MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The three best interception-nabbing cornerbacks in Miami Dolphins history — Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Xavien Howard — stand together talking ball one humid afternoon following an August training camp practice.
Madison and Surtain, 14 years removed from their NFL playing days, are, of course, focused on their current job, which is to coach today’s Dolphins players — like the 29-year-old Howard — to be even better than them.
But there’s also a record on the line.
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Madison, who is in his first year as the Dolphins’ cornerbacks coach, leads all franchise corners with 31 career picks with the team. Surtain, who joined the staff this year as a defensive assistant (and whose son, Patrick Surtain II, currently plays corner for the Broncos), ranks second with 29. Howard has 27. Five more interceptions will make him king of all Dolphins CBs. Then eyes will go to Miami’s all-time record of 35, held by former safety Jake Scott.
“That’s one thing I’m looking forward to this season — finishing at the top,” Howard told me later that week in camp. “My goal this year is to best my coaches. Before I retire here, I’m finishing No. 1.”
To which Madison sniped back a week later: “Tell him, Come on. Tell him he gotta come. We ain’t gonna talk about it. We gotta be able to do it. We’ll see. The truth is, I hope he does.”
Howard is typically soft-spoken, preferring to let his play do the talking for him. But on this topic, the three-time Pro Bowler, who has already led the NFL in interceptions twice in his previous six NFL seasons, couldn’t be louder.
“I want to be the greatest cornerback to ever play here,” Howard told me earlier in the offseason. “Not one of the best — the best.”
Yes, Howard wants a Super Bowl ring and a Hall of Fame gold jacket. But his goal to be the top corner in team history is firmly within reach right now. Which is why Madison couldn’t stop smiling in August when I asked him about the inherent challenge of being a new coach tasked with improving someone who is already elite.
Surtain added: “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player. You see why: He’s phenomenal. It’s going to be broken. It’s just about when he does it.”
The Dolphins’ upcoming clash with the Bengals on Thursday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET on Prime Video) isn’t just an opportunity to show off against receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. It’s also a chance for Howard, who has not yet picked off a pass this season, to jump-start his pursuit of his coaches.
‘X is absorbing everything we teach’
The Dolphins are one of the NFL’s hottest teams, with an impressive 3-0 start lifting expectations from fringe playoff team to potential AFC contender. The offense has played a huge role in that, with first-year head coach Mike McDaniel calling plays and a more comfortable Tua Tagovailoa throwing to one the league’s fastest and most productive receiver duos in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
Yet, as McDaniel proclaimed earlier this month, “this is still the defense’s team until proven otherwise.” Take Week 3’s win over the Buffalo Bills, when the defense logged 92 snaps against Josh Allen and Co., helping to key the victory with a fourth-quarter goal-line stand.
And while there is an element of continuity on that side of the ball, with McDaniel retaining incumbent coordinator Josh Boyer, Madison and Surtain are new voices.
After the team parted ways with former head coach Brian Flores, defensive backs coach Gerald Alexander and cornerbacks coach Charles Burks (who left to be the Cincinnati Bengals defensive backs coach) this offseason, multiple players I spoke with this offseason openly wondered how much their responsibilities or scheme would change.
The defensive backs loved — and thrived under — Alexander and Burks. Still, many, including Howard, applauded the hiring of Madison and Surtain. “They’re legendary here, so I just want to learn from those guys and just try to pick their brain,” Howard said before the season.
It’s a rare luxury for Howard and the rest of Miami’s defensive backs to have such depth of NFL knowledge on their staff. Boyer spent a decade coaching the Patriots defensive backs before taking over Miami’s defense. Surtain, Madison, Steve Gregory and Ricardo Allen are on the Dolphins’ coaching staff after each playing defensive back for at least eight NFL seasons.
“When new coaches come in, a lot of guys, especially the best players, shy away from them,” Madison said before the season. “But X is absorbing everything we teach, helping the young guys.”
The Dolphins have regularly had Howard shadow the elite receivers — it’s an element, along with the high amount of man coverage the Dolphins play, that adds to his case to be one of NFL’s best corners. He played over 90 percent of his snaps against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver in Weeks 1 and 2, and over 50 percent of his snaps against Stefon Diggs in Week 3, with the results being four catches allowed for 40 yards on six targets, per Next Gen Stats. Howard’s third-down pass breakup covering Diggs was a key play in the Dolphins’ pivotal fourth-quarter goal-line stand with less than two minutes left.
“Main thing I tell X is just keep getting the ball. The rest will take care of itself. Sometimes it’s that simple,” Madison said before the season. “Believe and trust your instincts — you can’t teach that. Just go turn the football over. Continue to play the way that X plays. We’re going to allow him to do that.”
Madison regularly implements ball drills, such as bag drills, that help defensive backs simulate defending big-bodied receivers and making plays on passes through contact. He will also throw passes at specific angles like the quarterback they are facing to get them used to catching those passes.
