Brian Flores has utilized a radical strategy to bring the Dolphins back to respectability:
Trying to do things just like Bill Belichick does.
Now, Flores doesn’t have his players running around in T-shirts that say “Do your job” or whispering “No days off” under their breath. Flores isn’t trying to turn Tua Tagovailoa into Tom Brady. And Belichick surely wouldn’t have spent more than $115 million in guaranteed money in free agency, as Flores and the Dolphins did last spring on Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, and others.
“I’m my own man. I’m Brian Flores,” Flores said in February 2019 when he got the Dolphins job. “I learned a lot from Bill, but I’ll also be different than Bill.”
But Flores, who spent 15 years working his way up the Patriots’ organization, has also leaned on several principles he picked up from Belichick. His Dolphins are 8-5 entering Sunday’s game against the Patriots, and in the driver’s seat for just their third playoff appearance since the 2002 season. And of all of Belichick’s assistants that struggled as head coaches elsewhere, Flores looks like he might be the guy to finally break through and have sustained success on his own — thanks in part to molding his team just like the Patriots.
The Dolphins’ defense has the Patriots’ imprint all over it. They are No. 2 in points allowed (18.8 per game) and are thriving in situational football — No. 1 in the NFL on third down, and No. 10 in the red zone. The Dolphins’ defense is run by a former Patriots coach (Josh Boyer), and has several former Patriots players (Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Eric Rowe). Like the Patriots, the Dolphins change their defense from week to week based on the opponent. And they have used many of the “amoeba” pass rush concepts that the Patriots and the “Boogeymen” made popular the last few years.
“Their defensive structures are similar to ours,” Belichick said Friday. “Yeah, [Van Noy] fills a similar role there. Same thing with Elandon.”
Flores’s Dolphins also don’t beat themselves, which has been the Patriots’ calling card under Belichick. A new website called The 33rdTeam, started by former Dolphins and Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum, has a new stat called the Discipline Index, which combines penalties, penalty yards, and turnovers to show which teams make the fewest and most mistakes.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots are No. 1 in the NFL this year in discipline. But the Dolphins rank just behind them at No. 2, with the third-fewest penalties per game, second-fewest penalty yards, and tied for 11th-fewest turnovers. The Dolphins have offset some of those turnovers by forcing a league-high 25 takeaways.
(Interestingly, Belichick’s message of discipline seems to have rubbed off on his protégés. The Texans of Bill O’Brien and Romeo Crennel rank No. 3 in the Discipline Index, Mike Vrabel’s Titans are No. 5, Joe Judge’s Giants are No. 10, and even Matt Patricia’s Lions — he has since been fired — are No. 12.)
The Dolphins also have been strong on special teams, with a blocked punt, a punt return touchdown, near-perfect field goal kicking, and several special teams units that rank in the top five of the NFL.
“I’m not surprised to have guys rallying around him and playing hard and doing the little things that he preached to us when he was here,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. “Definitely not surprised by their effort and how they play the game.”
Flores, like Belichick, doesn’t play favorites in the locker room, either. Brady grew to loathe it by the end of his career, but it’s also how Belichick kept order and maintained a culture for 20-plus years.
“He treats every player the same, no matter how good you are or if you’re on the practice squad,” Dolphins running back Matt Breida said of Flores. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen nothing but great things about him and I love that he’s my head coach. I think all the guys on the team feel the same way. We all want to play for him and go out there and players lay it on the line for him, and he does the same for us. He’s just a great head coach.”
And Flores, like Belichick, isn’t afraid to make tough decisions. From Lawyer Malloy to Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, and Logan Mankins, Belichick has made a bedrock principle out of getting rid of players while still popular and productive.
Flores has made a few decisions this year that could have backfired spectacularly, but so far are working out. Despite the Dolphins’ solid finish last year — they went 5-4 after starting 0-7 — Flores replaced both of his coordinators after the season. Chad O’Shea, Flores’s friend from New England, was ousted in favor of Chan Gailey and his offensive system that is friendlier to young quarterbacks. And defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, another of Flores’s friends from New England, was let go in favor of promoting Boyer.
“In this position and in any leadership position, you’ve got to make tough decisions — things that you feel are best for the team, the organization,” Flores said. “It’s not always easy, but I think you always have peace knowing that you try to do the best for the people that you’re essentially serving.”
Flores made another tough decision in October, making the switch from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Tagovailoa at quarterback even though Fitzpatrick had won three of his last four starts. The Dolphins have gone 5-2 since the switch, though Fitzpatrick started one game because Tagovailoa was injured.
“Again, when you’re genuinely and authentically and sincerely trying to do what’s best for the team, as a leader you have peace making the decisions you make,” Flores said. “And that was the case with going with Tua. We just felt like that was the best thing for our organization.”
The Patriots are not surprised that Flores is having success in Miami.
“He was always a great coach and very respected,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “He has his guys doing the right thing on the field and off the field, so it’s no surprise that they’re having success.”
Flores had a pretty good teacher in New England. And Flores is showing that trying to be like Belichick can work, if you copy the right attributes.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.