DAVIE, Fla. — Brian Flores hasn’t even coached his first game yet, and his tenure with the Dolphins has been marked by adversity.
In July, second-year defensive tackle Kendrick Norton was involved in a car accident that resulted in the amputation of his left arm, and assistant head coach Jim Caldwell announced that he was taking an extended leave from the Dolphins to deal with health issues.
Then a week into training camp, Flores took the unusual step of firing offensive line coach Pat Flaherty.
That’s a lot of drama for any football coach, let alone a 38-year-old starting his first head coaching job.
“Do I look worried?” Flores said in his office last week.
Two days later, one of Flores’s starting wide receivers, Kenny Stills, called out Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for holding a fund-raiser for President Trump.
What next, frogs raining from the sky?
“We’ve all got to deal with adversity in life. It’s something that’s not new to me,” Flores said in an interview with the Globe. “None of us are exempt from tragedy. Everyone’s got things going on in their lives.
“We’ve got to be able to bounce back, compartmentalize, be able to come to work, get better and improve. And I think if we do those things, it will be OK.”
In one answer, Flores was stoic, confident, and relatable — three traits that led the Dolphins to take a chance on him.
Before taking the job in February, Flores had spent his entire 15-year professional career with the Patriots, rising from scouting gopher to linebackers coach and, for one year, defensive play-caller. Flores has seen it all — winning four Super Bowls, appearing in three more, and working alongside the greatest coach of this era, perhaps of all time.
Now he joins a franchise starved for success. The Dolphins have reached the playoffs just twice in 17 years and haven’t won a playoff game since 2000. Flores is their sixth head coach since the start of the 2005 season. His team has the worst Super Bowl odds in the NFL, and is fighting accusations of tanking for the No. 1 pick. His quarterback position couldn’t be more unsettled, coming down to a 36-year-old journeyman and a 22-year-old project.
The Dolphins believe that Flores is just what their franchise needs — a young, relatable coach who can set a culture of professionalism, accountability, and success.
“He just has this quiet confidence that is really impressive,” a Dolphins front office source said. “When he says ‘I know what works,’ he’s not being arrogant. He just knows what works.”
Flores will fight the perception that Bill Belichick’s assistants don’t make good head coaches. And, like previous Belichick assistants, he will fight the perception that he will try to simply recreate the Patriot Way in South Florida.
Flores is trying to distance himself already. The Patriots play in Miami in Week 2, and when asked what that game will be like, Flores simply responded, “After Week 1.”
But there will be plenty of “New England” in Miami, of course. When asked about the greatest lesson he learned from Belichick, Flores said, “Put the team first.” One of Belichick’s most-used phrases is, ‘We do what’s in the best interests of the team.’
“Whether that’s moving on from coaches, moving on from players, a decision that’s made in-game or from a personnel standpoint,” Flores said. “You always want to do what’s in the best interest of this organization.”
And the Dolphins certainly have a Patriots feel. Flores’s offensive coordinator (Chad O’Shea), defensive coordinator (Patrick Graham), quarterbacks coach (Jerry Schuplinski), cornerbacks coach (Josh Boyer), offensive line coach (Dave DeGuglielmo), and tight ends coach (George Godsey) all came from Foxborough.
“I have guys I can lean on, I know, I respect, I trust,” Flores said. “That’s something that’s important when you’re trying to build and create a culture. To have a group of guys who understand my thinking, understand the things I’m looking to instill in the team, it’s been really good.”
Three former Patriots are also on the roster: tight end Dwayne Allen and cornerbacks Eric Rowe and Jomal Wiltz. Allen said Flores is doing Foxborough things with his own twist.
“You can’t replicate what they have up there,” Allen said. “A lot of people have tried and have failed, and so I really appreciate and respect Brian’s approach. This is his ship, he’s going to run it his way, while using the clues that he was able to collect from coaching with arguably the greatest football coach of all time.”
The players seem to love Flores so far. He is only 10-15 years older than they are, and he openly shares his background as the son of Honduran immigrants who grew up in the tough Brownsville projects of Brooklyn. Flores also has shown a genuine touch, such as when he visited Norton in the hospital and met his mother and high school coaches, then had Norton out at practice last week.
“I just think he’s been very consistent with his message, and who he is,” a veteran player said. “He’s a guy that a lot of players can relate to, just in terms of how open and honest he is with us. There have been a lot of things that have been really impressive about him, but I think mostly consistency and gaining the respect of the team.”
His players feel comfortable enough to poke fun at him.
“To be honest, there’s nothing really that special playing under Coach Flo,” first-round pick Christian Wilkins quipped. “Nah, I’m kidding. I just love how he’s about his business each and every day.”
At Rookie Night last week, linebacker Sam Eguavoen brought the house down with his Flores impression.
“When he went back up there, he couldn’t even take his own self seriously,” Eguavoen said.
Flores, unlike Belichick, is more of a straight shooter with the media. Already this training camp he has named Ryan Fitzpatrick as the early leader in the QB battle, and said Josh Rosen needs to improve his body language. Belichick would never do that.
“I think being genuine, and being authentic, is a big part of leadership,” Flores said. “I’ve tried to embody those things since I’ve been here, tried to embody those things really throughout my entire career.”
But his players know that Flores isn’t here to be all warm and cuddly, either. He is charged with instilling a professional culture that wasn’t there under the previous coach, Adam Gase.
Punctuality has been a huge part of Flores’s mission.
“He has a saying: ‘Early is on time, on time is late, and late is forgotten,’ ” Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “He has that up on one of the walls as soon as the players walk in.”
It applies to the media as much as the players. Two recent training camp press conferences started nine and six minutes before their announced time. Flores once apologized for being “late” to a press conference for which he was two minutes early.
When asked if the saying was something he learned from Belichick, Flores said he got it from his high school coach, Dino Mangiero.
“I think time is precious,” Flores said. “There’s a lot we want to get done, and to be a minute late, that minute might be the difference between picking up that third down and not picking up third down.
“It’s something I learned at an early age and it’s just important to me. How many games come down to an inch, or one play?”
Flores certainly knows better than most, having lived through David Tyree, and Malcolm Butler, and the comeback against the Falcons, and Mario Manningham, and countless other close calls in Patriots history.
The Dolphins may not have the most talented roster this year, but Flores is trying to instill the message that effort, preparation, and professionalism are more important.
A sign on the practice field says, “Mental: Physical 4:1.” Another is a wall with the giant letters “TNT” which stand for “takes no talent.” Any time the Dolphins make an error that is mental and not based on talent — forgetting a snap count, missing an assignment, etc. — the player, unit, or entire team will drop what they are doing, and jog to the “TNT” wall and back. Flores does it for his own mistakes, too.
“It’s not just punctuality, it’s professionalism, it’s courtesy, it’s respect for everyone around you,” said long snapper John Denney, who has been with the Dolphins since 2005. “You feel like you’re an exception to the rule or you roll in late, it’s a domino effect, it becomes cancerous.
“That’s just one example of something you can do that’s just a professional trait that he instills in us.”
Of course, no one knows whether any of this will translate to the field. Dolphins fans have been hearing for the last two decades that their latest coach — whether it’s Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, Tony Sparano, Joe Philbin, or Gase — is the savior.
Now it’s Flores’s turn.
“Just sitting down with him on my free agent visit, it was reassured that he’s going to do things his way,” Allen said. “In what manner that was, I’m not sure. But I understand he wants a tough, smart, disciplined football team, and I can fall in line with that.”