Culture club: Miami Dolphins discover bad habits aren’t that hard to break after all

Adam Gase and the Dolphins have won six straight. (Getty Images)

Adam Gase and the Dolphins have won six straight. (Getty Images)

If it’s true you can’t correct a problem until you recognize one exists, this past week represented an awakening for the Dolphins and their fans.

The malaise lingering over this team has never been a secret, but only now, amid this intoxicating six-game winning streak, are we getting a full view not only of how right things are today, but how wrong they were in the past. So before getting into the many feel-good aspects of this Dolphins season, it’s necessary to examine exactly what Adam Gase signed up for.

“Nonsense,” he said, describing the culture that had been allowed to fester in the locker room, manifesting itself in players being late to meetings, loafing in practice and getting fined for violating team rules. It was so obvious to the rookie coach, he made it Priority 1 when he took the job.

Knowing Gase yanked the lid off the problems, players seconded him. Think back to the many times the Dolphins bemoaned not playing a “complete game.” Right tackle Ja’Wuan James said on those days, finger-pointing was occurring on the sideline between offense and defense.

“You could tell it’s like, ‘Ah, man, damn. They’re not doing nothing today’ kind of thing,” James said.

Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91), celebrates striping the ball away from New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in November. (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)

Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91), celebrates striping the ball away from New York Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in November. (Bill Ingram / The Palm Beach Post)

It’s an attitude that promotes losing, and losing is what Cameron Wake has experienced in bucketloads since joining the Dolphins in 2009. Wake has never been to the playoffs, never even enjoyed a winning season. For a Pro Bowl player so meticulous that his strict diet is legendary on the team, seeing teammates with a lax attitude was tough to digest.

“Sure, 100 percent,” Wake said. “For me, if you want to ruin your life or you want to do something that doesn’t affect anybody else, knock yourself out. But this game is different. This is not tennis or boxing where whatever you do is only on your dime or on your own. If you mess up or you don’t follow through, it affects me, it affects him (pointing around the locker room), it affects him, it affects everybody.

“So the disappointment not only is for you and your career and hopefully your family, but it affects me as well. If you don’t do something right, WE lose. … So it has been frustrating, for sure.”

Along comes Gase, telling his team it needed to grow up. Imagine that: The youngest coach in the league, 38, injecting a few hundred CCs of maturity into guys only slightly younger than he is. With it, he found that delicate balance between being respected and being a players’ coach (many players use the word “love” when discussing him).

During practice last week, Gase learned defensive tackle Leon Orr had been arrested on drug charges, so he called Orr over and cut him on the spot — before the workout was even finished.

“He gives you the leash, gives you the rope,” left tackle Branden Albert said. “If you mess it up, then he pulls it, and I think that’s how it should be. For the most part, guys have been good about not messing up.”

Long snapper John Denney is in his 12th season with the Dolphins, making him their longest-standing player.

“It’s just coming together for us,” Denney said. “It’s a winning culture. You start stringing together wins like this and it changes your mindset. And for young guys, they just think that’s the way it is. And for the other guys that have been around, they start to adapt: OK, this is the identity we’ve created as a team. So that’s what you start to expect.”

Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert, coming off a wrist injury, says 'everybody's just having fun' now. (Getty Images)

Dolphins left tackle Branden Albert, coming off a wrist injury, says ‘everybody’s just having fun’ now. (Getty Images)

Running back Jay Ajayi, who helped trigger the winning streak with back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances, said, “Now that we’ve been winning, we understand what it takes.”

The vibe in the locker room this past week, leading up to Sunday’s game at Baltimore, has been as upbeat as any in recent memory. Music blasting, occasional horseplay, laughter.

“Everybody’s just having fun,” Albert said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. We are having fun. Football is a kids’ game. You’ve got to have fun playing football.”

It’s not all fun. As the wins pile up, the bar is ratcheted up, too. Players are spending extra time in the weight room or watching game film on team flights rather than sleeping or watching movies. In team meetings to go over film, even the slightest missteps are pointed out,  which cornerback Bobby McCain admitted can get uncomfortable.

“But at the end of the day that’s the culture,” McCain said. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out here in the NFL, so you’ve got to do what you have to do to make it.”

Were those “little things” allowed to slide in the past? McCain gave a one-word answer that spoke volumes: “Yeah.”

To say Gase has complete control of this team would be wrong. He doesn’t even want it. He put the onus on the team’s leaders to do their part, according to backup quarterback Matt Moore.

“Basically let it be known that whoever it is, they’ve got to take over the locker room and keep us going in the right direction and if something’s going on, we need to nip it in the bud right now and move forward. We’re here for one reason: to win.”

It’s a speech that may have been delivered in 32 of 32 NFL locker rooms. Why here, why now, is the message getting through? From a guy so young?

“What’s the old saying? Age is just a number?” Moore said. “He’s different. He’s … different. I think when he does talk to guys, both offensively and defensively, he’s got something working for him that resonates within guys.”

Remember Bullygate, when the common thinking was it took place in part because the Dolphins had no leaders? While Moore questions that narrative, he said there’s no doubt leadership can be found throughout this locker room, from Ryan Tannehill to Ndamukong Suh to Jarvis Landry to “everybody,” he said.

“I could name 20 guys that are doing it right.”

Said James: “We took ownership as individuals to each other, like, ‘OK, I don’t want to mess up so these guys can’t go home early and see their families. And I feel like that’s really translating to the field where you know you could count on somebody. Our defense knows they can count on us. Offense, we know we can count on them. Special teams as well, no matter how the game is going.”

Tight end MarQueis Gray said the team is more of a tight-knit bunch. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

Tight end MarQueis Gray said the team is more of a tight-knit bunch. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

Several players pointed to the 14-10 victory over the Rams in which the Dolphins rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

“I walked past (cornerback Byron) Maxwell on the sideline,” tight end MarQueis Gray said. “He just looked at me dead in my eye, said, ‘We’re going to win this game.’ You know what? We did. It’s just a different swagger about this team right now.”

The teaching philosophy has changed. Safety Michael Thomas said new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph doesn’t just tell players what they have to do, but explains why. Players now meet in larger groups.

“The running backs and O-line, we’ve been meeting more — we haven’t done that in the past — on run concepts and protection,” James said. “And also as a whole offense, we meet a lot more.”

By understanding of each other’s roles, James said, players can adjust on the fly and better complement one another.

Dolphins fans don’t need reminding their team last qualified for the playoffs in 2008, when, coincidentally, they were eliminated at home by the Ravens. Getting at least that far would fill a void in Wake’s resume. Having witnessed his share of false starts when it comes to righting this ship, Wake is cautiously optimistic.

“I’m a guy who doesn’t count chickens until they hatch, so we’ve got a lot of work left to do, but obviously, it’s fun winning,” Wake said. “So hopefully, that’s a step in the right direction.

“I think accountability is definitely there. That is something that can happen much quicker, I’m sure. Changing the culture maybe will take a little longer, maybe a couple more swings of the bat.”

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