"How's it feel?"
Those were the first words spoken by Coach Brian Flores to his players in a crowded and oh-so-happy locker room late Sunday afternoon, just a few minutes after disposing of the New York Jets 26-18.
Well, I can tell you this: One day later, it still feels awfully good.
And why shouldn't it? These players and coaches deserved this victory. They have worked too hard, overcome too many setbacks and have come too far since the brutal heat of late July not to have moments like this one. Forget about the future. Forget about who's drafting where. This is about this team and these players this season. This is about believing in a process, understanding the pain that comes with it, and embracing each step forward. Sunday was by far the biggest step yet.
Who knows where this team goes from here? They've got a tough game this Sunday against a quality Indianapolis team on the road. But before we move too far ahead, before we start thinking about building on some of the things we saw against the Jets, some reflection is in order, which means my weekly dose of Tuesday morning perspective. This week there's a lot to cover.
A big victory followed by a tough loss
Brian Flores announced in his day-after press conference that wide receiver Preston Williams will be lost for the remainder of the season with a knee injury. There is no way to sugarcoat this. Williams had the best game of his rookie season against the Jets, catching a pair of touchdown passes and his loss will be difficult to overcome. He had worked so hard to get to this point, your heart goes out to him. "It's a big loss for us," Flores said. "He's done an incredible job. Came to us as a (rookie) free agent and has really grown the last six, seven months. I was devastated for the kid." We all are, coach.
With Williams out of the mix, look for Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant and Allen Hurns, among others, to get more opportunities. Fortunately for the Dolphins, this is one of the deepest areas of the team. They'll need all that depth now.
So Monday was Victory Monday, which means the players had a well-deserved day off and the only availability for the media was Flores at his mid-afternoon press conference. My takeaway? It was a Sunday he'll never forget. Finished the day having a quiet dinner with his wife. His cell phone almost blew up with all the congratulatory texts from his Pee Wee football coach to his high school and college coaches. But when the new sun came up, his thoughts turned to this Sunday against the Colts and making sure his players don't let their post-Jets elation linger. "I'm sure all the guys feel good, but now they've got to turn the page to our next opponent," he said.
First, though, just a few more thoughts from Sunday:
- This was Ryan Fitzpatrick at his best, carving up a defense with pinpoint passes, getting so many different receivers involved, making some big third-down conversions. There were no interceptions. No game-turning mistakes. Just a 15-year-veteran a few weeks from turning 37 years old, showing all these young players how it's supposed to be done. "The work we put in, the adversity we've been put through, all the negativity from the outside looking in – that's what makes this one so special," Fitzpatrick said.
- By the way, in case you're counting that's four touchdown catches in the last five games for DeVante Parker.
- A word about the offensive line. Sure, there were four sacks allowed and the running game produced very little. But when Fitzpatrick needed time he got it and considering that this was the sixth different starting offensive line combination in eight games, it was overall a pretty good effort.
- No. 1 draft pick Christian Wilkins had his best game of the season against the Jets, his big play a first-quarter sack of Sam Darnold for a 9-yard loss on a third-and-three that forced an unsuccessful 49-yard field goal attempt. Wilkins registered five tackles, two quarterback hits and two tackles for losses. It has taken him a while to get going, but we now see the growth and the promise on a regular basis. We see the reason he'll be an important part of this defense for a long time.
- The Dolphins had their best third-down conversion rate of the season against the Jets, making 50 percent (6 of 12). That's a large reason why they had a rare advantage in time of possession. They also continue to be among the least penalized teams in the league, and that's a dramatic and noteworthy change from only a season ago.
- Through my binoculars, the biggest defensive play of the game was the second-quarter goal-line interception by cornerback Jomal Wiltz with the Dolphins up 21-7. Wiltz is one of those players who has shown consistent improvement. He made a great athletic play to make that interception, fighting hard to get the ball. Another of those young defensive backs that stood out was Nik Needham, who led the team with nine tackles and had a huge fourth-quarter sack.
- Relatively unnoticed amid the victory celebration was the job this defense did on Jets' running back Le'Veon Bell, who finished with 66 yards on 17 carries and never really had a chance to impact the game. You hold an enormous talent like Bell to those pedestrian type numbers and you're doing very well.
- And now we turn our thoughts to the Colts and the first chance this season for the Dolphins to win two in a row. That, by itself, shouts progress.