Momentum is an amazing thing in football. It neither wears a uniform nor schemes strategy, but it definitely plays a prominent role in helping to determine the outcome to NFL games.
The Dolphins are familiar with Big Mo. He was a friend last year, as one improbable win at New England snowballed and grew into a dramatic season-long turnaround.
Big Mo was not quite so friendly to the Dolphins during the Atlanta game Sunday. He felt more like Moe of the Three Stooges. And, as a result, this team must do some soul-searching in the coming days and weeks, particularly as it pertains to the offense.
On defense, the Dolphins handled potentially disastrous momentum with great equanimity and composure. Four times the Miami defense was forced to take the field in its own end and stop the Falcons from taking advantage of a turnover.
The Dolphins call that situation their "sudden change defense."
"I thought our sudden change defense was very good, which got tested pretty well during the course [of the game]," coach Tony Sparano said. "I think there was four times during the game that they had to go out there and a few times they had to work on a short field."
The Falcons got the ball on the Miami 37 yard line after a Chad Pennington fumble in the first quarter. Miami's sudden change defense forced a punt.
The Falcons got the ball at the Miami 31 yard line after an Anthony Fasano fumble in the second quarter, and the Dolphins held the Falcons to a field goal.
The Falcons got the ball at the Miami 20 yard line after a Pennington interception in the third quarter. The Miami defense apparently didn't have enough fingers to plug the dam's leaks this time as the Falcons cashed in a TD.
The Falcons got the ball back at the 38 yard line the same period after another Fasano fumble. This time the Miami defense held and the Falcons missed a field goal.
"You know, now sometimes the sudden change thing, you can look at those like they’re turnovers, you know, when you win on sudden change," Sparano said. "You stop ‘em after a turnover and they miss a field goal, you feel like that’s a win. But, the problem is you’re not gaining any yards doing it."
The victory feels particularly empty when the momentum the team gains from stopping the opponent on defense is, well, wasted by the offense.
The Dolphins offense has a ton of issues right now. And you can count how it handles momentum as one of them.
I'm not saying the offensive play-calling was bad here. But it was questionable and it did hurt Miami's momentum. Case in point:
Pennington was running for his life and rushed often. He didn't get much of a chance to find a rhythm. So what happens when Pennington throws his best pass of the game, a 16-yard rope to Ted Ginn Jr. in the second quarter, giving the Dolphins a first-and-10 at the Miami 34 yard line?
The Dolphins take the ball out of the suddenly lukewarm quarterback's hands.
Miami goes into its Wildcat package on first and second down. On first down, Ronnie Brown gains four yards. On second down, Pat White runs for zero yards.
And that leaves Pennington with a third-and-6 situation when the ball reverts to him. He does not convert.
On Miami's next possession, the offensive line is seemingly starting to create some creases in the Atlanta defense as Ricky Williams gains 7 yards on a first-down run. Well, the Dolphins follow that successful base offense play by heading back into the spread formation for White.
White fakes a handoff, and throws a pass deep downfield and harmlessly over the head of a WIDE OPEN Ginn. It was as if White just threw the ball as far as he could, hoping for something good to happen. The percentage of success on such faithful prayers is typically not good.
And now that the first-down run momentum is wasted, the Dolphins have to continue passing the ball even as the two-minute mark hits. They ultimately fail when Fasano fumbles. Momentum wasted.
The one that really bugged me, however, came in the third quarter. Down, 10-0, the Dolphins move from their own 20 with a nice mix of run and pass. Ronnie Brown gains 6 yards. Pennington passes to Davone Bess for 14. Ricky Williams gains 4 and then 8 yards rushing.
The Dolphins have the Falcons in retreat with a first down at the Atlanta 38 yard line. And then offensive coordinator Dan Henning gets cute, calling a pass-run option for Ginn. Yeah, the base offense is working, the starting quarterback just completed a 14-yard pass, so let's ask our best receiver to throw the next pass.
Sparano said the play was a nightmare. Well, he didn't say it was a nightmare, but did say no one was open and the offensive line "had leakage inside," meaning somebody wasn't blocking. So Ginn salvaged the broken play with a 1 yard run.
And that sound heard around the Georgia Dome? That was Miami's momentum balloon deflating.
The Dolphins suffered a penalty on the next play and Pennington's interception after that.
So what's the point?
Simply that while the Dolphins seem married to the spread with White and the Wildcat package, perhaps considering time away from the spouse now and then is a good thing.
When the spread asks your third-best QB to throw the football, that cannot be smart -- especially considering your starter completed 67 percent of his passes last year. When your gimmick calls for your deep threat receiver to throw the ball, that's not maximizing your chances to succeed, either.
And when the base running game is on a relative roll, why go away from it all of a sudden? Why not pound the opponent until he proves he can stop you?
All last year I heard grumblings from the offensive line how they like running out of the base offense and proving they can be good at doing that. I'm getting the feeling Pennington cannot be thrilled about having the ball taken out of his hands to let an unproven rookie take shots down the field.
"Wildcat is part of what we do," Pennington said after the game. "As a quarterback, you have to be able to adjust to that. And I don't really have an opinion one way or the other."
One more thing: I'd rather have a bigger, stronger, faster Ronnie Brown running the ball out of Wildcat than having Brown lead a sweep with White running the ball. Just saying.
I'm not saying the Dolphins should put Wildcat on the shelf. I'm not saying they shouldn't try to explore the possibility that White can indeed add a dimension to the offense. But the leash has to be short. If the kid isn't ready to make plays, that will become evident very quickly -- next game, even.
And if the wild and gimmicky side of the offensive play-calling is killing the momentum for the base set, that's not good either. That's just outsmarting yourself.
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