Greg Stoda: Miami Dolphins’ Joe Philbin goes with his gut — and out-coaches Jeff Fisher
The gamble was in playing for time.
Joe Philbin decided it was worth the monumental risk to do so, and the Dolphins won a game Sunday in large part because their head coach went with his gut, and because Chris Clemons did, too.
Miami held a three-point lead on St. Louis with 4:15 remaining but faced a fourth-and-1 at its own 40-yard line … and called a fake punt.
OK, the chain of command is long.
There were week-long suggestions from Miami special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi and assistant Dave Fipp that the play would work. Philbin, though, held veto power, which he declined to exercise.
“Darren and Dave said all week it was going to be there,” Philbin said. “We kind of needed a play. We felt like it was a good time.”
He added a nonchalant shrug.
It was a dangerous time is what it was.
A failure would have presented St. Louis excellent field position with an opportunity to catch or overtake the Dolphins.
“We got the right look,” Philbin explained. “Let’s face it. We didn’t have a whole lot of rhythm on offense. We felt like if it was there, let’s take advantage of it.
“We practiced it a bunch. We told our guys (Saturday) night in the meeting, ‘We’re going to be aggressive in the kicking game. We have some fakes.’
“You’ve got to have faith in the players. If you’re practicing something, hopefully, you believe in it.”
So, it came down to Clemons – a safety on defense who is the up-back in punt formation – holding final responsibility to stay with or check out of the call. The snap would go to him, not to punter Brandon Fields.
“To be honest, it was a different look,” Clemons said. “I should have checked out of it, but my mind was made up. (The Rams) had enough men in the box, but the gap was open. I knew I could make it. I was a running back in high school.”
That was when he was more than 40 pounds lighter than his current 214 pounds and, he said, the last time he carried a ball as a running back.
“I was telling everybody when we practiced it that I’d score if we called it,” Clemons said.
He gained 3 yards.
More importantly, though, it cost St. Louis two-plus minutes off the clock.
The Dolphins were forced to punt again at the two-minute warning, but a penalty against St. Louis set up a second punt, and the Rams’ final possession started from their own 3-yard line with 1:41 remaining.
“Yeah, that’s on me,” St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said of the fake. “I didn’t think they would do that or I would have left the defense out there. That was a great play.”
This is where it’s worth reminding everyone that Philbin became the Dolphins’ coach this winter only after Fisher chose not to be, instead opting for the St. Louis job.
There was in-game irony to come even after Miami’s fake punt, because Fisher, in the end, chose not to play for time.
St. Louis drove to Miami’s 45-yard line and snapped a third-down play with :37 on the clock, but Sam Bradford was sacked for a 3-yard loss.
Fisher, though, decided not to run another play to try for a first down – he drained the time to :04 before spending his last timeout – and instead opted for a 66-yard field-goal attempt, three yards beyond the NFL record.
“The odds of Greg (Zuerlein) making that kick from that distance, I thought, were much better than us making that fourth down,” Fisher insisted.
The kick missed left, and the Dolphins danced on the field very near the spot from which the fake punt had been pulled off moments earlier.
There was an undeniable symmetry to that finish, and perhaps a significant winners’ reward beyond a victory and a break-even record entering a bye week.
“I think we have a better chemistry,” Philbin said of the team’s progress since Week 1. “The guys have more confidence in themselves. They believe in themselves more.”
That’s on him.
Miami 17, St. Louis 14
Philbin 1, Fisher 0
Nobody can fake those numbers.