That face. That furious one Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel made in the fourth quarter as he delivered a blow-torch of verbiage at referees and raked his hair like you’d claw your way out of a prison block.
We’d never seen that frustrated, football face this year.
We saw it Sunday when tight end Mike Gesicki’s catch was rightfully ruled an incompletion in the fourth quarter and hope flatlined in the manner so much else already had the Dolphins’ 33-17 loss at San Francisco.
But then there was so much that hadn’t been seen this year Sunday. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s first pass went for 75 yards and a touchdown. His offense’s next 24 plays went a plodding 82 yards.
He hadn’t thrown an interception in a franchise-record 193 passes. He threw interceptions on consecutive passes in the third quarter.
For a too-long and too-sobering stretch, it was that kind of Sunday for the Dolphins, the kind they hadn’t suffered this year, one where the wheels fell off, the water main broke, the dog went running loose through the neighborhood and you didn’t dare ask if anything else could go wrong.
Because it did in the Dolphins’ 33-17 loss to San Francisco.
It wasn’t just Tua who was off Sunday in completing 18 of 33 passes for 295 yards, two touchdowns and the two interceptions. It was that, just as he became relevant on the big stage of NFL quarterbacks, he was outplayed by Mr. Irrelevant, Brock Purdy, the 262nd pick in last year’s draft.
San Francisco lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday’s first series, and it looked the kind of gift a good Dolphins defense should run with. Only the Dolphins defense wasn’t good, and Purdy instead ran with his chance.
The third-string rookie with just four NFL passes did enough damage to win the day, completing 25 of 37 passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
So the Dolphins stepped up in weight class against a NFL contender Sunday after a five-game win streak against losing teams. And they didn’t measure up.
Does it empty hope? Hardly. Is the season narrative all changed? Not from one troubling Sunday.
“Guys were a little off, individually and collectively,’’ McDaniel said. “But I know it wasn’t from preparation, from lack of detail. It’s just one of those things you go through. I think it’s important for our team specifically — the biggest thing I learned is to go out here and really feel a playoff atmosphere and do everything they could to win that game.”
“We have a young team that, at some point in time, when everything is on the line you have to execute.”
So the Dolphins failed the first of their three-game December road trip that will in some respects define their season. Or define what to expect of them. Or define players.
There’s definitions to make all over the place, in other words, and still time to make good on them. It’s not that they played awful Sunday.
To say this wasn’t the quarterback the Dolphins saw the past month isn’t to misrepresent Tagovailoa’s Sunday. He faced the league’s top defense on the road, too, as opposed to playing five of the league’s 10 worst defenses on the recent win streak.
McDaniel did his best to inject the kind of confidence he started on that plane ride to the Dolphins when he first anointed Tagovailoa. With 10 minutes left and San Francisco leading by a touchown, on fourth-and-1 at the Dolphins’ 19, McDaniel put the ball in Tagovailoa’s hands.
Tagovailoa answered, too, completing a first down to Hill. That sent the Dolphins on their way down the field for a possibly tying score. And then Gesicki couldn’t come down with that catch on fourth down. And Tagovailoa was hit by 49ers star defender Nick Bosa — again — and his fumble was returned for a touchdown.
Bosa had a day, having three sacks and that forced fumble as San Francisco took advantage of Dolphins left tackle Terron Armstead’s injury absence. Good teams lose good plays and keep going. Can the Dolphins?
“Not easy being in the back there and having that kind of pressure and trying to read it at the same time,’’ Tagovailoa said. “They had a great game plan for us. We were hoping to have a lot more chances to make more plays. We didn’t. We have a lot of opportunities and didn’t capitalize.”
The quarterback looked human for the first time in a month. The defense look mortal against a third-string quarterback. And the coach? He looked like a normal football coach upset at a day that didn’t go his way.
The season doesn’t end here by any means. The win streak does, though. And for now so does some luster around this team.