Brian Flores lost his first three games as Miami Dolphins head coach by a combined score of 133-16.
Fifteen months later, the former New England Patriots linebackers coach/defensive play-caller has the Dolphins on the verge of a postseason berth.
Over his two seasons in Miami, Flores has turned a torn-down franchise that appeared destined for a lengthy rebuild into a legit playoff contender. He’s also subverting the narrative of Bill Belichick’s lieutenants flopping after landing head-coaching gigs.
First things first: Flores’ Dolphins are not a finished product. They’ve won less than half of their games since Flores took over. At 8-5, they’re still in danger of missing out on a wild-card spot if they stumble down the stretch.
But with an emerging star in rookie Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback and an aggressive, play-making defense that ranks second in the NFL in points allowed, the Dolphins have laid a foundation for sustained success — something that’s eluded most former Patriots assistants.
Flores is the sixth Belichick-era New England assistant to graduate to the NFL head-coaching ranks. The previous five have ranged from mediocre to outright disastrous.
The most successful to date was Bill O’Brien, who, for all the warranted criticism he faced for his personnel moves, posted winning records in five of his six full seasons with the Houston Texans and made the playoffs four times. O’Brien’s Texans won just two playoff games, however, and never made it past the divisional round.
The other four Patriots alums, meanwhile, combined for exactly zero postseason victories.
Josh McDaniels went 8-8 and 3-9 with the Denver Broncos before being fired midway through his second season. Matt Patricia tanked a nine-win Detroit Lions team, going 6-10, 3-12-1 and 4-7 before getting the hook last month. Romeo Crennel won 10 games once with the Cleveland Browns but never went better than 6-10 in any of his other four full seasons in charge in Cleveland and Kansas City. (Crennel currently is serving as interim head coach in Houston, replacing O’Brien.)
Eric Mangini went 10-6 and made the playoffs in his first season with the New York Jets but quickly cratered, going 4-12 and 9-7 before getting canned. He joined the Browns the following season and proceeded to post back-to-back 5-11 records.
Many of these coaches made failed attempts to emulate Belichick, leading to friction within the locker room. Patricia, whose domineering approach alienated many Lions players, is the latest example.
Flores is strict with his players and coaches and brought many Patriots tenets — toughness, unselfishness, accountability, attention to detail — with him to Miami. But he’s also earned the respect of his team, as Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post explained on this week’s “NESN Patriots Podcast.”
?He?s a good coach,” Schad said. “He?s a good leader. He brings all that stuff that Patriots coaches usually do in terms of discipline, structure and organization. And even though he can be hard to work for as a coach because he grinds on you and hard to play for as a player because he grinds on you and doesn?t offer a ton of praise, just pushes and pushes and pushes until he gets close to perfection, the players and the coaches don?t resent him. They don?t very much dislike him.
“And that?s key, right? If you want to have a boss who can get the most out of you, that?s great, as long as you don?t hate the guy.”
Last year’s glimmers of hope also helped.
After jettisoning key players like Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the 2019 season and starting 0-7, the Dolphins won five of their final nine games with an absurdly limited roster that featured a parade of players signed off the Patriots practice squad.
Calvin Munson, Nate Brooks, Jomal Wiltz, Ryan Lewis, Ken Webster and Trent Harris all started games for Miami’s defense. The Dolphins’ top running back by December (Patrick Laird) was nicknamed “The Intern” for his anonymity, and their leading rusher was 37-year-old quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Miami capped Flores’ maiden season with a shocking 27-24 win over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium — as 17 1/2-point underdogs — that robbed New England of a first-round playoff bye and, for all intents and purposes, ended the Tom Brady era.
The Dolphins’ final record was an unsightly 5-11, but those late wins were important building blocks. Since that 0-7 start, Flores’ troops are 13-9. The Patriots are 10-12 in that same span.
“I think that the coaches and the players feel like (Flores) has their best interests at heart,” Schad said, “and that they believe that, hey, if this guy can pull off games and the end of his first season with practice squad players and players that are going to end up in the (Alliance) of American Football or whatever that thing was called … they had tons of guys off the street, and they were winning games. So I think people were like, ?Wow, this guy really knows what he?s doing.?
“He?s a smart tactician, and these coaches are really teaching the players fundamental things that are helping them on Sunday, so then they just listen even more closely to what the coaches are saying because they?re like, ?Wow, these guys are really smart.’ “
Flores is 1-2 against his former team thus far, bookending Miami’s signature upset with a 43-0 loss last September and a 21-11 defeat in this year’s season opener. The 6-7 Patriots, who have just a 2 percent of chance of making the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight, will have a rare opportunity to play spoiler when they visit Hard Rock Stadium this Sunday.