NFL News & Analysis

Lee: What might the future hold for former Dolphins head coach Brian Flores?

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores watches from the sideline during the second quarter against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL's Black Monday claimed now-former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, following a 9-8 season and a 24-25 record since his hiring in 2019. In 2021, Miami rebounded from a 1-7 start with a seven-game winning streak, finishing just outside of the playoff picture.

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Flores’ resume can compete with all of his peers in the coaching market. Prior to his tenure in Miami, he called plays for the 2018 New England Patriots’ defense, winning Super Bowl 53. On top of his experience, Flores carries a strong reputation for his player development, and his Dolphins staff improved defensive players at all three levels. Many players in Miami's rotation improved from year to year, with cornerback Xavien Howard being the best example.

Player 2019 Defensive Grade 2020 Defensive Grade 2021 Defensive Grade
Emmanuel Ogbah N/A 66.0 76.5
Christian Wilkins 65.3 70.2 83.6
Jerome Baker 46.5 55.4 58.9
Elandon Roberts N/A 29.9 52.1
Eric Rowe 59.3 60.4 74.7
Xavien Howard 57.4 90.8 74.4

The circumstances leading to Miami’s dismissal of its former leader are a topic of conversation, but contention over a franchise’s direction is the best way for someone to lose a job. As an outsider — a mere blogger, if you will — the best way I can go about evaluating Flores’ work is by the product his team put on the field.

Defensively, the three-year stint is marked by almost linear growth. By PFF’s grading metrics, Miami’s defense improved (significantly) in each campaign, and that was mirrored by a drop in expected points allowed. In 2021, the defense produced its most defensive stops and its highest success rate.

Flores’ defensive approach was consistent in creating “havoc” — a term used to describe tackles for loss, sacks, passes broken up and turnovers — and 2021 brought forth the most havoc in his time as head coach. His pressure packages on passing downs are as good as they come in the league, and Miami created one of the better pass-rush units without having any top-tier edge defenders. 2021’s Thursday Night Football game against the Baltimore Ravens was a clinic in manufacturing pressure via scheme instead of talent.

Dolphins Season Pass-Rush Grade Pressure Rate Unblocked Pressures Quick Pressure % Pass-Rush Win Rate
2021 73.5 (11th) 38.4% (1st) 14.7% (1st) 26.8% (3rd) 50.4% (15th)
2020 70.6 (17th) 35.1% (7th) 10.8% (2nd) 23.5% (9th) 47.4% (18th)
2019 55.5 (32nd) 26.7% (32nd) 7.9% (20th) 14.8% (32nd) 36.5% (32nd)

Miami’s ability to adjust and pivot was just as important in its improvements from 2019 to 2021. After attempting to replicate the Cover 1-heavy scheme he learned in through Bill Belichick, Miami increased its use of zone coverages in each year (from 41% in 2019 to 51% this season). In turn, the Dolphins improved their coverage grade (from last in 2019 to 11th this season), yards allowed per snap (last to 14th) and explosive gains allowed rate (last to 21st).

On the opposite side, embracing the run-pass option was the catalyst for generating a more consistent offense. In spite of all of the gaps in talent and warts in execution, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was doing just enough to take advantage of all of the turnovers Miami’s defense was forcing. Ultimately, the former fifth overall pick didn’t appear much further along in his ability to rise to the occasion when it was needed most, and every head coach in football will be held responsible for the trajectory of their young signal-caller.

Player Passing Grade EPA/Dropback Yds Per Att. Passer Rating
Tua Tagovailoa, 2021 68.3 .003 6.8 90.1
Jacoby Brissett, 2021 71.9 -.004 5.7 78.1
Tua Tagovailoa, 2020 70.7 .062 6.3 87.1
Ryan Fitzpatrick, 2020 72.7 .090 7.8 95.6

The jury is still out on Tagovailoa’s ceiling in the NFL, but Flores will have to address whether he cultivates an environment for quarterbacks to thrive in. Strictly pertaining to his bona fides as a developer of talent and his defensive scheme — the reasons he was highly sought after in 2018 — Flores still looks to be as good as they come. With nearly one-fourth of the NFL’s head coaching jobs coming open, Flores won’t be pained for suitors. However, there are three potential destinations that stand out: New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. It's my assumption that each franchise will be interested, so we’ll focus on what may be in the way and what Flores would bring to the table.

