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Omar Kelly: Dolphins’ defense deserves praise for helping turn season around

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Omar Kelly: Dolphins’ defense deserves praise for helping turn season around

There is often an opportunity that discomfort creates if it is welcomed.

It’s called growth, and that is what we’ve been witnessing from the Miami Dolphins defense the past five weeks, where that unit’s development, and tightening of the screws has helped the Dolphins (6-7) transform from an NFL laughingstock due to their seven straight losses into a franchise deserving some respect.

Tua Tagovailoa’s accuracy, anticipation and pocket presence have allowed the offense become respectable during Miami’s five-game winning streak. But it’s the defense that is doing the heavy lifting once again.

If there’s one thing the 2021 season has taught us is that expecting things to carryover from one season to the next in the NFL is shortsighted.

The slightest alteration of your roster — like a swap from safety from Bobby McCain to Jevon Holland, a change at outside linebacker from Kyle Van Noy to Jaelan Phillips, the absence of an edge setter Shaq Lawson — could drastically alter your team’s chemistry, shift the unit’s strengths and weaknesses, and impact the team’s style of play.

Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer got a crash course on this earlier this season when he tried to run the same scheme that produced one of the NFL’s stingiest defenses in 2020 with different personnel.

While the defensive play-calls might have been similar — if not the same — the execution wasn’t, and the product on the field left plenty to be desired considering the Dolphins sat at the bottom of many important NFL statistical rankings before the wins started piling up.

Then comfort set in, roles were adapted, and the screws tightened. During this five-game winning streak Miami’s defense allowed just four touchdowns, a stretch where Miami’s opponents averaged 11 points per game.

“I feel like we’re back to that level,” Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard said, referring to the sack-producing, turnover-creating unit the Dolphins possessed last season. “I feel like everybody is confident, everybody is having fun.”

But the road back to respectable wasn’t easy, and featured some growing pains.

For instance, Miami’s run defense tightened once nose tackle Raekwon Davis returned from the knee injury he suffered in the season opener. In the nine games Davis has played since his return only three teams have rushed for 100 or more yards against Miami.

As a result, the Dolphins rank ninth against the run now, allowing 103.8 rushing yards per game, heading into this weekend’s bye.

Clamping down against the run set the table for everything else, but Miami had to overcome some injuries, and be patient with its young players’ development to get here.

Howard and Byron Jones, Miami’s two upper-echelon cornerbacks, the talents whose skill-set this defense is built around, were each nursing a groin injury at the same time earlier in the season. Their injuries impacted their performance, and the schemes Miami could run for nearly a month.

It also took Holland, the Dolphins’ 2021 second-round pick, half a season to become comfortable in Miami’s defense. Now the former Oregon standout is one of the team’s top playmakers, and a leader the secondary leans on.

He’s proof that sometimes teams have to wait for young players to blossom.

That seemed to be the case with not just Holland, but Phillips, whom the Dolphins selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2021 draft. The former University of Miami standout struggled to quickly learn everything that came with being a linebacker in Miami’s scheme.

The Dolphins eventually scrapped (or tabled) the outside linebacker role, and began to use Phillips exclusively as a pass rusher. Last Sunday Phillips set a Dolphins rookie record by reaching 8.5 sacks on the season, and seven of them have come in the past five games.

To simplify things for Phillips, Jerome Baker became an edge player, returning to the outside linebacker role he held in his rookie season. That opened the door for Duke Riley to get more playing time at inside linebacker.

Miami’s defense evolved into what it is today through trial and error and ultimately found a formula that works for this unit — not last year’s defense.

Last year the Dolphins defense allowed a touchdown 57.4 percent of the time teams reached the red zone, which ranked Miami seventh in that statistical category.

This year Miami is allowing 50 percent of red-zone opportunities to turn into touchdowns, which ties Miami with Buffalo for fourth in the NFL.

Only Baltimore, New England and New Orleans are better, and that’s good company to keep.

