DAVIE, Fla. -- The turnaround began when they started running hills together in the offseason. No more cliques, a group of Miami Dolphins players decided; they wanted to turn traditional workouts into team-bonding activities. They made sure to hang with each other -- offense and defense.
This change was part of an attempt to be vastly different than the 2017 Dolphins. Three weeks in, there’s a lot here that’s vastly different than the 2017 Dolphins.
There’s no face of this Dolphins team, and that’s intentional. Gone is Ndamukong Suh, once the NFL’s highest-paid defender who brought with him a reputation of toeing and often crossing the line. Gone is Jarvis Landry, the NFL’s 2017 leader in receptions who became Miami’s emotional center -- for better or worse.
They were primarily replaced by veterans on the wrong side of 30, backups and first-year players. Not many people thought this would work.
But somehow the Dolphins have become a better team in 2018. That much seems apparent through three games of this season, no matter what happens Sunday when Miami (3-0) plays at New England (1-2), the team that has won the past nine AFC East titles.
“We’re just a bunch of guys who are not the top guys in the league. We go out there with each other and just try to play the best football we can,” Dolphins receiver Albert Wilson said. “We’re just having fun. We go out there with no pressure.”
So far, coach Adam Gase’s pursuit to change the Dolphins' culture has worked. He’s done it without any superstars or many big personalities. There isn’t much hoopla in Miami. But it’s exactly what he wanted. He has a team that has bought in.
“It’s just the brotherhood, chemistry and the swag,” receiver Jakeem Grant said. “We got out there and feel like we're one of the top offenses in the league. We go out and play that way.”
Miami has bought in to the "we" over "me" mentality. That much is clear as you see Grant speeding down the field to give Wilson a high-five in the middle of a long touchdown reception -- which happened last Sunday -- or when several Dolphins players huddle up for a "night out" photo after one of Wilson’s touchdowns.
“It’s when you have one guy here, one guy there not on the same page as the team vision, that’s when you have problems,” Gase said. “We’ve had that. We don’t anymore.”
Miami’s defense hasn’t missed Suh thanks to young, ascending players such as interior defensive linemen Davon Godchaux, Vincent Taylor and Jordan Phillips, who are playing with incoming veteran Akeem Spence. Xavien Howard and Minkah Fitzpatrick have flashed star potential on the back end. Linebacker Kiko Alonso is playing some of the best football of his career.
Tannehill has had one of the best months of his career. Their quartet of speedy receivers have opened up the offense and allowed Gase’s creative juices to flow again.
“I enjoy watching these guys play together. Just the fight for each other,” Gase said. “I love it when I see the defensive guys; they come by me, and if we’re struggling, a lot of those guys will be like, ‘We got you. Don’t worry about it. We’ll get it back.’ I see a lot more interaction between the offense and defense throughout a game, which is cool to see.”
Wide receiver Kenny Stills added: “When things aren’t going well, you don’t see guys on the sideline bashing each other or talking trash. It’s like, 'All right, let’s get it and make something happen for us.'"
“I like the way we’ve responded in the early part of the season,” Amendola said. “I like the attitude that Coach Gase brings to the facility every day and into the game offensively on Sunday. That keeps me going every day.”
Gore added: “I like Gase. He’s really smart. He knows exactly how to attack defenses.”
It’s too early to predict how far the Dolphins can go. Their schedule is manageable for much of October and November if they can survive the upcoming three-game slate (at New England, at Cincinnati, vs. Chicago). It’s easy to see Miami, at minimum, in the playoff picture come December.
Gase took the Dolphins to the playoffs in his first year as coach. Now some of his glow is coming back after a tumultuous 2017 season.
The Dolphins have some of that glow, too. Their confidence is at a high and there seems to be a culture shift.
Stills added, smiling, “We definitely feed off his energy.”