It isn’t all fun and games for the Miami Dolphins.
It just feels that way since Dan Campbell was named interim head coach.
A team that opened 1-3 with little hope for a turnaround hasn’t just won two straight contests entering Thursday night’s AFC East showdown with New England. The Dolphins have dominated, outscoring their opposition (Tennessee and Houston) by an 82-36 margin.
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One of the biggest reasons for this resurgence was Campbell’s ability to tap into his experience as an 11-year NFL veteran at tight end to better reach the team’s locker room. The first practice Campbell conducted three weeks ago began with the Oklahoma Drill, a primitive one-on-one blocking exercise designed to shake players out of their doldrums.
The motivational tactics haven’t stopped since then — and neither has Miami’s success.
"Every day it’s something," Dolphins tight end Jordan Cameron told FOXSports.com in a Tuesday telephone interview. "We’re putting to see who can get the closest putt to the target. Today, we’re playing Frisbee. We don’t practice Fridays but we have a basketball shootout in the team meeting room.
"Dan has such good awareness. We’re here because we’re competitors and he’s getting it out of us. It’s a sign of a good coach."
Cameron is aware such a statement can be interpreted as a damning indictment of Campbell’s predecessor Joe Philbin, who was fired after Miami’s listless effort during a 27-14 loss to the New York Jets in London. Although safety Michael Thomas backed such sentiment by saying previous Dolphins practices were uninspired enough that they felt "like just another day at work," Cameron stressed it wasn’t a case of Philbin "being out here doing nothing."
"Sometimes you can just get into a routine," Cameron continued. "It’s hard to explain. You’re not aware that you’re not competing. You’re just going through the daily motions.
"Dan opened out eyes a little more to the fact you’ve got to have that mindset you’re going to beat the guy across from you. The fact he really emphasizes that in practices carries over to Sunday."
Campbell admits that ideally he wouldn’t have needed to press such buttons to get results.
"The first and the quickest thing for us to get better at was guys being more aggressive and competitive," Campbell told Patriots media in a conference call earlier this week. "These guys have gone 100 percent all-in and they’re giving everything they’ve got right now.
"The good teams do it on their own. Once you light a fire, you can’t put it out as long as the players continue to feed that fire. That’s what you’re looking for."
Rah-rah gimmicks aren’t the only reason Miami (3-3) is now living up to the preseason hype. Campbell made notable changes on the coaching staff that are paying early dividends.
Offensive responsibilities were shuffled and long-time NFL coach Al Saunders was brought in to work with the wide receivers and advise coordinator Bill Lazor. The Dolphins began emphasizing their ground attack, which has resulted in two strong games from running back Lamar Miller (113- and 175-yard performances, respectively) and balance that was sorely lacking.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has flourished, setting an NFL record with 25 consecutive completions spanning the Tennessee and Houston games. Slow starts also are gone. After having produced only a field goal in the first quarter of the opening four contests, the Dolphins outscored the Titans and Texans by a combined 31-3 margin.
Defensively, coordinator Kevin Coyle was fired and replaced by secondary coach Lou Anarumo. He immediately simplified a scheme that had come under heavy behind-the-scenes criticism from players. The Dolphins have responded with dominant play from a front led by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake as well as the ball-hawking of safety Reshad Jones, who returned interceptions for touchdowns against Tennessee and Houston.
"When your defense isn’t thinking too much about what they’re going to do and just going out there and playing, you can fly around," Thomas said. "That’s when we started seeing big plays, turnovers, big hits and sacks."
Campbell’s early success and upbeat attitude have made him the Dolphins’ most popular Dan since Dan Marino was quarterbacking the squad in the 1980s and 1990s. That also was the last era Miami reached the playoffs on a regular basis. The Dolphins haven’t been in the postseason since 2008.
If the drought continues, Campbell’s chances of keeping the head coaching position beyond this season will diminish. Ploys like trivia contests and the introduction of black practice jerseys awarded to the winner of a weekly offensive/defensive competition will be remembered more as a temporary fix to Philbin’s mistakes rather than anything with staying power.
That’s part of what makes the Patriots game so important for Miami. The Titans (1-5) and Texans (2-5) are two of the NFL’s worst clubs. New England (6-0) is the defending Super Bowl champion and shows all the earmarks of being able to defend that crown in February.
Cameron said it’s "in the minds" of Miami players entering the Patriots matchup to prove this turnaround has legs.
"It’s a huge test for us," Cameron said. "We want to show what we’re doing is not a fluke and we’re ready to compete against the best team in the NFL."
Campbell would have it no other way.
Alex Marvez and co-host Gil Brandt interviewed Michael Thomas on SiriusXM NFL Radio