“It’s about trusting the process. Believing in what you’re doing. Believing in the scheme, and believing in the players,” Boyer said. “From the players, from the coaches, even when things haven’t been good. We all understand that we’re approaching things the right way. We’re working the right way. We haven’t always gotten the results we wanted. Just because you work hard, prepare the right way, coaching it the right way, it really comes down to execution on Sundays.”

The evolution will continue as Holland, Phillips and Baker become more comfortable in their new roles.

The hope is that the growth we’ve seen this past month will carry on throughout the final four games of the regular season, and maybe next year’s defense will start out the 2022 season with less discomfort.

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Dahlberg: Epic NFL playoffs show new wave of quarterback talent

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Dahlberg: Epic NFL playoffs show new wave of quarterback talent

Aaron Rodgers seemed tired and uninterested, almost as if working overtime to spread fake science and conspiracy theories was more important to him than getting the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl.

Tom Brady didn’t look much better. He was beaten up and aging quickly on the field in Tampa Bay — until suddenly he wasn’t.

They both ended up losers on a NFL playoff weekend that might have been the most entertaining ever. And they both left their respective fields unsure of where they will be playing next year — or if they will be playing at all.

Not that it matters all that much. In an epic round of playoff games, the young quarterbacks showed the NFL will be in good hands for years to come.

Patrick Mahomes outdueled Josh Allen and the Bills in a game so good it should have been a Super Bowl by itself. Maybe two.

Joe Burrow won one for the Bengals, proving he is as good as he is brash, and Matthew Stafford is a game away from doing in Los Angeles what he never had a chance to do in Detroit.

Jimmy Garoppolo, meanwhile, never stopped smiling even though he did little except lead San Francisco to a winning field goal in frigid Green Bay.

The old guys? Eh, not so much.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity for Brady to finally acknowledge Father Time and call it quits on a remarkable career, even as he helped lead an improbable fourth quarter Tampa Bay rally against the Rams. Brady had his moments, but there were long stretches of the game when it appeared retirement couldn’t come soon enough for the greatest quarterback ever.

“I haven’t put a lot of thought to it,” Brady said afterward, picking his words carefully. “We’ll just take it day by day and see what happens.”

Rodgers also wasn’t going to commit to his future, but he did warn Green Bay fans they wouldn’t see him again if the team was planning to go into a rebuilding mode. He’s got a year left on his contract, though you might wonder why the Packers would risk another season of disruption at the hands of a quarterback who totally disrupted this one.

But, really, who else would want him?

Rodgers is as self-centered and arrogant as star athletes come, convinced perhaps by his stint hosting “Jeopardy!” that he knows answers others can only guess. He had no compulsion during the season pretending he was vaccinated, disrespecting his teammates and putting them and everyone else at Packers headquarters at risk of catching COVID-19.

The way social media gleefully mocked Rodgers’ performance in the snow against San Francisco, he doesn’t seem to have a lot of people cheering for him, much less buying a new insurance policy at his behest.

Those in the Twitterverse suggested Rodgers was silenced by a conspiracy of special teams players. They said he had no shot of winning, and pointed out that this was his first playoff loss in the Moderna era.

They also wondered — just like all of us — if the game plan for the 49ers was as detailed as the 500-plus pages of “research” Rodgers read before making his mind up to roll the dice with a virus that doesn’t care how good he is at finding open receivers.

Almost lost in all the drama is the fact is that even though Rodgers is poised to win a second straight MVP trophy he has played in only one Super Bowl in 14 years as a starter in Green Bay — and that was 11 long years ago.

Brady is different, of course, because Brady is different than any quarterback who came before him. The seven Super Bowl rings will be a record that stands the test of time, and he gave an entire franchise new life when he left New England for the Buccaneers two seasons ago.

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Dave Hyde: What a dramatic, historic and utterly depressing weekend for Dolphins fans

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Dave Hyde: What a dramatic, historic and utterly depressing weekend for Dolphins fans

Sunday’s loser threw four touchdowns. Sunday’s loser had a pristine 136 quarterback rating. Sunday’s loser led his team on two, 75-yard touchdown drives in the final two minutes to give Buffalo the late lead twice.

