DAVIE, Fla. (AP) As practice began Wednesday, new Miami Dolphins interim coach Dan Campbell stood on the sideline joking with a team executive. Strolling onto the field, he playfully wrestled a cornerback, shook hands with his kickers and shouted encouragement at a practice-squad receiver.
Then things got serious.
The offense and defense separated into two groups, one on each side. Between them players began going head to head, one on one, blocker versus tackler in a succession of confrontations, one at a time as the rest of the team watched and cheered the thwack of helmets and pads.
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”It’s all about being primates,” Campbell said. ”That’s what they have those pads on for. Got to learn to use those things again.”
The new coach wants the Dolphins to be more physical and aggressive than they were under his predecessor, Joe Philbin, who was fired Monday after the Dolphins lost their third game in a row to fall to 1-3.
The transition was still in progress as the players broke Wednesday afternoon for four days off during their bye week. Campbell said he hasn’t decided whether to retain embattled defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, who was at Wednesday’s workout.
Campbell has already made several changes in the offensive staff, starting with the hiring of Al Saunders as a senior offensive assistant. Saunders has spent the past 32 years coaching in the NFL and most recently had the same role with the Oakland Raiders before leaving after last season. Ben Johnson replaced Campbell as tight ends coach, and Ken O’Keefe became a senior offensive assistant.
Miami’s players spoke publicly for the first time since the head coaching change, and many said they were sorry about the departure of Philbin, who was well-liked. But he was also low-key, and players said Campbell – at 39 the NFL’s youngest coach – had already given the team a needed jolt of energy.
That included the one-on-one confrontations known as the Oklahoma drill, which is rarely used by NFL coaches, especially during the season.
”It was the first time I’ve done it since college,” center Mike Pouncey said. ”But the way we went out there today and competed for Dan gave me some hope for this team.”
”Dan is already kind of turning things around for us,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. ”He just brings a lot of energy, passion and aggression that I think this teams needs right now.”
The biggest raves came from the tight ends, the group Campbell coached before his promotion.
”I’m actually ecstatic for him,” third-stringer Jake Stoneburner said. ”It’s very deserving that he gets the opportunity to coach the entire team.”
”Everybody would run through a wall for Dan Campbell,” starting tight end Jordan Campbell said. ”Everyone in this locker room would say the same thing.”
Even rival teams praised the Dolphins’ coaching change.
”It’s a great move for that team,” said Bills tight end Charles Clay, who played for Campbell and Miami in 2011-14. ”He’s a lot of fun to be around, but at the same time, he’s going to work the mess out of you. They’ll love him.”
While the bye week brought a revitalized mood to the Dolphins, it also gives them a chance to mend. Cornerback Brent Grimes is nursing a right knee injury that’s not serious, but he was among those missing practice. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh also sat out for undisclosed reasons.
The first workout with the new coach was brief, but Campbell said he achieved his goal – and enjoyed it.
”The first time that I felt like I could breathe over the last 48 hours was right there in that practice,” he said. ”That’s where I feel at home. I thought it was a crisp practice, it was to the point, it was competitive. It was I would say a winning environment.”
For the Dolphins, that’s a big change.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York contributed to this report.
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