As Jerome Baker sat at his locker absorbing Thursday’s 27-15 loss at Cincinnati, the truth collided with reality for the Dolphins veteran linebacker.
Baker, who is as level-headed as they come, was asked what he thought of the Dolphins’ September performance.
He admitted the 3-1 record is a good start. But he reiterated it’s only a start, a beginning.
“Now it’s the second quarter of the season,” he said, “and we’ve just got to go out there keep doing what we’re doing.”
That’s the trick of this hot start to a 17-game season. You’ve got to maintain the hot streak.
The Dolphins, whose over/under victory total in Las Vegas was 8.5, were the talk of the NFL’s opening month. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, before the head injury controversy, was a hot topic nationally. Newly acquired wide receiver Tyreek Hill was a hot topic nationally. Even rookie head coach Mike McDaniel was gaining momentum as a talking point.
The Dolphins defied naysayers by taking a perfect record into the Bengals game. Philadelphia is the only other team to start 3-0.
Now comes the dog days, that part of the season where the excitement of the start wears off and the thrill of the postseason is too far in the future. This is where the grind of the season begins to grind on players and coaches.
According to the schedule, things are about to get easier for the Dolphins. Their next four games are at the New York Jets (1-2), against Minnesota (2-1), against Pittsburgh (1-2) and at Detroit (1-2).
The schedule, however, doesn’t account for injuries or scouting.
Tagovailoa was hospitalized for head and neck injuries during the Bengals game after being violently sacked. It was the second week he was forced to leave a game due to injury. In the Buffalo game he left briefly in the second quarter for what was originally described as a head injury but later was described as back and ankle ailments.
Tagovailoa is off to a great start with eight touchdowns, three interceptions and a 109.9 passer rating, so his presence is necessary.
There’s also All Pro cornerback Xavien Howard, who left Thursday’s game with a groin injury in the fourth quarter and didn’t return. His presence is also necessary. Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow went crazy throwing on the Dolphins’ secondary in the fourth quarter Thursday.
All the while, left tackle Terron Armstead, who has missed an average of five games per season the last five years, is hanging tough while battling a toe injury that’s had him questionable for the past two games.
Attrition is part of the NFL, but the Dolphins got a taste of life without Tagovailoa and Howard against the Bengals, and it wasn’t pretty. You don’t want to combine those two absences with an Armstead absence. The Dolphins have already had to survive without starting cornerback Byron Jones (leg) and right tackle Austin Jackson (ankle).
As for scouting (and we’re not talking about that pirate video of a Dolphins walk-through practice in Cincinnati), expect that to make life a bit tougher, too.
You have to think teams will soon learn how to effectively and consistently pressure Tagovailoa, and how to deal with the defense’s blitzes.
The good thing for the Dolphins is there’s no scouting that can shut down Hill, who proved to be their Most Valuable Player in September. Hill has been a one-man wrecking crew.
McDaniel and his staff have mostly pushed the right buttons as far as adjustments.
The Dolphins, therefore, are relatively happy with their first quarter.
“I think we showed that we can compete against the powerhouses in this league,” wide receiver Jaylen Waddle said.
The Dolphins’ offense still hasn’t found its groove outside of Tagovailoa, Hill and Waddle. The running game is sluggish, and overall touchdowns don’t come easily. They have five touchdowns in the three games aside from Baltimore, the game in which they had six touchdowns. The Dolphins average 24.5 points per game, a respectable total but not necessarily a fear-inducing total.
Defensively, there’s been slippage such as Thursday’s fourth quarter (Cincinnati scored 13 points) and the first three quarters against Baltimore. The defense has been able to make key plays, for the most part, but it has things it must tighten up soon. And special teams are leaking a bit of oil among a 103-yard kickoff return touchdown, the “butt punt,” and Thursday’s misadventures of a blocked 52-yard field goal attempt and a missed extra point.
“Obviously, we’re a talented team,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “We’ve just got to make the most of our opportunities.”
These are heady times for the Dolphins. They remain atop the AFC East thanks to their 21-19 victory over Buffalo, and according to their October opponents’ records, they have a good chance of being 6-2 at the end of the month.
Of course, things could also go the other way.
Players say they aren’t thinking long term.
“We’ve got to keep getting better,” Howard said. “One loss ain’t gonna determine our whole season. Like I said, we’ve got to know how it feels to lose. The stuff we can get better at, we need to take these few days, get some guys all the way healthy, and get back to the drawing board.”