Several of the Dolphins’ top stars sat out the team’s preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Saturday night, but a team led mainly by reserves and roster longshots were able to secure a 26-24 win in Mike McDaniel’s head-coaching debut.
A 53-yard go-ahead field goal by kicker Jason Sanders gave the Dolphins a two-point lead with 6:53 remaining in the game and Tampa Bay kicker Jose Borregales’ 49-yard field goal attempt bounced off the right upright and onto the field at Raymond James Stadium as time expired to preserve the Miami victory.
“You’re never going to be completely happy with a performance. That’s the point of being a coach,” McDaniel said after his first game leading the Dolphins. “The day that you have a perfect game, I feel like we should walk off into the sunset. I was happy with how they handled adversity. Things didn’t go their way, we kind of started behind the 8-ball a little bit. They were running a bunch of pressures, so we were struggling to get the run game for reasons because they were committing to stop it. I was happy [with] how they responded and there’s a lot we can learn from it.”
Over 20 Dolphins were sidelined, most notably expected starters such as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, left tackle Terron Armstead and cornerback Xavien Howard. The Buccaneers also elected to hold out many of their key players, such as quarterback Tom Brady and wideouts Mike Evan and Chris Godwin, and all 11 projected defensive starters.
In the first game action for McDaniel’s new scheme, the offense – even with primarily backups throughout the night – showed its potential, as well as room for improvement going forward.
Skylar Thompson, the team’s seventh-round pick, started at quarterback and played the entirety of the game. He finished 20 of 28 with 218 yards and one touchdown, a 22-yard pass to wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. in the second quarter.
“I thought I did some good things,” Thompson said. “There’s a handful of plays that are on my mind right now. Being able to anticipate and trust myself, I felt I was seeing the field well. There were a couple of times they stumped me a little bit. But I felt I was seeing the field well and had a good understanding of what they were going to do. There were times where I felt a little hesitant instead of trusting my read, throwing it, and throwing it to a spot.
“As the game went on, there were a couple throws where I did better. But there’s always room for improvement. There’s always room for growth. That’s what I love about this game. I’m super excited to go back and watch the film and see it from that perspective and see how it aligns with what my thoughts are right now.”
The Dolphins’ running game, however, didn’t get off to as good of a start. Three returning offensive linemen projected as Week 1 starters – left guard Liam Eichenberg, right guard Robert Hunt and right tackle Austin Jackson – started the game and played a few series before sitting for the night. Miami, which ranked 30th in rushing last season, gained just 49 yards on 15 carries.
The offense was also 2 for 10 on third downs and 0 for 2 in the red zone. The team’s reserve offensive linemen struggled in pass protection at times, allowing three sacks total.
The Dolphins opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 33-yard field goal by Sanders but went down 14-3 after allowing consecutive scoring drives.
The team responded with 20 unanswered points to take a 23-14 lead, assisted by a pair of turnovers. An acrobatic interception by safety Elijah Campbell set up Thompson’s touchdown pass to Bowden on the following play. On the ensuing drive, inside linebacker Sam Eguavoen scored on a 33-yard fumble recovery, picking up a loose ball on a strip sack by outside linebacker Darius Hodge, giving the Dolphins a 20-14 lead at halftime.
Ten straight points by the Buccaneers gave the Dolphins a 24-23 deficit in the fourth quarter but Thompson led the offense on a 12-play, 60-yard drive to set up the go-ahead field for Sanders, who made all four of his attempts and two over 50 yards.
A pair of conversions on 4th-and-12 and 3rd-and-8 allowed Tampa Bay to set up for a potential game-winning field goal with three seconds left. McDaniel took a timeout before the snap to ice the kicker. And after the Dolphins’ sideline watched the kick miss the middle of the goal posts, they burst onto the field in celebration of their preseason-opening victory.
“There were probably like 16 or 17 [players] who didn’t play a snap, who weren’t even suited,” McDaniel said. “But what I was happy about was the whole team stayed locked in for their teammates and they genuinely wanted to win. And you better have a competitive nature in the business to be able to succeed in it. It was cool to see that they wanted to finish what they started. So, I was happy about that.”