If the Miami Dolphins' 1-3 start wasn’t enough to endure, coach Brian Flores received another painful reminder of the twists and turns he must overcome in the second season of this franchise rebuild.
The Dolphins had to prepare for Sunday’s cross-country game against San Francisco 49ers (2-2) after learning starting left tackle Austin Jackson — the second of three Dolphins first-round picks drafted 13 spots after Tua Tagovailoa this year — will be sidelined for an extended period of time due to a foot injury.
As if Sunday’s game doesn’t already appear to be a daunting task for the nine-point underdog Dolphins, the outlook for the second quarter of Miami’s 2020 season seems less ideal now for Flores' team.
Before looking too far ahead, the Dolphins must piece together an offensive line for 16-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to face the runner ups from Super Bowl LIV on their home field at Levi Stadium at 4:05 p.m. ET.
Now Flores has another reason to continue keeping Tagovailoa, their rookie quarterback, on the sidelines.
Hopefully as long as Fitzpatrick holds up.
“We’ll try to get acclimated to the time change and hopefully go out there and play a good competitive team football game and try to come out of there with a win,” Flores said this past week.
As Flores looks to coach his team to get past its obstacles, he can see another coach who has risen up the NFL ranks after some early growing pains.
Flores last faced Kyle Shanahan when he helped Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots keep the Atlanta Falcons offense scoreless after a 28-3 start en route to a victory in Super Bowl LI in 2016.
Shanahan started his four-year tenure with the 49ers, with a 6-10 record in 2017 and dropped to 4-12 in 2018 after starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tore his anterior cruciate ligament after signing a five-year, $137.5 million deal with San Francisco before the season.
San Francisco’s early struggles inspired last season’s Super Bowl run, and a 15-5 record in the past 20 games, showing the tide can turn after enduring a little pain on the field at inopportune times.
Flores, after a 5-11 rookie campaign last season, is off to a 6-14 start to his Dolphins coaching career through 20 games after losing games by three games by 10, three and eight points this season.
Signs point to a team trending in the right direction based on its free-agent signings, draft selections and investment of the future with a healthy Tagovailoa mending on the bench.
“He’s got a very good team. They play hard. They obviously believe in him and they obviously believe in each other. … You can tell he’s doing things the right way. When you’re in almost every game that you play, it means you’re not far,” Shanahan said of Flores.
“And I know he’s got the pedigree and he’s been with a lot of great people. I’ve heard a lot of great things about him as a person. And you can see it by watching his team also.”
Flores' team must slow Shanahan’s offense, which is considered the NFL’s most difficult scheme to decipher at the line of scrimmage based on the variations of formations, players used in motion and gadgetry used all before the ball is even snapped.
The Dolphins will have to keep an eye on 49ers tight end George Kittle, who has the ability to block or line up on either side of the offensive line to run a route.
Running backs like Raheem Mostert and fullback Kyle Juszczyk can line up in the backfield or flush out into the slot on any given play.
And receivers like dynamic rookie Brandon Aiyuk will either line up for their routes or move in motion across the field and even back toward the side they came from to throw the Dolphins defense off.
“I think [the key] for us, it’s just making the game a little simpler, knowing that whatever they are motioning to is to see what the actual formation is after that,” said Dolphins linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who played with Garoppolo in college at Eastern Illinois.
The Dolphins were already unable to slow Cam Newton or Josh Allen this season, and they had no answer when Russell Wilson turned it on in the fourth quarter of a close game last week.
And Flores cannot depend on his past experiences with Shanahan as his influx of well-paid defensive talent still needs more time to gel on the field to overcome communication and assignment issues they’ve experienced this season.
“You always go back into time and look at some things that you’ve done in the past. … There are some things that are the core of his offense that he’s probably going to run some form or fashion,” Flores said of Shanahan’s scheme.
“How he gets to it, I mean, your guess is as good as mine, because there are a lot of shifts, there are a lot of motions, there is a lot of missiles, let’s call it gadgetry to get to a formation.”
As Miami hopes to keep it close with its 12th-ranked scoring defense (24.0 points allowed per game) despite being sixth worst in average yards allowed (409.8), Flores hopes his offense can function and produce with the same mystery and success as San Francisco’s.
The Dolphins offense, led by Fitzpatrick and 68-year-old offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, has seen its share of successes and failures through four games with seven touchdowns drives in Weeks 2 and 3, and just one a piece in Weeks 1 and 4.
Losing Jackson for an indefinite period is a discouraging development. He may not yet be the franchise left tackle Laremy Tunsil aspired to be in Miami and is now in Houston, but Jackson is one of several key pieces to the Dolphins' future.
“I’m going to do my best for this week and hopefully continue to lead this team, and whenever that day comes, we’ll cross that bridge,” Fitzpatrick said this past week about his potential unseating to Tagovailoa.
To combat Garoppolo’s return, the Dolphins will get cornerback Byron Jones back after missing two games with a groin injury to help, but defensive end Shaq Lawson will be sidelined with a shoulder injury.
But if there’s one thing the Dolphins have showed through four games: They’re a team that needs everything to go right for them to win a football game against top-tier competition.
And they must play with considerable poise to avoid a 1-4 start this season at this early stage of their franchise rebuild.
“It’ll definitely be a tough test for us,” Flores said.
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