Sunday’s winner answered with his own passing miracles. Sunday’s winner got the ball with 13 seconds left and made two deep throws for a miraculous tying field goal. Sunday’s winner won the coin flip in overtime and then won the game for Kansas City in a 42-36 thriller.

Have you ever watched a more disheartening game?

Ever heard everyone use words like “dramatic” and “historic” but could not get past the local, “depressing?”

The most immediate thought, and the most distressing and, yes, depressing one in watching that playoff game, is the Miami Dolphins are lost in the wilderness for another football generation. Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is 26? Buffalo’s Josh Allen is 25?

Yes, you’ll find the Dolphins in the outback, eating birch bark and sleeping on pine needles for years to come.

For most of the previous two decades, the Dolphins faced what was a simple question by comparison: Can you go to New England and win against quarterback Tom Brady?

As Sunday again showed the question has multiplied. Can you go to Buffalo and win against Alllen? And then go to Kansas City and win against Mahomes?

If you can’t project that, what is even being accomplished here? What has changed in decades?

That’s not even getting into who’s going to Kansas City this weekend. Joe Burrow has picked up a sad-sack Cincinnati franchise and lifted it to the AFC Championship game. That’s what elite quarterbacks do, even in their second year.

(Nor out of courtesy will there by any mention of Justin Herbert, the quarterback the Dolphins passed on. He’s in a bad Los Angeles Chargers organization — a defensive coach with the 30th-ranked defense — but would be the first player NFL types like Jimmy Johnson would pick if starting a franchise.)

Four teams remain in the playoffs and it’s clear the model the Dolphins have chosen. Three of the surviving teams — Kansas City, Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Rams — have an elite-level quarterback who lifts everyone like a rising tide.

The fourth is San Francisco and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s good many games. He can be great on occasion. But there’s no pretending that his game can do more than accompany a well-built team to a championship.

That’s what the Dolphins have decided in going all-in on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. It’s not like there were many options by this point. They shut down the one owner Steve Ross and general manager Chris Grier were open for at midseason of trading for Houston’s embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson (and his 22 sexual-misconduct allegations).

The organizational idea for Tagovailoa is now what it was for seven years of Ryan Tannehill: He’s good enough if everyone around him is good enough. Tannehill has been fine in Tennessee, going to the AFC Championship game two years ago and getting the top seed this year.

Well, he was fine until Saturday’s three-interception game cost Tennessee its season. It happens. And now, a decade into his career, people still wonder who Tannehill is.

Back to Tua and the Dolphins: The defense looks fine. But is anything else good enough? Anything at all?

Enter the San Francisco model. It has a defensive line that wins games. It has some good offensive weapons like receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle. It also had superior special teams that blocked a Green Bay field goal and blocked a punt for a touchdown in its win.

The 49ers get some winning plays from Garoppolo and that’s it. They’re in the NFC Championship game under him — just as they were in the Super Bowl a few years back.

There’s the Dolphins’ model. That’s what they’ve told media, what they’re telling coaching candidates, what they’ve told the full Dolphins roster. And, let’s face it, what’s the option? It’s not like Aaron Rodgers is walking through the door this offseason. Or Russell Wilson.

Take another flyer on another young quarterback in the draft? Sure. Why not? Grier can keep throwing darts.

Sunday night’s fireworks by Allen and Mahomes were distressing for any Dolphins fan. Now comes Burrow and Mahomes. It’s depressing to watch, sitting here, eating birch bark and sleeping on pine needles.

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Why effort to help Afghanistan is falling short

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Why effort to help Afghanistan is falling short

WASHINGTON — As winter deepens, a grim situation in Afghanistan is getting worse. Freezing temperatures are compounding misery from the downward spiral that has come with the fall of the U.S.-backed government and the Taliban takeover.

Aid groups and international agencies estimate about 23 million people, more than half the country, face severe hunger and nearly 9 million are on the brink of starvation. People have resorted to selling possessions to buy food, burning furniture for warmth and even selling their children.

