Thursday, November 14th, 2019

A Gase of mistaken identity?

Simon Clancy

Lead Feature Writer

A Gase of mistaken identity?

Simon Clancy NFL

When Adam Gase walks into a room, you know about it. There’s a sense that something important is about to happen. He sits at a table or stands at a lectern and he talks. Honest and succinct, he tells you only what he thinks is enough. It’s hardly exposition by description, but it’s how he likes it. Gase will look sullen and there’s an air of ‘anywhere but here’, but don’t mistake it for rudeness. It’s just that he’d rather be working. He’s obsessed with working. It’s what drove his Miami Dolphins to relevance for the first time in almost a decade and it’s what he hopes will topple the New England Patriots from their lofty perch.

To understand where Gase wants to take his team, you first have to understand where his team have been: three playoff trips in 17 years, with no victories. Only five winning seasons since the turn of the century and just one after 2008. He took over this most moribund of franchises, this offseason champion of Aprils past, awash with lost free-agent money and a cadre of wasted draft picks that were the ruin of coaches and general managers from Dave Wannstedt to Randy Mueller, Tony Sparano to Dennis Hickey.

Something was badly wrong.

A team lacking direction and open to ridicule with a culture that exasperated ownership and frustrated the fanbase. If it wasn’t Jeff Ireland asking Dez Bryant whether his mother was a prostitute in a pre-draft interview, it was the Richie Incognito bullying scandal. Maybe it was Cam Cameron’s weak pronouncement to an angry crowd that he’d bypassed Brady Quinn to draft Ted Ginn’s family or perhaps Nick Saban telling a press conference that under no circumstances was he leaving to become the Alabama coach before leaving to become the Alabama coach. Fail forward fast became the motto of this once-lauded franchise.

“There’s been a lethargy around this ball club,” one Dolphin front-office member tells Gridiron on the condition of anonymity. “A pallor that wouldn’t go away. The task of turning it round was huge. You had decades of decline to wipe away. But the moment Adam stepped into this building, something changed. I wasn’t here during the glory days and I’m not saying we’re going back there. But if he isn’t the man to do it then I don’t know a damn thing.”

There’s a story that receiver Kenny Stills tells of Gase and his relentless push for something tangible in a city bereft of pro-football success in more than four decades. “His passion to win is extraordinary,” he reveals, “and it’s uncompromising. I’ve gotten calls or texts from him pretty late at night, like 12:30am, 1am. And I know he’s up way past that. The coaches talk about getting texts from him at 2:30, 3:00 in the morning. He always sends something in the middle of the night that he doesn’t want to forget, so he’ll just shoot it out. He knows we’re sleeping. But he’s a grinder.”

And it’s not just texts. Quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler and Matt Moore talk of Facetime sessions long into the night. “If something pops up or if I’m not sure about it, I’ll Facetime him and he’s always right there,” says Cutler.

Gase is hardly alone among Dolphins coaches in being a late finisher and early riser: Sparano was at the facility working out long before the players ever arrived, while Joe Philbin would stalk the grounds of the team facility picking up gum wrappers and game-planning as the hot sun rose. Yet Gase is different. There’s method behind his lack of sleep. He’s investing wholeheartedly in the players, treating them not only as human beings but as equals, coaxing and coaching a team that has the ability to change the limits of the near past.

And he’s doing so by removing a failing culture. “It all started with a conscious effort to tear down the authority walls that are there with a football operation,” says the Dolphins front-office member. “He’s hands on in every aspect of the team, but he’s not too big to ask for advice, even though he does give off the smartest man in the room complex.

“Other guys talked about leadership counsels, but he actually lives it. Players have input on everything from play calling to practice drills. He asks for their opinions constantly and the players truly believe they’re valued. And let me tell you, they love him. They love him because he empowers them.”

Team owner Stephen Ross is one of the world’s foremost real-estate moguls. His buildings dominate the skylines of some of the biggest cities on the planet and he is a billionaire many times over. Yet his time in charge of the Dolphins has been a difficult one. He’s long wrestled with a pair of dilemmas that weigh heavily on his shoulders: how can I be so successful in business and yet not replicate that in sport? And where’s the right man to run my football team?

His plan had been to discover a young Don Shula for the 21st Century, but he couldn’t find him. He grew tired of Sparano yet didn’t have the heart to fire him, before being talked into Philbin, the antithesis of what he truly wanted. When it came time to appoint Miami’s 12th head coach in early 2016, he vowed not to repeat those mistakes. As Gase first walked into his office and laid out his plan, Ross knew that – almost a decade after he bought the team, and at the fifth time of asking – he’d found the answer to both questions.

