TE Anthony Fasano: Miami Dolphins’ lack of direction in ’12 helped drive me away

Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano (80), catching a fourth-down touchdown pass against San Francisco 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner (31) in December 2012, says ‘the building feels a lot different’ compared to when he left Miami. (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

We’ve heard how free agents have noticed the changes with the Dolphins and are more open-minded toward considering Miami.

We’ve heard how Dolphins with expiring contracts sense the start of something that makes them want to stick around, even using the hashtag #NewMiami on social media.

Now comes evidence of what we’ve long suspected: that the Dolphins of the prior era (namely, The Philbin Era) were just as influential at driving players away.

Tight end Anthony Fasano was one such player. He enjoyed a successful stint from 2008-12 — on a personal level. On a team level? Not so much.

“That’s one of the reasons I left,” Fasano told The Post. “I just didn’t see the team going in a direction.”

It was going somewhere when he arrived. The Dolphins were 11-5 and surprise division champions under Tony Sparano in 2008. What followed was a stretch in which they were mired in mediocrity, twice going 7-9, a 6-10 (during which Sparano was replaced by interim coach Todd Bowles) and finally 7-9 in 2012, this time under Joe Philbin.

Over that period, other free agents the Dolphins lost include running backs Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams and Reggie Bush; safety Yeremiah Bell; cornerback Sean Smith; and tackle Jake Long.

“I knew I was whatever — on the back nine of my career,” said Fasano, now 32. “I was here five years and kind of needed a change of pace.”

So he bolted for Kansas City before later heading to Tennessee. Last month, he came full circle and rejoined the Dolphins to play under coach Adam Gase.

“I’m excited to be back,” Fasano said. “The building feels a lot different.”

Fasano’s Titans beat the Dolphins 30-17 last season, but he could sense a shift. It was Miami’s last loss before a six-game winning streak set the tone for an eventual wild-card berth.

So when it came time to decide his next move, Fasano, who had maintained his offseason home in Fort Lauderdale, didn’t waver. It didn’t hurt that in the interim, he had opened Next Chapter, an addiction and trauma treatment center in Delray Beach.

So once again, Fasano is a Miami Dolphin.

“They definitely have some fight to them and I think Gase is a great coach, a young coach,” he said. “I’m excited about everything going on. He’s no nonsense, there’s no distractions, it’s all about football.

“I think he’s done a great job building the team.”

Fasano signed a one-year contract and is non-committal on how long he’ll play.

“I’m going into my 12th year,” he said. “I think a lot has to do with how I feel physically. I believe we’ll have a good team, so going out one more year and winning a Super Bowl would be ideal. We’re just going to take it year by year.”

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Finally, a first-time NFL head coach with the capacity to quickly grow into the job

The foundation has been laid.

What Adam Gase and the Miami Dolphins may build upon it in the next few years is far from certain, but consider the value of that simple statement.

shareOne year ago this week, Gase was experiencing the whirlwind of being named a head coach for the first time at any level. He also was interviewed by the Eagles, Giants and Browns but settled on Miami after meeting with all of his future bosses and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, too.

The new guy wasn’t looking at a playoff roster when he made his choice, but a 10-6 season with one playoff game is what he and Miami’s staff wound up producing. Surprised? Well, sure, all of us were, but on Wednesday, while taking wrapup questions on 2016, Gase said he was “sick to my stomach” that the team didn’t go farther.

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That’s what you expect to hear from the league’s youngest head coach. Impatience. Ambition. Intensity boiled in the excitement of an opportunity that few coaching lifers get at any age.

Joe Philbin and Cam Cameron never gave the impression that they were boiling over with much of anything. Every move they made was designed to communicate calm and authority and the promise that success must eventually come if everyone just did their job.

Problem is, neither of them did their own jobs very well, or showed much capacity for learning them. As seen also in the cases of Dan Campbell and Tony Sparano, first-time NFL head coaches really do have a lot to learn.

Gase breaks the mold. Rather than waiting on wins to establish his credibility, he left Jay Ajayi home for the season opener at Seattle because the running back was pouty over not starting. Rather than wondering if his playcalling would work with Tannehill right off the bat, Gase set his sights on instant success, and was genuinely startled when it didn’t come.

“We (Gase and Tannehill) got on the same page a little later than we really wanted to,” he said Wednesday. “I really felt like we were going to hit the season running … It took me a little longer than I thought to get used to our whole group as far as a play-caller.”

The six-game win streak at midseason is when everything started looking better, not only for Tannehill but for Ajayi and everybody else who failed to find any consistent rhythm under Philbin and Campbell, a 5-7 interim coach, in 2015.

Gase’s group ran out of gas, of course, when injuries demolished Miami’s defense and when the competition got stiffer at the end of the season but still, no other first-time NFL head coach outdid him this season.

Ben McAdoo of the Giants went just as far, making the playoffs as a wild-card team and suffering a similar fate with a lopsided first-round loss on the road (38-13 at Green Bay).

Dirk Koetter went 9-7 at Tampa Bay, a quick turnaround from the 6-10 finish that preceded his hiring, but the Bucs did not make the playoffs.

