Eagles’ success should embolden all – including Miami Dolphins – to gamble even more

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles catches a 1-yard touchdown pass on a razzle-dazzle, fourth-down play to help beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The fourth-down touchdown pass to his quarterback or the fourth-down gamble with 9 1/2 minutes left on his own half of the field — take your pick as to which took the greatest courage from Eagles coach Doug Pederson.

Just brace yourself for more of it.

In a copycat league, there can be no greater incentive than that sterling silver Lombardi trophy or those solid gold rings, both of which belong to Philly because Pederson was bold enough to go snatch it.

“We just wanted to stay aggressive,” Pederson said after the Super Bowl. “My mentality coming into the game was to stay aggressive until the end and let  playmakers make plays. I trust my instincts.”

At this point, if you’re sitting back and wondering why the Dolphins don’t play this way, brace yourself.

They do.

Or at least they try to.

Only the Eagles and Packers went for it on fourth down more than Miami’s 24 tries this season, so you can’t fault Adam Gase for playing it too close to the vest. You can, however, fault the players for not making the most of it, because the Dolphins converted just seven of those opportunities, a rate of 29 percent that ranked 29th in the league.

It signaled a huge change from Gase’s first season, when the Dolphins were last in the NFL in attempts (four) and successes (zero).

“What do we have to lose?” Gase said in October, after two second-half gambles were critical to the Dolphins breaking a team record by overcoming a 17-0 halftime deficit to win in Atlanta 20-17.

Damien Williams caught a 3-yard pass on a fourth-and-1 and Landry went airborne for a 9-yard catch to convert a fourth-and-2. The Dolphins parlayed them into 10 points.

That’s the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. Joe Philbin was roasted for admitting he felt “queasy” when he played it close to the vest and lost a 2014 game against the Packers, but in each of his final two seasons, the Dolphins had the third-most fourth-down attempts in the league. Now, one could argue that losing teams and teams that fall behind early are often put in position where they have to gamble. Both are classic characteristics of the Dolphins, but that only goes so far in explaining the numbers.

The exasperating part is how little those Dolphins rewarded Philbin’s trust, finishing in the bottom third in conversions. To find the last time the Dolphins were any good on fourth down, you have to go back to 2009 when they were 13 of 18, 72 percent. Only the Jets (75 percent) were better.

After the Super Bowl, the Eagles were complaining that Pederson should have been coach of the year. If votes were counted after the playoffs, he certainly would have been, but what’s the use in that, since it would just reaffirm whoever won the Super Bowl?

Trend-setter of the year, that’s Pederson, jettisoning his punter to no-man’s land while telling his offense to move the chains on fourth down 26 times this season. The Eagles succeeded 17 times times (65 percent), giving new meaning to the term Philly stakes. It’s the kind of take-what-we-want attitude of the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (remember that fake punt against the Dolphins?) and the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin (who never met a two-point conversion he didn’t like).

The Eagles calling a razzle-dazzle pass to quarterback Nick Foles in a Super Bowl — that was stunning enough. Then, when Pederson went for it on the negative side of the 50, when failure could have clinched defeat — that’s when we began to realize Pederson hadn’t lost his marbles, he was proving he had some, uh, serious stones. The previous Super Bowl had taught him what happens to Patriots opponents who play scared.

“In games like this against a great opponent, you have to make those tough decisions and keep yourself aggressive,” Pederson said.

As tight end Zach Ertz said to Sports Illustrated, “Doug balled. He called an unbelievable game.”

Believe it. And next season, get ready for a little more of it.

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Where does Dolphins’ Adam Gase stand among 2016 NFL head coach hires?

Adam Gase hasn’t been great or terrible thus far. (AP)

Considering he hasn’t been fired and doesn’t have a winless season on his record, Dolphins coach Adam Gase is doing fine among his peers from the 2016 hiring class. Still having a job is pretty much the threshold for being considered a success among that group.

While there was certainly disappointment, among the fanbase and throughout the organization, over Miami going 6-10 last season, Gase is still .500 in regular-season games thanks to a 10-6 debut. The last Dolphins coach to finish .500 or better in his tenure was Dave Wannstedt from 2000 through ’04.

Following Wannstedt, Nick Saban went 15-17, Cam Cameron got fired after a 1-15 rookie year and has never gotten another head-coaching opportunity, Tony Sparano was 18-15 including a playoff loss in his first two seasons and Joe Philbin went 15-17 in his first two.

Seven teams hired coaches in the 2016 offseason, and San Francisco was the first to move on when it fired Chip Kelly for going 2-14. New York Giants coach Ben McAdoo got canned during this season when his team was 2-10, and a messy situation in Tennessee led to the dismissal of Mike Mularkey after going 9-7 in consecutive seasons and winning a playoff game this year.

Kelly is now the head coach at UCLA, and McAdoo is interviewing for coordinator jobs.

Among the seven coaches in the 2016 class, Gase’s .485 winning percentage (including playoffs) ranks behind Eagles coach Doug Pederson at .636 and Mularkey at .559. Pederson’s team is playing in the NFC championship game Sunday.

As for the rest of the class, Tampa Bay’s Dirk Koetter has gone 14-18 and Hue Jackson continues to look like he made a big mistake taking the Cleveland job after one win in two seasons. The Browns are bringing him back despite their 1-31 record under him.

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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.


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.