The U.S. government this month announced $308 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and is working with the U.N. and organizations such as the World Bank to provide additional help. The Biden administration has also sought to clarify that U.S. sanctions on the Taliban shouldn’t block humanitarian aid. But there is growing pressure to do more, such as unfreezing Afghan government funds held at the New York Federal Reserve Bank.

A look at the situation:

HOW DID CONDITIONS IN AFGHANISTAN GET SO BAD SO FAST?

Life in Afghanistan was precarious before the Taliban takeover in August, with more than half the people surviving on less than $2 a day. About 80% of the entire budget of the U.S.-backed Afghan government came from international donor funds. More than half of all children under 5 were expected to face acute malnutrition, according to the U.N. In addition to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the country was suffering through a prolonged drought, devastating in a country where agriculture makes up 25% of GDP.

The withdrawal of the U.S. after 20 years of war meant an end to the military and other support that made up about half of the economy. Most government employees had not been paid in the two months before the Taliban takeover. Since then, about half a million Afghans have lost their jobs, including many women pushed out of the workforce by the Taliban.

Afghans at home can get only limited amounts of any money they have in bank accounts because of a currency shortage. Meanwhile those abroad are having trouble sending help to family back in Afghanistan, in part because banks are reluctant to do business in a country whose leaders are under U.S. sanctions.

There is food in the markets, but many people can’t afford to buy it, said Ciaran Donnelly, head of crisis response at the International Rescue Committee. “This is a humanitarian crisis, an economic collapse and a state failure all wrapped up in one,” said Donnelly. “And they’re feeding off each other.”

WHAT HAS THE U.S. DONE SO FAR TO HELP?

President Joe Biden said the U.S. would continue to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan after the withdrawal, which was set in motion after a peace deal signed with the Taliban under President Donald Trump. The administration notes that the U.S. is still the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan and is contributing to a U.N. effort to raise more than $5 billion for the country.

But the U.S. has not recognized the new government or lifted sanctions on the Taliban and its senior leaders for providing a haven to al-Qaida while it plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. That has created at least a perception that sending money or doing business in Afghanistan is off-limits.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy discussions, acknowledged there’s a perception that the sanctions are broader than the Taliban leadership. The official said the U.S. has sought to dispel it in part with what are known as “special licenses,” issued in December to assure international organizations, other nations and NGOs that they could provide humanitarian aid despite the sanctions.

The official said the U.S. also is working with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to take money that had been set aside for Afghan reconstruction before the Taliban takeover and use it for humanitarian relief.

Roya Rahmani, a former Afghan ambassador to the U.S., said she doesn’t support recognizing the new government but said the issue must be “untangled” from discussions of humanitarian aid, which is crucial even if some of it winds up in the hands of the Taliban.

“There is a very potent and real catastrophe boiling up in Afghanistan, and people are suffering now,” she said.

WHAT ABOUT AFGHAN MONEY FROZEN IN THE U.S.?

There is nearly $7 billion in Afghan funds at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York that have been frozen since the Taliban takeover in August. The Taliban has demanded the money, but it can’t be transferred to them because of the sanctions. Complicating matters, families of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks have filed a claim to the funds to pay the judgment in a lawsuit they filed against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

A letter sent Thursday to Biden, with the signatures of 41 mostly Democratic members of Congress, urged the president to “ensure that a substantial share” of the frozen assets is used for humanitarian relief, arguing that deteriorating conditions will lead to the country “once again become a breeding ground for terrorist organizations” such as al-Qaida.

Shah Mehrabi, an economics professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and a board member of the Afghanistan Central Bank, says a portion of the frozen funds should be used to help stabilize prices in the country, pay the salaries of civil servants and help keep the private sector alive. Otherwise, he warns, the economy could go into free fall.

“I don’t think that’s in our interests and in the interests of the United States,” Mehrabi said “And I think the United States knows that as well.”

The senior administration official said the administration is discussing the fate of the frozen funds but has to let the judicial process play out involving the legal claim filed by the Sept. 11 victim families.

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