Brian Flores' face was hidden behind a mask that spanned from the top of his nose to the bottom of his chin. His eyes were partially shaded by the bill of his baseball cap, and his speech was low and slow, so there was no way to say with certainty whether he was smiling. No surprise there, though. The Miami Dolphins' coach isn't one for public displays of satisfaction, and yet a case could be made that if any of the team's five consecutive wins should have moved the coach, it was Sunday's 29-21 triumph over the Los Angeles Chargers.
There is a sporting axiom that managing success is harder than coping with failure, particularly when a franchise is attempting to reverse more than a decade of struggle. Miami is just such a franchise. It finished 5-11 last season in Flores' first year on the job and has had only one winning season since 2008. However, with each week, the staff and players distance themselves from that dubious past. In fact, they appeared to float off the field last week in Arizona after a dramatic win over the Cardinals, which made Sunday's victory all the more impressive.
It's easy to let down when people are patting you on the back and talking as if you've arrived -- that, instead of being an afterthought, you are now relevant when playoff discussions take place. It is not uncommon to lose focus in those moments, particularly when you're hosting a struggling opponent like the Chargers, who had lost six of their last seven, all by seven points or fewer.
But that's not what occurred at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday in Miami Gardens, Florida. On an 83-degree afternoon, the Dolphins played complementary football, capitalizing on Los Angeles' mistakes on offense, defense and special teams to improve to 6-3, a mark that ranks as their best record through the first nine games of a season since 2001. They are now tied with the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills in the loss column, signaling that they could be well ahead of schedule in their rebuilding plan -- not that Flores would ever admit or acknowledge it. His message is as consistent as his sideline stare, and the odds of him going off-script are the same as the chances of his team playing nonchalantly.
"We have a mentally tough team," Flores said after the game. "This team, they know that it's important. It's a week-to-week league, and how we prepare, how we practice, how we walk-through is a direct correlation to how we play. They understand that. ... We know it's hard to win in this league, and we just take it one game at a time. We're not looking down the road; we're looking at the next day, the next meeting, the next practice and just trying to take it one day at a time. That's my message to the team on a daily basis, and hopefully they're kind of listening to it."
The acceptance of that message can be seen in how the Dolphins play with purpose, pride and energy. They are well-prepared and eager to exploit breakdowns by opponents, both physical and mental. For instance, linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel capitalized on a mistake by the Chargers' punt team, breaking through for a block that set up a one-yard touchdown run by Salvon Ahmed two minutes into the game. On their next possession, they took advantage of an offside penalty against Los Angeles on a fourth-and-1 field-goal attempt to complete a 13-play, 88-yard drive with a 3-yard scoring pass from Tua Tagovailoa to Jakeem Grant, making it 14-0.
At this point, no team is playing better complementary football than the Dolphins. In the last three weeks, their special teams have blocked a punt and returned a punt for a touchdown in separate games; their defense has two strip sacks that were returned for touchdowns, and an interception on Sunday by Xavien Howard stalled an attempted comeback. At the same time, Miami's offense has continued to improve behind Tagovailoa, the rookie first-round pick who is poised beyond his years.
On one play early in the second quarter, a low snap nearly skidded away from him and he had defenders coming on the blitz. But rather than panic, he quickly picked up the ball and floated a pass down the right sideline. He knew the Chargers were playing man coverage and trusted that his receiver would make a play, which DeVante Parker did for a 23-yard gain. Tagovailoa finished 15 of 25 for 169 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The statistics weren't eye-popping -- like the previous week when he outdueled Arizona's Kyler Murray, going 20 of 28 for 248 yards and two scores with no picks -- but to look solely at those stats is to miss the efficiency of his game.
Tua was making his third start on Sunday, and it's obvious with each week that he is becoming more comfortable. The football is coming out quicker and the pace of the offense is more crisp. The fact that the Dolphins were able to move the ball on the ground against the Chargers with Ahmed, who had 85 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in his first career start, should only make Tagovailoa's play-action fakes more dangerous.
What ultimately makes the Dolphins a legit threat, though, is their resilience and buy-in to the culture Flores is seeking to create. They don't blink. Four coaches out because of COVID-19 protocols? No problem. A handful of starters out due to COVID-19 protocols or injuries? Not an issue.
Wideout Preston Williams, the team leader with four touchdown receptions, was out with a foot injury, but Grant stepped in and led the club with four receptions for 43 yards and a score.
"This is a hungry group," Flores said. "They fight for each other, and it's important to them. They're competitive, so they work at it and understand the fruits of that labor out on the field. It wasn't perfect; we've got a long way to go. We know it's hard to win in this league, and we just take it one game at a time."
The challenge of not looking ahead is very real for the Dolphins, considering their next three opponents are the Broncos, Jets and Bengals, who have five wins combined. Miami closes out the season with games against the Chiefs, Patriots, Raiders and Bills. It's possible they will be favored in all but one of those, barring injury; but don't say that around Flores. Such talk surely would wipe any smile from his face, if, that is, it was there in the first place.