“We’re making strides,” Gase said then. “It’s not gonna be a perfect thing right out of the gate. But that’s why you play 16 games. That’s why you can’t panic out of the gate. It’s just got to be a steady climb.”
Gase, in addition to being a very good young coach, is also an excellent prognosticator.
The Dolphins, after starting the season with four losses in five games, have reeled off six straight victories to improve their record to 7-4 entering Sunday’s game at Baltimore. They are, as things currently stand, the No. 6 team in the AFC playoff field. And they are one of the seven teams league-wide that failed to reach last season’s NFL playoffs but currently are in position to be included in this season’s 12-team postseason.
It is a season of fresh faces, and that could be particularly true come playoff time. Yes, the New England Patriots are in the running to secure what would be a fifth Super Bowl triumph with Bill Belichick as their coach and Tom Brady as their quarterback. But it’s possible that the Patriots will be the lone team from last season’s conference championships to reach this season’s playoffs.
The defending Super Bowl champs, the Denver Broncos, are fighting for a postseason spot but, at 7-4, currently are in third place in the powerful AFC West and are on the outside of the playoffs looking in at this point. The two teams that played in last season’s NFC title game, the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals, have a combined record of 8-13-1 and are all but eliminated from playoff contention.
They are joined by the Cincinnati Bengals, who have plummeted to 3-7-1 after reaching the AFC playoffs for five straight seasons. The Green Bay Packers, struggling along at 5-6, could have a string of seven straight playoff seasons ended. The Broncos, Panthers, Cardinals, Bengals, Packers, Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers are the playoff teams from last season that, at least for now, would be left out this season.
They would be replaced at this point by the Dolphins, Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons.
The Cowboys have a league-best record of 10-1 and have made a highly celebrated return to prominence behind the brilliance of two rookies, quarterback Dak Prescott and tailback Ezekiel Elliott. But it was only two seasons ago that Tony Romo, now Prescott’s backup after returning from his preseason back injury, had the Cowboys in the playoffs as the NFC East winners. When it comes to a franchise recapturing its glorious past, the Raiders are this season’s true headliner.
They have nine wins, clinching their first winning season since 2002. That also was their most recent playoff season. They have become a powerhouse in Jack Del Rio’s second season as coach, even as owner Mark Davis eyes a potential franchise relocation to Las Vegas. Quarterback Derek Carr has become a league MVP candidate throwing to standout wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Khalil Mack is perhaps the league’s most dominant young defensive player.
“Obviously I’m still young,” Carr said Wednesday at his weekly news conference. “I still have a long ways to go. I’ve still got a lot to learn about this game and about situations and things like that. So I just think it’s a testament to that we’re getting better but we still have a long way to go.”
The Lions are in first place in the NFC North, a year after owner Martha Firestone Ford cleaned house, firing Tom Lewand as the team president and Martin Mayhew as general manager, and coming up on nine months after wide receiver Calvin Johnson retired. The Falcons lead the NFC South one season after following a 5-0 start with a 3-8 finish. The Ravens went 5-11 last season but now are in first place in AFC North, albeit at a modest 6-5.
Two rookie head coaches, Gase and the Giants’ Ben McAdoo, have their teams vying for wild-card spots. McAdoo was promoted from offensive coordinator after the Giants parted with Tom Coughlin, their two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, on the heels of a third straight losing season and a fourth consecutive non-playoff season. A $200 million free agent spending spree on defense last offseason has paid off, and the Giants are winning the close games that they regularly lost in such stomach-churning fashion last season.
Gase arrived in Miami as the quarterback guru who’d earned Peyton Manning’s respect in Denver and gotten the most out of Jay Cutler in Chicago. He has helped Ryan Tannehill in Miami, in large part by finding his quarterback a productive running back in Jay Ajayi.
Gase made his no-nonsense approach clear when he was asked at a news conference Wednesday about the Dolphins’ decision to release defensive tackle Leon Orr one day after his arrest on drug-related charges.
“Our goal is to get as many guys in our building — whether it be players, coaches or staff members — that are invested in what we want to do,” Gase said. “And that’s try to give ourselves a chance to be doing what we’re doing right now, which is competing in December and playing meaningful games and building for the future.”
Much could change in the standings between now and season’s end. Playoff teams from last season like the Broncos, Steelers, Packers and Vikings still could work their way into this season’s playoff field. But so, too, could non-playoff teams from last season like the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints.
It is an NFL season that has seen a drop in television ratings and has been criticized for the quality of its play. But there is no lack of intrigue as the final month of the regular season arrives.