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NFL Countdown #29 and The Little Tank Engine That Could Not

NFL Countdown #29: The Dolphins led the league with 29 turnovers generated in 2020,

recording an interception or fumble recovery in every single game.

Just a year removed from depressed fans at Hard Rock Stadium stumbling out of the concourse chanting “Tank for Tua”, Brian Flores brought hope back to the city of Miami. The 2020 Dolphins were rock solid on defense, generating a turnover in every single game and just missing out on a playoff berth with a 10-6 record. But to truly appreciate the 2020 Dolphins, we have to revisit their 2019 season and the little tank engine that could not stop winning football games.

The 2019 Dolphins are the perfect case study for how teams can try to tank, but players want to win ball games. Looking for a fresh start after Adam Gase had stunk up the entire organization, the Dolphins let Cam Wake, Ja’Wuan James, Josh Sitton, and other starters walk in free agency. They traded away Ryan Tannehill, Robert Quinn, and Laremy Tunsil before the preseason started, where Ryan Fitzpatrick beat out Josh Rosen for the starting job. The fix was in, and Florida Men everywhere started dreaming of taking Tua with the first overall pick.

Things were going according to plan, with the Dolphins losing their first seven games and churning all of their roster talent into draft capital along the way (Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kenyan Drake, et al.). The football community outside of Miami argued every week, debating whether this bald-faced tank job was bad for the sport or if this was a master stroke from the Dolphins front office. Most fans at least respected the Browns' more gradual rebuild, but this one felt different. Almost any time the Dolphins were brought up on ESPN, pundits immediately began screaming at each other about player safety or "the sanctity of the game". No matter how anyone else felt about it, the Dolphins were executing the plan to perfection, all until their players got a chance at revenge against the Adam Gase-led Jets.

Adam Gase returned to Miami as the head coach of the Jets in week 9, and we saw for the first time how sheer force of will can overcome all obstacles with this Dolphins team. They cracked the 7-game losing streak, limiting the Jets to under 20 yards on 7/11 drives and even throwing in a safety to shut the door. After this get-right revenge game, Ryan Fitzmagic led Miami to four more wins to put the Dolphins at 5-11 on the season and 5th on the draft board for 2020. The team that ended up with twelve 2020 draft picks from trading away all of their players won five of their last nine games, all thanks to Brian Flores’ leadership, a little Fitzmagic, and a lot of hatred for Adam Gase.

After a historic college season from Joe Burrow and an unfortunate injury to Tagovailoa, the team that refused to tank managed to draft Tua 5th overall in 2020. Despite their using Fitzpatrick like a relief pitcher to stay in games when Tua struggled, the Dolphins were ahead of schedule on their rebuild thanks to their stellar defense in the 2020 season.

The 2020 Dolphins led the league in several key advanced defensive metrics, including red zone defense, 3rd down defense, and yards per point (per Sharp Football Analysis). With a solid foundation in the secondary thanks to strong play from cornerbacks Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, DC Josh Boyer schemed up pressure through misdirection and keeping the offense on their toes. The Dolphins D deployed just three rushers at the third highest rate in the league, and four rushers at the lowest rate. With arguably no premier talent getting after the QB, Miami gained advantages by stunting LBs at the line of scrimmage and confusing their opponents. Teams saw a sub-50% success rate and overall negative EPA when Miami dropped 5+ DBs in coverage (thank you Warren Sharp), so I fully expect the Dolphins to just keep swimming with this top-down approach in 2021 as long as they can keep manufacturing pressure with all their talent in the secondary.

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