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A hire from the New York Giants presents a strong homecoming narrative (Flores being born in Brooklyn), but the bad taste Joe Judge leaves as another uninspiring Belichick assistant may be a blockade for the two parties. Flores would also find a familiar face in charge of the defense in Patrick Graham, with the two having worked together in New England and Miami.

In factors more likely to influence whether there’s interest, New York’s two first-rounders are offset by the Giants entering 2022 without any functional cap space (according to Over The Cap). Quarterback Daniel Jones did not complete the season, Saquon Barkley’s contract is up and the previous regime cashed in on acquiring expensive veterans. The offensive line still needs fixing, ranking 31st in passing grade and 10th in pressure rate allowed.

Team Defensive Grade EPA Per Snap Havoc Plays (TFL/Sacks + PBU/Turnovers) Defensive Success Rate
Dolphins 76.3 -.070 13.9% 48.2%
Raiders 68.4 .027 12.2% 46.1%
Giants 61.5 .002 11.3% 43.5%
Bears 52.9 -.014 15.6% 45.5%

If Flores were in New York, expect him to maximize Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence. His defensive line in Miami was anchored by Christian Wilkins — a fine player who improved this season — and was still more productive than New York’s. The pivot on the horizon threatens to be uncomfortable, but a coach with Flores’ developmental chops is exactly who you’d want at the helm to maybe push the franchise ahead of schedule.

The Chicago Bears ought to be dancing about Flores coming available, and they will likely be major competitors in the battle to hire the coach. There will be justified questions to answer about whether a defensive-minded head coach is the best avenue for Justin Fields’ growth, especially given the rumored discord between Tagovailoa and Flores.

Aside from concerns about developing a promising rookie, Flores is an ideal candidate for spurring growth for a Chicago defense in desperate need. The Bears will have the 10th-most cap space, per Over The Cap’s projections, and will need to use it to cover for their lack of a first-round selection. If Flores were able to draw more from the cornerbacks, he would be coaching the one defense we’re discussing today that caused more havoc than Miami.

Given that Chicago is undergoing an entire regime change during a talented rookie’s first contract, the franchise will be planting its flag on its future identity with its next hire.

The Las Vegas Raiders are my dark horse in the race for Flores, and the cruel irony of the NFL is that Vegas’ playoff run may interfere with its ability to chase after the coach. Las Vegas boasts the most actualized talent of all three teams, especially on the defensive front. Leonard Williams is still one of the best interior linemen in the NFL, but Maxx Crosby is having one of the better breakout seasons we’ve seen, and he’s supported on the other side by Yannick Ngakoue. The offense is ready-made, with a veteran quarterback and some reliable weapons.

The Raiders lack top-end cornerback talent, but Gus Bradley’s bend-don’t-break Cover 3 scheme protected this defense from allowing explosive passes (second-best rate of 15-plus yard completions allowed) while creating a high amount of pressure (sixth in pressure rate, third in win rate). Flores’ creativity in generating pass rush in his own single-high structure can only reinforce Las Vegas’ greatest attribute, and Derek Carr is relatively scheme-proof in his play style. Las Vegas is probably the closest to any consistent success, in spite of sharing a division with the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs.

Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, shakes hands with Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) before the start of the game against the New York Jets during at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday in Miami Gardens. Credit: BILL INGRAM/THE PALM BEACH POST

When it's all said and done, Brian Flores may be better suited to call a defense than lead a defense, and we will get a clear answer in his second try as a head coach. What’s not up for much resistance is how well Flores has progressed his players into better versions of themselves, if not the best they’ve played in their careers.

Whether it's a rebuild like Chicago, a pivot like New York or a turnkey operation like Las Vegas, I expect Flores' name to be atop every needy franchise’s shortlist. On nearly all accounts, Flores steps in the door and ideas get fresher, players get better. It may not have worked out in Miami, but Flores is still as good of a candidate as you’ll find.

Tackle Lifes financial Challenges. Western Southern Financial Group.
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