Dolphins announce their presence as a contender with authority

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This column originally appeared in Read & React, Yahoo Sports’ morning newsletter. Subscribe here.

Remember how you felt a couple years back, when it became clear that the Kansas City Chiefs of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes were going to be playoff contenders pretty much as long as they stick together? Or back in the early 2000s, when it was obvious that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had found a way to put the Patriots in a higher gear than the rest of the league? Or, going back even further, when Joe Montana and Bill Walsh discovered NFL truths that future players and coaches still haven’t learned?

We won’t go so far as to say that the Miami Dolphins of Tua Tagovailoa and Mike McDaniel are there yet. But we will point out that none of the NFL’s famed dynasties — not the Chiefs, not the Patriots, not the 49ers, not Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas teams or Joe Gibbs’ Washington squads, none of them — has ever scored as many points as the Dolphins did Sunday. It’s just a shame John Madden wasn’t around to call the game.

Miami’s 70 — 70! — points scored against Denver rank tied for third all time in NFL history, behind only Chicago (73 in 1940, vs. Washington) and Washington (72 in 1966, vs. the Giants) and even with the Rams (1950, vs. the Colts). Now, granted, you need to run up against the right opponent, and in this case, Miami had the good fortune to draw the seafood-restaurant Dumpster fire that is the Denver Broncos. Why Denver allowed 70 points is a whole different story, one that warrants closer scrutiny.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa laughs with head coach Mike McDaniel during his game against the Denver Broncos at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, Sep. 24, 2023 in Miami Gardens. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa laughs with head coach Mike McDaniel during his game against the Denver Broncos at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, Sep. 24, 2023 in Miami Gardens. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) (South Florida Sun-Sentinel via Getty Images)

For now, though, let’s focus on Miami. How exactly did the Dolphins make a fellow professional football team look like an early season FCS opponent? How did a coach who looks like he ought to be serving you a latte find something undiscovered in a quarterback that NFL pundits wrote off as too small and too fragile? How did free agents, castoffs and trade bounties — like a still-fleet receiver who really ought to be dropping off as he nears the cliff age of 30 — combine into a force that’s reshaped its division, its conference and maybe even the entire league?

This is going to be maddening as hell to other teams who wish they could copycat Miami’s success, but the truth is that the Dolphins are the ever-more-fully realized vision of McDaniel, one of the new generation of NFL coaches who sees the game in multiple planes at once. McDaniel has shaped Miami from a chuck-it-deep team to a multidimensional threat, using Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to set up the running game of Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane, and vice versa.

What might make the Dolphins even more dangerous than their personnel is their memory. Last year, Miami opened the season 8-3, and despite the fact that Tagovailoa suffered some often grievous injuries, the team seemed like it was on a generational upswing. Then the Dolphins went winless from the beginning of December through New Year’s Day, 8-3 turned into 8-8, and that was that for Miami’s 2022 hopes.

This year, they’ve won games in widely differing fashion — big-play strikes against the Chargers, take-what-the-defense-gave precision against the Patriots, and now, overwhelming annihilation. McDaniel has spent years studying under offensive geniuses, including both Shanahans, and he’s clearly developing a team without an easily categorized, and countered, identity.

Plus, McDaniel has unlocked cheat codes in Tagovailoa, who is releasing the ball faster and with more accuracy than almost anyone else in the NFL. That’s a wicked asset to have at your disposal, and as a result, Tagovailoa is now the odds-on favorite to win MVP.

For all the astounding statistical magnificence of Sunday, though, the scoreboard resets to zero next week. Over the next six weeks, Miami will play Buffalo, Kansas City and Philadelphia. Win two of those, and Miami will be an established threat. Win all three, and there’ll be a new top dog — or top dolphin — in the NFL.

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