolphins after their loss last Sunday to the San Francisco 49ers. He wondered where they stood on intangibles like confidence, perspective and self-awareness as they processed that loss before Sunday night’s game against the Los Angeles Chargers – and beyond.
Possibly far beyond. He thought that much of them.
“That’s the kind of loss that, I’d bet, makes them feel better on the inside (of the team),’ he said. “They did things to San Francisco no one’s done when (the 49ers) had all their players.”
That was an undercurrent to the Dolphins 33-17 loss against a top NFC contender. A moral win? It was more than that, really. It raised thoughts about them. It showed they can play with the best after having open receivers running free against the league’s No. 1 defense.
Two, three, four touchdowns were left on the field?
“You can see them right there,’ the scout said.
For years, denial was a necessary psychological tool for Dolphins teams to succeed or, more accurately, just survive. They weren’t undermanned, they’d scoff at analystics They didn’t like skilled players, they’d say. Denial covered the cracks for them. There was no value in seeing the obvious.
Now can they see the obvious? Do they understand they’re not overmatched by anyone? That, especially on offense, receiver Tyreek Hill’s impact and coach Mike McDaniel’s strategic ideas have created open space for everyone to thrive?
In November, the question was if the Dolphins were feasting on bottom-feeding defenses. San Francisco answered that. It elevated the idea in a manner that had people talking this week.
“I have never – never – seen the 49ers defense exposed the way they were in this game,’ NBC analyst Chris Simms said on his podcast, referring to the 49ers under coach Kyle Shanahan. “I’ve never seen more open receivers …”
‘It was amazing. It’s going to come in handy for the Miami Dolphins. They lost, yes. But there’s no way they walk off that field saying they were outclassed.”
So what happened? Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had a bad day. It happens. He missed receivers he’s hit all season. That shouldn’t happen again considering accuracy is his top tool. Losing a big game can be part of the path to winning big games.
“Were we pressing, were we not?’ offensive coordinator Frank Smith said. “Were we trying to be perfect as opposed to let the game come to you? Those environments, those things are stuff that obviously that we have discussions on afterwards.”
Sometimes, Smith said, it’s just an off day for a good team. Every season has what-if and but-only days. The idea isn’t to repeat mistakes. Las Vegas has lost four games when leading by 13 points. Baltimore has coughed up four games in the final minutes.
This three-game road trip is discussed as a defining stretch for the Dolphins in good part because they’re in the December hunt. The other part is San Francisco and Buffalo are top contenders.
The Chargers are a different test. They’re 6-6. They’re an injured team. This about taking care of business and it might just come down to the quarterbacks, Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert, in a way the television world put this game on for Sunday night.
Four Chargers defensive starters, including Pro Bowl safety Derwin James, didn’t practice this week to go with pass rusher Joey Bosa and Pro Bowl cornerback J.C. Jackson, who have been out most of the year. So Tagovailoia and this ignitable Dolphins offense will have its good chances again.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles receiver Mike Williams return Sunday after missing time with an ankle injury. Williams and Keenan Allen have played 46 snaps together this year, according to TruMedia, the equivalent of less than an average game. This Dolphins secondary is hurt, too, so Herbert should have his shots.
The Dolphins are the better team, something they showed even in a loss to San Francisco. The video should have reminded them who they are. There’s a handful of teams rising as we navigate December. The Dolphins should be one of those.
Sometimes it’s about understanding who you are. As the scout asked: Do they know how good they are?