MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The New England Patriots’ tortured track record in South Florida reached its nadir Sunday afternoon.
The Miami Dolphins secured their fifth home win over the Patriots in the last six years by scoring the longest game-ending touchdown from scrimmage since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger — a 69-yard, multi-lateral catch-and-run that ended with running back Kenyan Drake crossing the goal line with no time remaining.
Final score: Dolphins 34, Patriots 33.
With the dust now settled, let’s take a closer look at “The Miami Miracle” and why the Patriots failed to stop it.
Stephen Gostkowski had just kicked a 22-yard field goal to put the Patriots ahead 33-28. Kalen Ballage returned the ensuing kickoff 16 yards, giving the Dolphins possession at their own 31 with 7 seconds remaining.
The Patriots rushed four on the play: defensive tackle Adam Butler, defensive ends Trey Flowers and Adrian Clayborn and linebacker Kyle Van Noy. Van Noy initially spied quarterback Ryan Tannehill, then rushed once Drake released out of the backfield.
The seven coverage players consisted of four cornerbacks (Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones), two safeties (Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon) and tight end Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski has served as a Hail Mary-stopper multiple times in his career, including in a win over the Houston Texans earlier this season.
Given the spot of the ball, however, this was not a Hail Mary situation. Tannehill would have needed to launch the ball more than 70 yards to reach the goal line, making an intermediate pass followed by a series of laterals the much more likely play call.
That’s exactly what the Patriots were expecting, according to multiple defensive backs, which raises the question of why Gronkowski, who has little tackling experience at the NFL level, was in the game.
Notably, Patriots safety Devin McCourty, one of the team’s best open-field tacklers, was on the sideline, as was uber-athletic 6-foot-4 safety Obi Melifonwu. It was the only defensive snap McCourty did not play in the game.
McCourty’s usage in these desperation situations has fluctuated throughout the season. He was not on the field for of the aforementioned Texans Hail Mary but was for the Chicago Bears’ in Week 7, which resulted in a catch and a tackle at the 1-yard line.
The play was called “Boise,” named after the hook-and-lateral Boise State successfully ran to force overtime against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
“We just stole it, basically, from Boise way back in the day when they were in that bowl game against Oklahoma,” Tannehill told reporters after the game. “But theirs was a little cleaner than that, I think. They didn’t have to dip and dodge and pitch quite as much. It worked, so I’m all for it.”
Boise’s touchdown featured just one lateral — from one wide receiver to another after a deep in-cut. By necessity, Miami’s was a bit more elaborate.
Jones got a hand on wideout Kenny Stills as soon as Stills caught the initial pass from Tannehill, preventing him from lateraling the ball to a crossing DeVante Parker.
Stills needed to evade Jones before dishing a shovel pass to Parker, who quickly shoveled it along to running back Kenyan Drake.
“I think I was really mad at DeVante at one point,” Dolphins coach Adam Gase said, “because I thought he had a chance to turn and run. But he made a good decision.”
Van Noy had Drake in his crosshairs near the Patriots’ 45-yard line but couldn’t wrap him up. That allowed Drake to turn back toward the middle of the field, and tentative defense by Chung and Jackson opened up a running lane.
Gilmore also appeared wary of an additional lateral. He shuffled to his right, away from Drake, taking himself out of the play.
Butler gave chase but couldn’t catch the speedy running back, and a downfield block by guard Ted Larsen on Chung sprung Drake. Former Patriots wideout Danny Amendola also impeded Chung’s path.
At that point, Drake needed only to beat Gronkowski, who looked understandably out of his depth.
“Drake runs a 4.3,” Tannehill said. “Gronk probably runs like a 4.6 or 4.7. So I feel good about that matchup.”
Gronkowski took a poor angle and stumbled. Drake outran him and Jackson to the pylon. Game over.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Former Patriots receiver Donte’ Stallworth called having Gronkowski in for this play “one of the worst calls (he’s) ever seen by (Patriots coach Bill) Belichick,” and he’s not wrong. Given the unlikelihood of a Hail Mary, it made little sense to have the 6-foot-6 tight end in the game over McCourty or, if the Patriots really wanted a tall defender on the back end, Melifonwu.
Personnel decisions aside, hesitation also hurt the Patriots. Chung, Jackson and Gilmore all seemed to prioritize defending against another pitch over tackling Drake. Jackson even could be seen jumping when he was a mere yard behind the running back, evidently trying to prevent him from flipping the ball back to Parker.
The missed tackles certainly didn’t help, either. Jones and Van Noy had clear chances to bring down Stills and Parker, respectively, but failed to do so.