It’s one of the cruel ironies of this depressing decade that the Dolphins and Hurricanes keep failing in areas that were the supposed expertise of their head coaches. Under veteran play-caller Mark Richt, UM’s offense slipped this season to 93rd among 130 FBS teams. Under previous NFL offensive line coach Joe Philbin, the Dolphins’ offensive line was an abomination.
And now under Adam Gase — who did great work with superb offensive talent around him as Denver’s play-caller — the Dolphins have ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in yards per game in each of his three seasons and bottom half in points each of those years, too.
Unlike Richt, Gase has been without his starting quarterback for 24 of his 43 games as the Dolphins head coach, and that’s an important caveat, though Gase is responsible for his dubious selections of Jay Cutler and Brock Osweiler to fill in for Tannehill, who’s 11-8 in the 19 games he’s started for Gase.
When Gase came under fire last week for running the ball twice on 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter against the Colts, it really wasn’t a surprise considering his history here.
Gase, throughout his Miami tenure, has had a penchant for calling low-risk plays that often require players to cover sizable distances to convert third downs, instead of calling pass patterns that would pick up the yardage automatically if executed correctly. He’s far from the only NFL coach who does that often, but it subjects him to harsh criticism when it fails.
That’s one of four things that CBS’ Bruce Arians, the former NFL head coach and offensive coordinator, criticized Gase about in his two Dolphins telecasts this season.
With Miami ranking 29th in the league in third-down conversions this season (33.6 percent) after ranking 25th and 32nd in Gase’s first two seasons, here are a few points to consider about the way Gase operates on third downs, from research from myself and contributor Anthony Frascone of 3oh5sports.com:
▪ Gase has had a running back run the ball seven times on 3rd and 10 or longer this year, including three times against the Colts. (That includes five with Ryan Tannehill as his quarterback, two with Brock Osweiler.)
Not a single one of those seven was converted into a first down, nor was one he ran against the Texans on 3rd and 6. Of those eight runs, everyone would agree with one of them (a run very late in the Titans game with Miami comfortably ahead). But four of the seven 3rd and 10-plus runs were in the first half.
▪ Gase ran the ball on 3rd and 10-plus more in one game with Tannehill (three times against the Colts) than he did in two years calling plays for Peyton Manning. He did it only twice with Manning, and one of those was a run-out-the-clock situation late in a 2013 game. (The other was in the second quarter of a 2014 game against Seattle.)
▪ Also, Frascone’s research shows that Sunday marked the first time since at least 1994 when an NFL team handed off on 3rd and 10 from inside its 10 yard line in a tie game with less than four minutes left.
▪ In Tannehill’s six starts, the Dolphins threw 43 third-down passes, and of those 43, 25 were thrown short of the first-down yard marker, with Miami converting only nine of those 25.
Even more frustrating: On third and 10 or more in Tannehill’s six starts this season, the Dolphins threw passes short of the first-down yard marker nine times and converted only two of those nine. That’s one reason why Tannehill has consistently ranked among the league’s worst quarterbacks on third down.
▪ In Osweiler’s five starts, he threw 53 passes on third down. Of those, 30 were in the air for yardage short of what was needed for a first down, and of those 30, only six were converted into first downs. (Seven of those 30 passes were incomplete.)
So let’s recap: That’s 55 third-down passes this season — among 96 total third-down throws — that were thrown short of the distance needed for a first down.
Only 15 of those 55 were converted into first downs, which is a 27.2 percent success rate. For perspective, only one team in the league is converting all third downs at less than 30 percent — Arizona at 29.4.
Gase’s thinking is that he likes the chances of one of his receivers or running backs breaking a long gain on a short pass — or a draw play — better than the chances of the pass protection holding up and his quarterback completing a pass downfield. And that belief made sense, to an extent, before Albert Wilson was injured.
On Sunday, Gase was concerned that the Colts hadn’t allowed a lot of big passing plays downfield. And in Gase’s defense, there were some longer throws available to his quarterback that couldn’t be executed on third down this season.
But the large volume of third down runs combined with short throws are resulting in first downs at an unacceptable rate, among the lowest in the league. Something must change here.
I found it curious that Arians, a respected offensive mind, found fault with nothing Colts coach Frank Reich did Sunday but criticized Gase for three things: 1) running Kenyan Drake on third down late; 2) using Frank Gore — and not Drake — on a toss play; and 3) passing to open Miami’s next to last possession Sunday.
In Gase’s defense, he has had to deal with more key injuries and adversity than most head coaches. Gase still makes some really shrewd calls that can catch a defense off balance, as we witnessed before Wilson’s injury, and Tannehill has improved under his watch.
But the third-down approach generally isn’t working. Nor, last Sunday, should he have placed such late-game trust in a defense that hasn’t earned it.