As the calendar turns to December, a young Dolphins football team is positioned to gain both valuable experience down the stretch and play competitive football games with relevance to the AFC postseason picture.
Despite the 7-4 record, the goal doesn't change for the Dolphins. Of course, playing more football beyond the allotted 16 games inherently afforded to every club is a desired result, but looking to the ultimate destination is the best way to trip up along the way.
"You can't get to where you want to get without handling what's right in front of you," Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores said. "That's just been my approach."
What's in front of the Dolphins is the third-youngest team with an opportunity to continue building on their skillsets and making corrections on the plays that didn't go their way.
Dolphins Offensive Line Coach Steve Marshall was asked about the progress of his rookie offensive linemen 11 games into their NFL careers. In a league that plays one game per week it can be easy to bestow substantial weight on the previous game's results, but the overall body of work is far more likely to produce an accurate forecast for each player and team.
"As we do every week up front – win, lose or draw – the fundamental part of playing in the National Football League is utmost," Marshall said. "It's fundamentals, it's bending your knees, it's the same scenario every week in how we get those done."
Marshall talks about a pair of rookies, but finishes with the continued development of a veteran like Ereck Flowers, a player who experienced a career renaissance when he kicked inside to guard from tackle last year in Washington.
"And that's with Austin; but it's no different than Rob (Hunt) or Ereck Flowers for that matter," Marshall continued.
Take DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki. A sixth-year wide receiver who has produced 60 percent (six out of 10) of his 100-yard performances in his last 18 games and a third-year tight end who, for the second straight year, has doubled the yardage output of his rookie season in 2018.
Both players developed beyond the body of work from those initial seasons and now uphold reputations as key cogs in a Dolphins offense that is scoring more points per game than it has in two decades. It's not just Gesicki in Tight Ends Coach George Godsey's room that appreciates the process of stacking days of improvement together.
"I think all those tight ends will tell you that they have not reached their ceiling," Godsey said of Gesicki, Adam Shaheen and Durham Smythe.
The rookie season that saw Gesicki produce 22 receptions for 202 receiving yards without a touchdown was a learning moment. Invaluable experience. A teachable year of development that would help mold Gesicki into the current leader among all tight ends in yards per reception (15.0) and the fourth-highest touchdown producer (8) at the position since Week 13 of last season.
"The releases, I think that's always evolving as a route-runner, because you go against different guys," Godsey said of Gesicki's refined route-running. "You're presented defensive linemen to get around when you're attached or in-line. When you're in the slot, it may be different player than a corner outside playing you … All of those change based on the person you're going against. That's what's so fun about this, is each week there's new variables and it's a challenge."
Gesicki and Parker are far from the only veteran Dolphins experiencing something of a career resurgence in their prime years. Both Dolphins safeties (Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe) flipped from cornerback to their new spots and both rank in the top 10 of several categories among their position group (completion percentage, tackle efficiency, deep passing numbers), per Pro Football Focus.
Defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah has already best his career-highs in several categories after spending the first four years of his career in Kansas City and Cleveland.
In between established veterans and first-year players are the guys who are attempting to find their niche in that second year. Guys like cornerback Nik Needham, defensive tackle Zach Sieler and linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel.
Needham went from passer rating allowed of 117.2 as a rookie to 82.5 this season. Sieler was waived by the Ravens last December and signed a contract extension cashing in on an 11-game stretch with 19 quarterback pressures and 22 run stops – both far-and-away career highs. Van Ginkel has three forced fumbles, scored a 78-yard touchdown on a fumble return, blocked a punt and disrupted the quarterback to the tune of 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hits.
Under Flores and his coaching staff, incremental improvement from week-to-week, year-to-year, is evident all over the roster.
So, when the Dolphins imported a rookie class in bulk size, it might be natural to make a definitive declaration one way or the other after an 11-game sample size. At some stages, it might be the belief that Miami shored up three positions on the offense line and hit on a pair of defenders in the second and third round with defensive tackle and Raekwon Davis and safety Brandon Jones.
Another week, maybe it looks like "Player X" isn't the solution some thought. As history tells us, both approaches are wrong. Ups and downs are part of the rookie experience – experience that is invaluable for all of these first-year players.
"It's fun because those guys are young, because they come in here and especially with guys that might not have necessarily played full-time receiver their whole life, you're just getting these guys and they don't have a bunch of bad or good tendencies," Wide Receivers Coach Josh Grizzard said.
"We stress a lot of things to him and he has a great feel for football in general," Quarterbacks Coach Robby Brown said of Tua Tagovailoa. "He's a competitive guy. So I think the more and more reps he gets – whether it's routes versus air in practice, 7-on-7 reps, team reps in practice, game reps – all of that kind of stuff is where you get a feel for that and I think his natural instinct will come in … He has a wonderful natural instinct for the game of football."
"The more experienced each player is, the more they can help the younger or first-year players, even second-year players," Godsey said. They still have many things to improve on … That's part of this game. The more experience you get, the more you can anticipate and make quick decisions."
As Grier, Assistant General Manager Marvin Allen and the front office continue to collect draft picks and future assets, Flores and his staff will go to work on molding and developing those players into Miami Dolphins football players.
What exactly does it take to be a Miami Dolphin? The Dolphins three coordinators answered that question on Tuesday.
Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey is up first:
"I think it's week by week," Gailey said. "We're one of those offenses that tries to take what the defense gives us. I don't want to pigeonhole who we are offensively. I think we try to run the ball effectively, we throw it when we need to throw it. We've got to be more consistent with what we're doing."
Next, Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer:
"What I hope you can count on is that our guys are going to play with great effort, which they've done," Boyer said. "It doesn't matter the situation or what the score is, our guys are going to go out and they're going to play with great effort. We're going to get 11 hats to the ball and we're going to tackle well and we're going to play a physical style of football."
And we finish with a special teams unit that is ranked No. 1 in the NFL on Football Outsiders' DVOA (defensive-adjusted value over average). Crossman addressed that ranking and the moment he realized he might have something special on his hands.
"To me, it goes all the way back to last season when we started working towards our goal of building this team, of the type of players in the classroom, on the practice field, to games – the kind of players and people we were looking for," Crossman said. "We have a long way to go to really build a vision of what we're all trying to gain. But when you have a good nucleus of guys who work hard and take a lot of pride in what they are doing, we felt that we were going to have an opportunity to have a solid group."