What now? That's the question the Dolphins must ask themselves after their third straight defeat, a very humbling 24-point loss to the Carolina Panthers. On the day after the night, there were no easy answers.
But this much is clear: There is still time to get things right. But time is becoming preciously short with just seven games left and four of them against the Patriots and Bills.
It isn't a 4-5 record that remains the greatest concern. It is the way this team has been playing since a very promising 4-2 start. It is how both the offense and the defense are struggling at the same time. It is the run defense and the run offense. It is the lopsided nature of some of these defeats. It is a combination of everything that transpired over three-plus forgettable hours against the Panthers.
Adam Gase gathered his team together early Tuesday morning in a very subdued visiting locker room and challenged his players not to let these three straight losses define their season. It's only three of 16 games, he told them. We need to move on. We need to move on a hurry. We need to get this right.
The immediate challenge: Three straight losses can't become four and that means locating the right solutions over the next few days in order to implement them Sunday against the Tampa Bay Bucs at Hard Rock Stadium. That's the urgency of this precise moment. Is it the scheme? The plays? The players? All of that is currently being evaluated.
Gase stood before the media early Tuesday afternoon, more determined than dejected. He spoke about "losing our way" and "needing to regroup." He talked about a defense where "some guys are trying to cover for other guys" and how each player needs to be responsible for his specific assignments. He talked about an offense that keeps coming "one or two plays short" and then added, "we can't seem to make the right play at the right time."
I asked Gase about the big picture and whether we had reached a pivotal point in the season. "I'm just concerned about the game in front of us," he said. "You can't afford to look ahead any further than that."
See, this league is filled with parity. Every team has flaws. Some more than others. You see it unfold every weekend. How those teams adjust to those flaws, the changes they make, the corrections they implement, mean just about everything during the course of a 16-game marathon. That's where Gase finds himself right now. He knows what happened against the Panthers was more than just one area falling short. He understands the enormity of the challenge.
Drive past the Dolphins training facility some night this week and I imagine you'll see the lights on late, especially on the second floor where the coaches work. There is a lot to evaluate, so much to decipher, many important decisions to make. And one day less this week to prepare for the Bucs.
Priorities? Let's focus for a minute on the three previously mentioned areas: The scheme, the plays and the players:
• The scheme: This is something the coaches must figure out, especially on a defense that has gone from one of the best in the league against the run to an area of significant concern. Matt Burke is in his first season as defensive coordinator. He is a bright man, a student of the game. Now he must use those smarts to come up with answers. Is it just missed tackles? Is it how the players are lined up? Is it, as Gase alluded to, a few players trying to do too much? Everything on this defense is being scrutinized.
• The plays: It is an ongoing search to create an identity for this offense. We've seen the transition unfold over the past few games from a power running team to one that utilizes the short passing game as a means of ball control. But what about the deep passing game? What about a balanced look? Gase will always tell you that there are calls he wishes he had back. Such is the life of a play caller. But it's the execution of the plays, far more than then the plays being called, that seem to be the issue with this offense.
"The challenge," Gase said "is getting 11 guys working together."
• The players: When you are dealing with a 53-man roster, there is only so much you can do from a personnel standpoint during the course of the season. Are there changes needed in the starting lineup? Is this the time to add more young players to the mix? Gase said he is looking at everything and will continue to do so. But reality says that this is mid-November and, except for some minor adjustments, you've got to stay with the people that you have believed in all along. They simply need to play better.
"This group is pretty good at moving on," said Gase.
It had better be after what we saw against the Panthers.