“I was convinced Adam was the right leader for us, the man who best met all of our priorities,” he said. “He has high energy and is driven to win. The organisation is working well together now and that’s the first time that’s happened since I took over. Everybody’s on the same page finally, nobody’s mad at anybody else and letting the entire world know about it. Nobody’s complaining. Adam has changed the culture of the Miami Dolphins.”

There’s that word again. Culture. After firing the hapless Philbin on the flight home from London in 2015, Ross installed Dan Campbell as the interim coach. His rousing speeches and Oklahoma drills got the players fired up, but only in the short-term. He’d given glimpses of being the answer – after beating Tennessee in Campbell’s first game, the owner stood in the winning locker room and pronounced: “The sleeping giant is awake.” But it lasted two short weeks before the Dolphins, in the way the talent on their roster suggested, fell away yet again.

Now things are different. When you stand on the Dolphins sideline or in the locker room and see how Ross reacts to Gase, you’ll understand why he can’t ever envisage another coach running his team. And now, because he finally has his coach, he is ready for more. “Changing the culture was last year’s first step,” he said. “But it was nothing more than that. You have to take one step at a time and one day at a time in growing it. We all have great expectations, but I’m thrilled with the way things are. In Adam we got the right man.”

Those who work with Gase everyday have bought in as much as the owner. More so even. Front-office staff are fulsome in their praise, as are his coaches, players and those around the team every day. Hall-of-Famer Jason Taylor told local radio recently that he’d “play for free to play for Gase” and that he was “just what the Miami Dolphins have needed for a very long time”.

It’s a feeling echoed by members of the front office who pushed for his appointment. “Look, Adam talks about culture in the form of always putting your best foot forward,” reveals a Dolphins front-office member. “Losing is OK as long as maximum effort and execution is there. But he won’t abide the ‘Dumb football jock’. It’s kind of a requirement of his.

“And you’ll notice that, even if you take a walk through the locker room. We have very few, if any of those guys and that’s by design. Adam thinks conversation style and comprehension is a supreme football trait. He wants players who are accountable.”

That was evidenced in his rookie season. Turned off by the training-camp immaturity of Jay Ajayi, Gase benched him for the season opener in Seattle before retuning him into a Pro Bowl back. This year, no Dolphin has worked harder at his craft than the Londoner. After the team dropped to 1-4 with a loss to the Titans, Gase called out the offensive line and, two days later, cut three starters, all recent high draft picks.

“If you can’t get the message after that then you won’t ever get it,” said veteran guard Jermon Bushrod. He benched starters Ja’Waun James and Byron Maxwell for poor performance, then pulled DE Leon Orr off the practice field to fire him on the spot after drug possession charges. It didn’t draw the headlines like cutting players for lacklustre effort, but it’s another shift towards a sustainable culture. Buy in, or bye bye.

Stills, who Philbin traded for, has had three coaches in his time in Miami, so he’s well placed to contextualise the changes Gase has made. “Things are totally different, now,” he admits. “I’d come from a veteran team in New Orleans that had just won a Super Bowl, so there was a sense of having been there, done that. A comfort in your skin as a franchise. Here we’ve got one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Our culture is change and hope and future. It’s the new Miami.

“He makes us accountable and you have to step up. I have a lot of respect for Coach Philbin but it’s different with Coach Gase. We’re very close. Very close. We know what each of us is capable of. He’s a tough guy, an intense guy but a real players’ guy. He wants to win more than anyone I’ve ever been around and that really rubs off on you. He pushes us to be better every day and he does it through connecting with the players and with his attention to detail which is incredible. Mostly though, I trust him and he trusts me.”

In 2016, Gase was trusted not only to call his own plays on offense but to lead the 53-man roster, something coaches many years his senior struggle to maintain. “It’s just his mindset,” Jarvis Landry tells Gridiron. “The way he thinks about things and the way he motivates us. It just allows us to be free, not robots like a lot of other coaches do. But he’s fun too. He’s just created a great environment to compete in.”

There’s a video that the Dolphins put out late into training camp this summer. It’s of Gase and Dan Marino fooling around before practice. Gase, protective of the team’s greatest player but in playful mode, tells him he’s mic’d up for the session.

“I just want to give you a heads up,” he says, “so you don’t start talking about how great your movie career was and how you were hosed by Hollywood. How Ace Ventura should have been a jumping point for you.”

Marino responds by saying that he “made Jim Carrey a star”. Gase breaks out in sardonic laughter, feigns choking and then delivers the knockout line: “I thought you did a hell of a job in Little Nicky. I thought that was your best ever performance.”

That’s the 39-year-old head coach and the Hall of Famer who might just be the greatest pure passer of all-time. You’d have never caught Philbin doing that. Gase has found his home and his home has found him. He might already be the best thing that’s happened to the Dolphins since Marino was drafted.

Culture change? You bet.

This article originally appeared in Issue XXXII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE


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