It’s not the loss. It’s the pattern.
It’s not the Sunday statement. It’s the season’s question.
And it’s not the Miami Dolphins defense at issue in the way all the finger-waggers and toe-tappers were certain of back in September.
It’s the fun-loving Dolphins offense that’s the problem now. The fast-flying offense. The points-piling, crazy-creative, no-speed-zone offense that even after Sunday’s 21-14 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs leads the NFL in points, yards, per-play average and overall whee-factor to watch.
No one needed to translate, “Whee” to German on Sunday. But “splat?” That’s what the Dolphins offense did for too much of Sunday, either against another top defense or just away from home. Take your pick.
The evidence keeps piling up. Fourteen points in Sunday’s loss to Kansas City — and seven came on an abbreviated, 27-yard drive thanks to a defensive takeaway. Seventeen points in the loss at Philadelphia — and seven of those were scored by the defense. Twenty points at Buffalo — but only six in the final three quarters.
Do you see the pattern here? And the lingering question to this season?
This Dolphins have been held under 30 points once in six wins against defenses ranked in the bottom 10 of the league. It’s also averaged 17 points in their three losses against defenses in the top half of the league — and, see above, even that total is defense-aided.
Finally, the Dolphins haven’t beaten a winning team since their sun-aided, 21-19 defeat of Buffalo at home in September of last season. That’s covering some ground, as well as filling out a narrative that needs changing.
In Sunday’s first half, Kansas City’s defense did more than hold the Dolphins scoreless. It read one of this offense’s beloved wide-receiver screens to Tyreek Hill just before half to the point Hill was rocked backwards as he caught the ball, fumbled and safety Bryan Cook retuned it 59 yards for a touchdown. It was 21-0 at half and the game was basically over.
“We knew we had a second half to come back and make a run at it,” Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. “But it’s always tough against a team like that. Those guys know a thing or two about big games.”
By comparison, do the Dolphins do not? Is the learning curve still in play — and how much longer does the slope run?
This is a question, not a conclusion. And if it persists through this season then something has to change. Namely, this: The Dolphins have to be tough enough to run inside for the hard yard at some point. Good defenses are setting up to stop their outside runs and downfield passes. Fast is fun. But tough is a component you need, too.
Then again, they have the rest of the season to grow and adapt. It’s a long way to December, a long, long way to January. If you don’t believe teams change, just look how far this Dolphins defense has come.
On Sunday, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio set his strategy to stop Kansas City’s lone threat in tight end Travis Kelce. Smart, right? Kelce’s three catches and 14 yards didn’t allow time for the NFL Network to mention Taylor Swift.
So, Patrick Mahomes’ offense got all of 14 points, one on the opening drive and one on a well-earned, 19-play, 95-yard drive in the second quarter where you just tip your cap to Mahomes. He was asked to run that many plays without any breakdowns, without a pass to Kelce and miniature running game. And he did it. That’s why he’s the best.
Still, Mahomes’ offense generated 67 yards in the second half. It never left Kansas City territory. The Dolphins’ Bradley Chubb strip-sacked Mahomes to set up the Dolphins’ second touchdown. It got Kansas City off the field in three downs with 2:28 left in the game and got the ball back to the offense.
And, well, nothing happened.
Oh, Raheem Mostert ran for 25 and 19 yards on the first two plays. That’s brings up a telling point: Coach Mike McDaniel didn’t abandon the run. The Dolphins ran 14 times and Tagovailoa passed 15 in the second half.
But the telling plays of that last-gasp drive first came when Tagovailoa threw here and Cedrick Wilson Jr. ran there in the same manner the passing game looked unsettled most of the game. And then came the kind of mis-snap from center Connor Williams on fourth-and-10 that’s been around since July.
It’s the details in big games, right? Is that what Tagovailoa was saying Kansas City knows and the Dolphins need to learn?
“We knew going into the game that if we’re going to lose what the narrative would be and that’s fair,” McDaniel said. “We shouldn’t feel entitled to high opinions from the masses. We have to earn that confidence.”
He’s got the right mindset. Can he find the right answers?