FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — How much would Steve Ross, or any NFL owner for that matter, pay for a win against their No. 1 rival? A million bucks? Two? If the number is anywhere in that range, then Xavien Howard’s contract adjustment — which included upwards of $3.5 million in new incentives — has already paid for itself. Because without Howard, the Dolphins almost certainly would have lost Sunday to the New England Patriots.
Xavien Howard comes up with game-changing forced fumble in Week 1
Once again, the All-Pro cornerback made the biggest play at the biggest moment. This time, he forced and recovered a fumble by Damien Harris in the red zone in the game’s final minutes, preserving Miami’s 17-16 victory over New England.
What a remarkable turn of events from just seven weeks ago, when he publicly ripped the team and demanded a trade out of Miami, saying the Dolphins hadn’t “dealt with [him] in good faith.”
Fast-forward to Sunday, and it was another ho-hum heroic effort by perhaps the best defensive back in all of football.
Howard’s game-saving play was the signature moment of another excellent performance. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones hardly looked toward Howard’s side of the field and wisely avoided targeting him.
Howard’s not only the Dolphins’ best player — he’s their most important. Miami is 11-6 since the start of the 2020 season. With Howard, the record would probably be reversed.
“He’s getting paid a lot of money because he’s that good,” said Dolphins defensive back Jason McCourty. “He’s able to show up big for us in that moment, and that’s what we expect of him in practice, out here in the games. We expect him to make plays, and it’s been a lot of fun learning from him, being around him.”
How does Howard compare to the top cornerbacks in the NFL?
Howard’s coverage skills alone would make him a top cornerback in the NFL. But it’s his playmaking ability that sets him apart.
In 57 career games, Howard has picked off 22 passes and has forced 3 fumbles.
“He’s a great player, and we needed a play there. And he was able to knock it off of him, recovered it,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores. “Obviously a huge play in the game and allowed us to get the ball back.”
Flores knows Howard’s value as well as anyone. That’s why he and Chris Grier were willing to break precedent and make team-friendly changes to a contract with four years left on it.
The fundamentals of the Dolphins’ defense aren’t great. New England outgained Miami by 134 yards and converted 11 of 16 third downs. The Dolphins won because they forced 2 turnovers and held the Patriots out of the end zone in three of four red-zone trips.
The Dolphins won a bunch of games last year in that fashion. Is it sustainable? Or will the magic eventually run out?
“I don’t feel like it’s magic,” Dolphins linebacker Elandon Roberts said. “Magic is kind of like up in the air. We just practice it day in and day out. We talk about it day in and day out. We’re joking in the locker room, ‘Man, I’m going to punch one out today.’”
“It’s just embedded in our defense and even our team. It’s just a true testament of taking it from the practice field, the lunch room, the meeting room. Because guys can walk around with the football, and defensive guys will just punch it out just trying to be funny. We can’t help ourselves. When we see the ball, we punch it out. The thing is translating to the football field. We’re going to keep working hard on it and hopefully we can keep the same trend as last year.”