Castoffs, journeymen, scrubs. Go ahead, call them that. Call them players hanging on at the bottom of the roster, and why not? Even they acknowledge that much. Make fun of their pedigree. You wouldn’t be alone.
Scratch your head, if you like, at the mention of their names. Lafayette Pitts? He’s a Miami Dolphin? Are even his parents aware?
Before anyone gets too carried away with this — like we haven’t already — Cameron Wake has something to say about why he thinks the Dolphins are in the playoffs.
When Wake says it’s not because of the team’s Pro Bowl players, he’s fully aware he’s discounting his own contributions. Wake’s logic is every team has Pro Bowl players and they basically cancel each other out.
“I expect (Ndamukong) Suh to have a great game,” Wake said. “I expect myself, and so on and so on. Jarvis (Landry) gets a hundred yards — eh. Seeing Jarvis get a hundred yards at this point, is that spectacular? Eh, not really.
“Now, Lafayette Pitts comes in and has three tackles and some great special-teams play — that’s what is going to make the game — the guy that you don’t know. These are the ones that are really keeping the ship going. Is that going to be in the paper, probably? No. I’m not going to say he won the game, but he played a large factor in the fact we were successful.
“There’s probably a list of like 10 guys that will never be on the front page that have probably been tremendous factors in our success.”
That’s about how many prominent players have missed significant time this season due to injury. Of the ideal starting 22, only six players made it through all 16 games while nearly as many (five) landed on injured reserve. Linebackers and defensive backs were ravaged. Even seemingly indestructible quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed starts for the first time in his career with a knee problem that might keep him out of Sunday’s wild-card game at Pittsburgh.
Instead of “Fins up,” coach Adam Gase’s pet phrase of “next man up” became the battle cry. As much as players put on a brave face regarding injuries as a badge of courage, most Dolphins interviewed for this story agreed they’ve never played on a team that had so many guys go down.
“It’s mind-boggling,” safety Bacarri Rambo said.
“It’s crazy,” said Walt Aikens, who has blossomed late this season into a vital contributor on special teams.
Something else is crazy. As injuries piled up, the Dolphins actually got better, shaking off a 1-4 start to go on a 9-1 run, which supports Wake’s theory.
“We couldn’t do it without those guys stepping up and filling in for these injured players,” Aikens said. “It shows a lot about our character.”
Gase agreed, to a point. Hey, it’s playoff time, so he must demand more.
“The guys that have come in, they’ve done a very good job,” Gase said. “There have been moments of inconsistency, and that’s where sometimes you miss the guy that was the starter, because one game it’s good, one game it’s bad, where some of these high, the elite performers (are more even-keeled). … What’s the one thing we always talk about? Consistency. It’s the same every week. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”
So here’s a closer look at a few of the role players who helped get the Dolphins rolling.
LB Mike Hull
There are compliments, and then there are, well, you be the judge.
Darren Rizzi, the Dolphins’ special-teams coordinator and assistant head coach, was trying to get across the point that Hull, 6-feet and 233 pounds, is more than meets the eye. The way the always-colorful Rizzi sprinkled his description was priceless.
“If you look at the guy, you might not pick him out of the lineup at the Dunkin’ Donuts,” Rizzi said. “They might not know he’s an NFL player if he walked in there. But when the guy is on the field, he just makes plays.”
Hull wasn’t offended by the remark. In fact, he seconded it.
“That’s the truth,” he said. “I mean, I fit in pretty well. No one really recognizes me and a lot of times that’s a good thing. That’s an accurate statement by him.”
Hull finished third in the NFL with 18 special-teams tackles.
“I love special teams,” said Hull, who was originally signed as an undrafted free agent out of Penn State in 2015 but was waived twice. “I knew coming into the league, and especially this year, if I was going to make it, it would be on special teams.”
Hull’s role evolved when linebacker Kiko Alonso couldn’t suit up for the Arizona game. Looking forward to his first career start, Hull said he felt he had good instincts and “a knack for finding the ball.”
He needed just six plays to prove it, intercepting Carson Palmer to set up a touchdown. He finished with eight tackles and even saw action at middle linebacker, with a healthy Alonso moved outside, at the end of the season.
