MIAMI -- There are still plenty of questions for the Miami Dolphins to answer in a schedule that only gets tougher. They will be doubted and challenged, and it won't be nearly so easy to find supporters outside the confines of South Florida. This is what happens when a team blossoms so quickly. That rapid evolution will leave many people stunned, as if progress is only believable when it's easier to see coming.
The reality is that the Dolphins are legitimate enough when considering no team in the AFC is without its share of flaws. They've won six straight games after a 1-4 start and they would qualify for a wild-card spot if the postseason started today. So it really doesn't matter if they've defeated only two teams currently above .500 on the way to their 7-4 record. It's more important that they're beating the teams set in front of them, and doing that in clutch situations.
The last five Miami wins have been decided by seven points or less. That includes Sunday's 31-24 win over San Francisco, a contest that ended when the Dolphins tackled 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick before he could reach the goal line on a potential game-tying touchdown.
"It is exciting to be where we're at right now," Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "Obviously you want to be playing meaningful games in December to get yourself playing in January and February, and we've done that. I'm not surprised because we just kind of stuck to the process. We believed in each other and just kept growing as a football team. Each and every person just doing everything they could to just improve and get better -- and so, when you finally see the success and see the run, it's not by accident. It's because guys have stuck to the process and put in the work along the way."
As much as skeptics will diminish Miami's latest win -- the lowly 49ers are now 1-10 -- there were plenty of positives to take away from the Dolphins' effort. They won despite getting just 45 rushing yards from running back Jay Ajayi, who had been averaging 137 yards in the previous five games. Miami's defense also surrendered 475 yards, many of which came when San Francisco was trying to rally from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit. It was the kind of game that the Dolphins typically found a way to lose in recent years, which says plenty about how much they've grown.
This is quickly becoming a team that is displaying the ultimate mark of a winner: Miami actually expects good things to happen. Whether that's Tannehill continuing to mature before our eyes (he threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns against the 49ers) or Ajayi coming out of nowhere (he had back-to-back 200-yard games earlier this year) or a talented defense stepping up (linebacker Kiko Alonso won a game against San Diego with an interception return for a touchdown), the Dolphins are finding playmakers throughout their roster. They also have a first-year head coach, Adam Gase, who has kept them focused since that horrible start. He's the biggest reason this team has thrived over the past two months.
Hours before Sunday's game, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was gushing over Gase to the point that he called him "a young Jim Harbaugh." That's not small praise coming from Ross -- who went to Michigan and is a good friend of the Wolverines head coach -- and it speaks to where the Dolphins think they are heading. Harbaugh has become known as a man who can turn a team around instantly. The 38-year-old Gase, who was the Chicago Bears' offensive coordinator in 2015, is displaying similar potential.
When talking about the win over San Francisco, Gase pointed out how that contest mirrored the way his team has approached the entire year.
"I think it was a good sign for us, as far as if one side struggled on a series, then the opposite side would try to get something going," Gase said. "The same with special teams, where we'd allow a score and then, all of a sudden, we'd have a good return. It's just that everybody is trying to pick each other up. That's part of the team-building part of this, and that's what our process is. That's what we've been talking about since the beginning. Things haven't always gone right and guys haven't wavered."
One of Gase's greatest accomplishments thus far has been the development of Tannehill, who is enjoying the most efficient season of his career. Tannehill has thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception over the past six games. He produced some critical completions against San Francisco -- including a 15-yard scoring toss to Leonte Carroo in the fourth quarter that made the score 31-14 -- while also adding 34 more yards on the ground. There's simply a greater ease to the fifth-year quarterback's game, a comfort that surely stems directly from his interaction with Gase.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler displayed a similar calm under Gase's guidance last year, when Gase was Chicago's offensive coordinator. Peyton Manning also raved about Gase's coaching style when they worked together in Denver from 2012 through '14. (Gase spent his first few seasons in Denver as a position coach before taking the reins as offensive coordinator in his last two.) Hell, Gase has even won over Luther "Uncle Luke" Campbell, a former rapper and South Florida legend who once complained to a couple friends in a local bar back in January that Gase would fail largely because of Tannehill. When a gentleman sitting nearby that night said Tannehill would get better -- and the Dolphins would, as well -- Campbell argued heatedly with the guy until he realized it was Gase having fun at his expense.
These days, everybody is seeing what Gase can do with a quarterback whose teams have gone 36-39 when he starts.
"Any time you get in a new system, it takes a second to kind of get used to it," Gase said. "You have to go through some growing pains. Obviously we did. I think just the timing, the group being together, and the group being able to practice together, develop through some games, go through some rough patches, that's just part of the process. The longer the season goes, the better you hopefully get. You just don't want to go down. I don't think we have. I think we've gotten better."
"He's done a great job -- not just [with] me, but with our team," Tannehill added. "The way he leads, the way he installs, teaches the offense, communicates and just keeps guys on track -- whether it's me or anybody else. [He] just keeps [us] focused each and every day on trying to find something to get better at. I think as long as you're doing that, you're going to continue to get better and find success."
The Dolphins will have to sustain that focus as they vie for a playoff spot in their final five games. They will play three contests on the road during that time -- including meetings with Baltimore and Buffalo, both of whom are hoping to find their own place in the postseason -- while the mighty Patriots await in the season finale at home. Coming back from a 1-4 start was quite the achievement. The next step for these Fins is proving they have the mettle to finish what they've built over the past two months.
That explains the Dolphins' unwillingness to spend too much time savoring their recent success. As defensive end Cameron Wake said, "If you start looking at the big picture, you're going to miss the things that are ahead of you."
That's the ideal approach to take for a team that still has plenty of mountains to climb. It's also an appropriate mindset for a squad that has the right makeup to get where it ultimately hopes to go.