The Patriots aren’t Supermen anymore, but they still have their Kryptonite, and it’s still the Dolphins. Miami has always given New England fits, but at first because they were just better and then because their home field, combined with Jason Taylor, turned Tom Brady into… well, whatever quarterback the Dolphins had at the time. The 16-0 season seemed particularly improbable because beating Miami twice has always seemed like a tall order. And all that was before the current era: with Miami as a team designed specifically to take down the Patriots.
The Dolphins of Marino were the most “warm weather” team there was; now Miami runs the most “cold weather” offense in the last 10 years, the Wildcat-heavy crux of which they unveiled last year in Foxboro. The game plan ruined the unsuspecting Patriots, who nonetheless got revenge in Miami behind a spread offense and their backup quarterback. The teams had basically become mirror images of what they’re “supposed” to be, climate-wise, but the balance is once again changing.
Tom Brady admitted this week that the 2007/08 offense is basically being scrapped for good, not because of the departure of Josh McDaniels but because Joey Galloway was a total bust and Julian Edelman injured. No extra receivers equals no spread offense, and that means more running plays, and a reversion to the playcalling of the early Brady years. More play action, less shotgun. That ought to help against a team that feeds off time of possession. Paint the Phins into situations where they think they have to pass, and good things will happen, because they’ve been built to play against the pass. The Wildcat aims to drain time from the clock, forcing you into foolish plays on offense. The prototypical Wildcat game was against the Colts, where they had the ball for 48 minutes. The game plan played right into their hands… but since they were playing Peyton Manning, they lost. You can only do so much.
The Wildcat is not easy offense to operate in the NFL. Every team runs it (or ran it) after the Dolphins unveiled it last year, with decreasing marginal returns to the point where some teams have scrapped it altogether. Not Miami: they doubled down, instilling more plays for Ronnie Brown at quarterback, and running it for entire drives and games. There is something completely awesome about this, and evocative of Chuck Klosterman’s essay on innovation in football. But it’s not all good.
The bad part is that the Dolphins are still very beatable. Can they win this game? Absolutely. Do I think they will? No. Does their Wildcat scare the absolute piss out of me? Yes. Why? Because this team seems single-handedly devised to beat the Patriots, like a good boxer who wins the belt because they match up well with the otherwise better champ (I’m thinking Vernon Forrest*). Unfortunately for the Phins, this approach won’t win them a Super Bowl; the Steelers would absolutely ruin them. Sparano hasn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but in a league with Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and Brady, “good” isn’t going to cut it in the end. This week? It might.
As the years tick away for Belichick, games like this will show how much the Brady Patriots have left in them. The Pats were never about dominance; they were about adapting. Now that the division has adapted to them (become more defense- and run-heavy to match their firepower), the Pats have to tack back toward being an all-around team that changes styles based on opponents. As they turn the defense over to youngsters, they’re vulnerable now to targeted attacks like Miami’s Wildcat. They’ll probably win the division either way, but if they can survive this week’s broadside, the whole league needs to watch out. If the teal-and-orange Kryptonite can’t get the job done, can anything?