“With all the injuries, it’s definitely been a big step for guys to be able to step into roles and keep producing,” Hull said. “We’ve been able to win with guys that are backups, that don’t have that much experience, or young guys even, and I think that’s been a key to our success in winning nine out of 11 games.”
C Kraig Urbik
The Dolphins signed Urbik, an eight-year veteran, in March as insurance against injuries on the offensive line. When Mike Pouncey went down for the season with another hip injury, it was time to cash in that policy.
After Anthony Steen started four games at center, the Dolphins switched to Urbik, who has started the past three and figures to do so against the Steelers.
Considering Urbik spent six seasons at Buffalo, he took pride in one of his recent starts — against the Bills.
“They were talking about how they’re not going to let us run the ball over them again and they’re doing everything in their power to stop it,” Urbik said. “They’re playing the 4-4 defense and putting in goal-line looks and it still didn’t matter. We still ran the ball for 260 on them. It felt really good.”
If playing against former teams fires up Urbik, the Dolphins are in luck. He was a third-round pick of the Steelers in 2009 but was released a year later. Fresh in his mind was the day the Steelers shifted him to left tackle, where he had to line up against Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison.
“Rookie year was just miserable,” said Urbik, who was picked up by Buffalo. “Thankfully, I had people who realized I could be a good player in the league.”
Urbik knows about cultivation. His major at Wisconsin was agricultural business.
“The business school at Wisconsin is very, very prestigious,” he said. “You need like a 3.9 GPA just to get in and I didn’t have a 3.9 GPA, so when you start going down the rung in what type of business schools there are, agricultural business was one of the things that I landed on. A lot of guys went through that route.”
S Bacarri Rambo
Rambo was signed as a free agent on Oct. 25, was playing a week later … and starting a month later. That’s the kind of season it has been for the secondary, which has now lost starting safeties Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus to injury. That’s in addition to cornerback Xavien Howard missing 10 games, requiring accelerated learning by Tony Lippett, a second-year player who was a receiver at Michigan State.
Rambo has recorded at least seven tackles in three of the past six games and made an interception against Arizona. He also delivered one of the best quips of the season when asked how he quickly adapted.
“Why do you think I wear a 7 5/8 in hats? Because I’ve got a big brain and I absorb a lot of information,” he said.
He’s smart enough to know he has to improve in taking the proper angle to cut off ball-carriers and in finishing tackles.
“I’ve just got to get under control when I come to make tackles, limit the YAC, the yards after catch,” he said after the 35-14 loss to New England. “I did a poor job. I have to do better.”
TE MarQueis Gray
Gray attended Minnesota, where he was a part-time starter at quarterback. If you were an opposing lineman trying to sack this guy, good luck.
Now 6-4 and 255 pounds, Gray has found a home in the NFL as a tight end. He was impossible to miss early in the Pittsburgh victory that turned around the Dolphins’ season, catching a career-best 53-yard pass from Tannehill to set up a field goal. But here’s the thing: Asked which accomplishments this season he’s most proud of, Gray instead cited plays in which his blocking sprung Jay Ajayi for key runs. Those were “more meaningful,” he said, because they directly led to victories.
Gray has played for four teams in his four-year career but the Dolphins last week signed him to a two-year extension, which says all that needs to be said about what they see in him. Gray called the contract a “stress reliever.” Until now, he always signed seasonal leases and was boxing up his belongings around New Year’s. Just like that, South Florida began feeling like home.
As for the Dolphins, they’ve gone through ups and downs with the replacements, but having won 10 games anyway, it’s tough to complain.
“I know some of those guys hurt are big-time players,” Gray said. “If we have those guys now, who knows? Our ceiling was going up either way. I feel like we would have been in a lot better shape. We probably wouldn’t have had some of those close games we had.”
Of the potential 22 starters for the Dolphins entering the season, only six made it through all 16 games. Nearly as many starters finished the year on injured reserve: Isa Abdul-Quddus, Koa Misi, Mike Pouncey, Reshad Jones, Jordan Cameron.
Red: On IR or still out | Yellow: Missed a game or more due to injury | Green: Played all 16 games