Under Adam Gase, in crunch time, Miami Dolphins learn how to not get crunched

Kiko Alonso en route to a pick-six against the Chargers and Tyrell Williams (16) in 2016. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

DAVIE – It was a day in which a seven-point halftime lead turned into a three-point loss, in a season in which a 3-0 start turned into an 8-8 final record. Joe Philbin, then coach of the Dolphins, stepped to the microphones minutes after the defeat and without being prompted pointed out “our guys fought hard.”

The comment came after a 26-23 loss to Baltimore in 2013, if you must know. That’s not what’s important. What is important is how frequently the players (and their coach) of that era would point out they fought hard or didn’t quit, as if the NFL issued participation ribbons.

The 2016 Dolphins fought hard and didn’t quit, either. They did one other thing: They won close games, games that made the difference between spending January prepping for the playoffs vs. prepping for the draft.

Dolphins in games decided by 7 points or fewer in the Philbin era: 12-13.

Dolphins in games decided by 7 points or fewer in Adam Gase’s first season: 8-2, including 2-0 in overtime.

Darren Rizzi, the associate head coach and special teams coordinator, didn’t sugarcoat things Monday in differentiating between Dolphins teams that get the job done when it counts and Dolphins teams that do not.

“I’ve been on, I think, teams that were 7-9 that might’ve had more talent than we had last year,” Rizzi said.

Rizzi wouldn’t bite on a follow-up question from reporters on which underachieving seasons he was referring to.

“You guys know,” he said. “We had a lot of teams here in my years – I’ve been here eight years – there have been some teams where we had to win at the end of the season where we didn’t. We had to win some big games that we didn’t. We can probably point to two or three different years. We can sit here and talk about a bunch of different years, and last year we did.”

Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker catches a 9-yard touchdown pass as Los Angeles Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson looks on.. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The beauty of it, from Rizzi’s perch, was the diversity of game-winning plays made by the 2016 team. Winners come up with plays like the 60-yard pick-six by linebacker Kiko Alonso against the Chargers’ Philip Rivers with 61 seconds left. Or DeVante Parker’s 9-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill with 36 seconds left against the Rams. Or Kenyan Drake’s 96-yard kickoff return against the Jets. That’s defense, offense and special teams, if you’re counting.

“We didn’t win it one way,” Rizzi said. “It wasn’t like the offense won every game with a two-minute drive. It wasn’t like the defense held them every (time).”

Don’t discount the role of halftime adjustments. Miami was plus-46 in point differential after halftime last season, No. 8 in NFL.

Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, a rookie who went 4-1 in one-score games last year at Ohio State, believes winning in crunch time can be drilled into a team.

“The hardest part of our workouts at Ohio State was the end of the workout,” McMillan said. “It was hard throughout, but we’ve got to turn it up towards the end; and that’s kind of our mindset here as well. Always train for the fourth quarter, always finish. At the end of the game when it’s a close game, it’s all about finishing. That’s what we’re practicing. That’s what we preach.”

Remember the Dolphins’ six-game winning streak last season that changed everything? The only blowout was 30-15 over Pittsburgh to trigger the turnaround. The average victory margin in the other five games was 3 1/2 points.

Go back to that 2013 season (yes, it’s not pleasant, but this will take just a second). Remember how the Dolphins needed to one of their two remaining games to make the playoffs but failed both times? That was a team that thought it could but found out it could not. It’s one example that led Rizzi to joke when someone asked if he feared last year’s 8-2 success in one-score games might balance out next season.

“It seemed like my first two years we were always on the short end, so I think we’re still making up for them,” he said.

“Do I think it’s sustainable? I do. We have the same people in the building. We’ve added some great pieces to the puzzle. Again, it comes down to playing well in those crunch times. That’s really the bottom line. To me, that’s in any sport. You look at the NBA Finals, you watch the Stanley Cup.”

[William Hayes immediately becomes the most interesting man in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room]

[Everything changes in a year for Dolphins LB Kiko Alonso]

[Julius Thomas promises he has prime years left in his body]

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