Doug Pederson debuted at 7-9 in Philadelphia, no better than the failed Chip Kelly regime before him.

“We wanted to get the right leader,” Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum said a year ago on the occasion of Gase’s hiring. “Someone that could relate to young and talented players that we believe we have, and somebody that was high energy and competitive. Somebody that could build a great coaching staff, develop them and hold them accountable. Somebody that was open-minded, who had great football acumen and intelligence.”

That’s the way you reset an entire franchise for lasting success, just as Joe Robbie did soon after becoming majority owner of the Dolphins. The old man wanted Bear Bryant to coach his team, but when those talks fell through at the last minute, Robbie raided Don Shula from the Baltimore Colts in 1970, gaining a strong staff of Bill Arnsparger, Howard Schnellenberger, Monte Clark and others in the process.

Shula reversed the franchise’s losing culture more completely than Gase or anyone else ever could, in part because Shula possessed the skills to become the NFL’s all-time winningest coach and in part because he already had seven years of experience as a head coach in the league.

The setting of the foundation is familiar, however, with Shula’s first Dolphins team making the playoffs before hitting a dead end in the first round, on the road, at Oakland.

“What we wanted to establish here,” Gase said, “was making sure that we’re right in that thing in the fourth quarter and then find ways to execute under pressure, which our guys did the majority of the time. Really, that’s what we were looking to do as far as developing what we wanted to develop as a front office, coach staff and as players.”

Gase must go on without defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who on Wednesday was named head coach of the Denver Broncos, and Gase will need a crew of new players on defense, too. That’s not his specialty area.

Gase building momentum to avoid a repeat of 2008’s one-hit playoff wonder

We’ve seen this before, the resurgent season leading to a rare playoff berth under a rookie head coach, followed by a lopsided and disheartening loss in the opening round.

The question is whether the 2016 Miami Dolphins will keep it going, building on this sudden turnaround in ways that the 2008 team did not.

shareBefore screaming out in the affirmative and listing Adam Gase as the prime reason to believe in the sustainability of this mission, take a minute to consider the parallels.

Tony Sparano’s first Dolphins team dug itself an early hole, starting the 2008 season at 2-4, but then hit a hot streak to win the AFC East at 11-5. It really seemed at that moment that the new regime, directed by Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, had things figured out. Turns out they didn’t.

Also, the 2008 Dolphins had a quarterback they liked quite a bit in Chad Pennington, but injuries caught up to him early in the next season and the position soon turned into a long-term mess. Ryan Tannehill isn’t supposed to be in for the same kind of trouble now, but quarterback play will remain a bit of a sore issue until he’s back to his old self this summer, and sturdy enough to stand up to more hits.

Gase’s Dolphins have a rising star at running back with Jay Ajayi, and that points to the kind of overall offensive reliability that any playoff team needs. Sparano started losing his momentum in 2009, however, in spite of Ricky Williams rushing for 1,121 yards and scoring 13 total touchdowns.

A defense grown old and thin also contributed to Sparano losing steam. Gase has much work to do in the same area.

Then there’s the draft, another essential component to avoiding the mirage of a one-hit wonder playoff season.

The 2009 Dolphins got an instant starter at cornerback (Vontae Davis) with the 25th overall pick but wasted a second-rounder on Pat White, a quarterback experiment gone wrong. Gase, who picks 22nd overall in 2017, figures to be smarter than that, and he, in partnership with general manager Chris Grier and executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, will need to be, just as they were in 2016.

This is not a perfectly-matched template between the last two Dolphins playoff teams by any means, just a reminder that stringing together winning seasons is normally the practice of the NFL’s elite. Miami could eventually regain that status, but as a No. 6 playoff seed that just got outscored 65-26 in its last two games, nothing can be taken for granted.

After all, half of the playoff teams from last season failed to make the postseason in 2016, and that includes the two teams that played in the Super Bowl, Denver and Carolina.

For any franchise to make it to double-digit wins, a ton of good things need to happen.

Sparano’s playoff team, for instance, turned the ball over just 13 times during the regular season, an incredibly efficient number, but shot all the way up to 29 the following year and finished 7-9.

In the case of Gase’s Miami debut, think in particular of all those tight wins, including two in overtime and another on a two-touchdown rally in the game’s final five minutes. Playoff teams survive those close calls, but it’s a tightrope act without a net.

Again, no two situations are alike.

This, though, is the kind of thing you want to hear after a bad playoff loss at the end of a 10-7 season, and it came from quarterback Matt Moore on Sunday night at Heinz Field.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he (Gase) is the right guy for the job,” Moore said. “I don’t think there’s a doubt in anybody’s mind. From where we started and the history of this team to how we finished, it’s pretty impressive. His message is week-to-week. He resonates with guys. He has true relationships with everybody and guys love him, and I feel the same way.”

Don’t remember hearing all those same things about Sparano, unless it was during that one exotic run with the Wildcat offense. That wasn’t sustainable.

No guarantees whatsoever, but it’s far more likely that what Gase is teaching, in combination with what Gase is learning, will be.