After a road win a few weeks ago, coach Mike McDaniel told his players that they would have the day off Monday.
“Victory Monday,” is what they call it in the NFL.
And then quarterback Tua Tagovailoa approached teammates on the happy flight home with a slightly different message.
“I remember Tua walking up to me on the plane saying ‘11 a.m. meeting tomorrow; we’re trying to get the whole offense together,’” center Michael Deiter recalled recently.
And here’s what’s neat: Dolphins players meeting on their off day, without coaches, wasn’t the least bit unusual this season. Tagovailoa has done it repeatedly, including this past Monday after McDaniel gave the team off following the win against Houston.
This new era of Dolphins football has been marked not only by more offensive fireworks, better quarterback play and more winning, but also by a renewed sense of initiative among the players to prepare themselves in ways that go well beyond what is required.
“Everything about this team is players-led,” Baker said. “That’s the cool thing about this team. We all want to get better. It’s not that [only] the coaches want us to get better. It’s not the front office. It’s this locker room. We all want to win and do well, and we’re putting in the work to do it.”
Here’s how this dynamic has manifested itself:
▪ Whether McDaniel schedules meetings or not, the offensive players come in and meet alone, without coaches, on Mondays. Tagovailoa has been the catalyst for those meetings.
“It’s good to come in here and watch as a group and hear everybody’s perspective, and honestly how Tua sees it, because that’s all that matters,” tight end Gesicki said. “We’re all just sitting there, but he has the clicker. He runs it. It’s productive.”
Deiter explains it this way: In past years, even when players were given off on Mondays, the offensive linemen would come in and watch tape together.
But this year “on multiple victory Mondays, we as an offense came in and everyone watches it, “ Deiter said. “Tua runs it. It’s a lot more organized. The O-line will even come in 30 minutes before that meeting and iron out anything that’s really specific to us. Tua and the whole offense will get together and see what’s good and what we can get better with. It’s been fun. It’s easier with just the guys who have played.”
Offensive lineman Robert Jones puts it this way: “It’s one thing hearing the coaches talk. But we’re out there playing. Having players communicate how we want it done, how we need to see it, helps a lot.”
Left tackle Armstead said during his time in New Orleans, “I would always have the o-line come in Monday and watch the film and watch the next opponent and make corrections.”
He does the same here.
“Here the O-line meets first and then the whole offense, we meet, and bounce ideas off each other,” Armstead said. “It’s been very beneficial.”
▪ All season, Tagovailoa has been running players-only meetings with his receivers in the middle of the week.
“It’s twice a week,” Cedrick Wilson Jr said. “He comes to our room and it’s a Tua-run, player-run meeting. It’s a chance for us to talk to each other and learn it in our own terminology as far as what the coaches want us to get done.”
They talk about the defensive backs they will be competing against and what could work against them. “It definitely helps,” Wilson said. “If you get can all the communication done before
Sunday, you’re usually in good hands. That’s what good quarterbacks do. That’s what usually separates them — the leadership role to get people on the same page with them.”
▪ Armstead runs the players-only offensive line meeting on Mondays and invites players to work on their craft with him on Tuesdays, the one day off that players always get, whether they win or lose the previous game. Young players have used those sessions to work on technique.
“That’s something I’ve done throughout my career,” Armstead said. “I’ve always tried to make the Tuesday off day my biggest day for improvement. A lot of technique work. A lot of guys gravitate to it, looking to improve. I extended the invite [to Dolphins teammates] the first week. I’ve probably had every guy come at some point.”
Jones, the young guard, said in those Tuesday sessions, Armstead has helped him with footwork. “It helps hearing his thoughts on a lot of things. It has taken me a long way.”
Tagovailoa watched Armstead run one of those meetings on Monday, a day after Armstead sustained a pectoral injury.
“It was really cool to see him take ownership of that room,” Tagovailoa said. “Nothing slips. No one gets a free pass, not even himself.”
▪ With co-captain Roberts leading the charge, the linebackers have added an extra players-only meeting on Thursdays this year, linebacker Duke Riley said.
“It’s going over practice,” Riley said, “and understanding what each guy sees with [the offense they’re playing against that week], things like ‘If I do this, you don’t do that.’”
The thinking behind that?
Baker said the emphasis of these meetings is “communication, going over what you see, what anybody’s concerns are, just getting that trust in guys talking to each other so on the field, it’s a little easier.”
Baker said there were player-led meetings in past years but “it’s emphasized” more now.
“We just wanted to get better,” Baker said. “We just want to maximize the potential we have.”
▪ And safety Jevon Holland has led a similar players-only meeting among defensive backs.
“Thursday, right after practice, we go over our bunch/stack rules, get the communication out,” safety Eric Rowe said. “Make sure if we mess up on the field,we go in there and correct it right away so on Friday we can get it right. It helps a lot.”
Baker said “credit to Jevon and E-Rob” for being leaders with these meetings.
“E-Rob leads the front seven meeting and Jevon leads the back end,” Baker said. “It’s all separate. The front seven has a meeting. The DBs have their own meeting. And the offense still comes in Monday and gets work in [even] when we’re off essentially. It’s a credit to the guys we got.”
So why is this happening?
“The players, the captains, the leadership council have really stepped up and led this team the proper way, whether it’s meeting by ourselves or hanging out as a group,” cornerback Noah Igbinoghene said.
Linebacker Sam Eguavoen has noticed a change in this team.
“It’s player-led now. A lot of guys get [angry] if they don’t reach their goals. We’re more driven now; we want more out of each other.”
Off the field, there’s more camaraderie, too.
The Dolphins’ defensive linemen used to have a Thursday night dinner. This year, they began inviting the linebackers.
“Christian [Wilkins] and Zach [Sieler] are two of the main guys [with including the linebackers]; they’re always trying to get the team together,” Riley said. “Those guys are like brothers. Zach and Christian do a great job of getting guys together. A different defensive player would have it as his crib; if they have a condo, they go to the restaurant.”
A different player picks up the tab each week, Eguavoen said.
The advantage of that?
“Getting to know guys outside of ball,” Riley said. “Talking about life. People have real things going on in life. We’re getting a lot of that off our chest. Football players are not known to go to other people for help. So we lean on each other for that.”
Armstead does the same with the offensive linemen, inviting them to dinner on Thursdays.
Eguavoen said not only do “we have a really good team” but “we bond better outside of work” than past years.
Beyond the absence of malcontents on this team, the Dolphins also have a bunch of self-starters who are motivated to work on their crafts without imploring from coaches.
“We have a bunch of guys who are accountable, respectable, lead by example,” Eguavoen said. “Don’t really have too many guys who bark and don’t bite. We have a lot of biters. We have a team that we mesh well together.”
Everything starts with coaching and talent. But don’t discount player initiative, accountability and diligence — three characteristics of all of this team’s key players.