That’s a skill-set that could come in play Thursday against the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Higgins and the 6-1, 200-pound Chase.
‘Those are legacy games’
Few people outside of South Florida envisioned the Dolphins starting off so well this early. But Howard told me in March that Hill’s “crazy” impact would “change our offense.” He also insisted practicing against one another would make each of them better.
“I’m really sick of going against X, man,” Hill said one day after a training camp session. “He’s been locking me up in practice. I’m really eager to go against somebody else.”
Waddle added: “Personally, I think X is the best corner in the league. I’m not just saying that because he’s on my team. But if you look at what he’s done in this league, he travels, he goes and plays man-to-man, so I feel like it’s good to go against the best to up my game.”
As highly regarded as Howard is by his offensive counterparts, he seemingly remains underrated outside of South Florida. After being snubbed from the initial top-10 cornerback ratings of Madden NFL 23, Howard simply responded, “I’m used to the disrespect. They always disrespect us down here in Miami. It just adds a little more to the motor.”
Howard was ranked 17th in NFL Network’s player-voted Top 100 Players of 2021 — seemingly finally getting his respect after a 10-pick campaign — but he dropped to No. 56 in this year’s rankings, behind seven other defensive backs, despite nabbing five interceptions, forcing two fumbles and scoring two touchdowns in 2021.
He knows he has to raise his game to get the recognition he desires. So it’s little wonder he circled the Dolphins’ two prime-time, national-TV games: Thursday vs. Cincinnati and Week 7 against Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football.
“I can’t wait for those games. Those are legacy games,” Howard told me before the season. “Ja’Marr, Tee, 83 (Tyler Boyd) — that’s a great trio. That’s when the world sees you ball. I’ll definitely be ready.”
‘He’s definitely trying to reach a goal’
Howard rarely makes big errors, but his early start to 2022 gave Madison a teaching opportunity.
After the Dolphins’ thrilling 42-38 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Madison told me he made sure Howard knew what he had to correct. Like much of the defense, Miami’s top corner uncharacteristically made mistakes that Lamar Jackson took advantage of that day.
The first was Howard giving up a 75-yard touchdown to Ravens receiver Rashod Bateman on a slant route where Madison said Howard was employing “lackadaisical play for his technique.” Howard played better the rest of the game, but in the fourth quarter, he dropped what should have been an easy pick-six. It would have been interception No. 28 for Howard.
“He’s definitely trying to reach a goal,” Madison said after the win over Baltimore. “And by dropping those, he’s not going to get there as quickly as possible. He was heartbroken.”
Against the Bills on Sunday, Howard dropped a potential interception from Allen while tightly covering Diggs in the end zone late in the fourth quarter. That was after Howard narrowly missed a potential pick-six on a second-quarter screen pass to Diggs following a bobbled snap.
Howard is one of three defensive backs with two-plus dropped interceptions this season, per Pro Football Focus. They could’ve got him to No. 29 — good enough to tie Surtain.
But Howard is always around the ball and seems confident he will make those game-changing plays again soon. McDaniel recently praised Howard and left tackle Terron Armstead as two captains playing well through injuries showing the team mentality of overcoming adversity.
Through three games, Howard has played the sixth-most press coverage snaps among cornerbacks, but he has given up two touchdowns compared to no interceptions in press coverage, per PFF. He’s often been a slow starter; he’s not quite 100 percent, battling a groin injury; and the eye test shows he’s played a little better than numbers show.
Howard is clearly one of the Dolphins’ most indispensable players. But it didn’t always seem like the 2016 second-round pick would be such a cornerstone.
After earning his first Pro Bowl nod with an NFL-high seven interceptions in 2018, Howard reset the cornerback market with a five-year, $76.5 million extension in May 2019. But the rest of that year was dire, on and off the field. The cornerback played just five games in the 2019 season due to a significant knee injury. While on injured reserve that December, Howard was arrested and charged with domestic battery. Charges were dropped the following February, and Howard ultimately did not face discipline from the NFL. In March of that year, Miami made quite a splash in free agency, signing Byron Jones to a deal that made him the highest-paid cornerback in football at the time. A month later, the Dolphins spent a first-round pick on CB Noah Igbinoghene.
Howard told me he was determined to prove the team could rely on him, and that he could be better than ever on the field once healthy again.
Despite missing nearly the entire 2020 training camp while recovering from knee surgery, Howard proceeded to enjoy the best season of his career, nabbing a league-best 10 interceptions and earning first-team All-Pro honors.
The Dolphins reworked Howard’s contract that offseason after months of back-and-forth, promising to take care of the cornerback during the next offseason if his play and health remained top-notch. Howard turned in another Pro Bowl campaign in 2021, and this past April, the Dolphins gave him a new five-year, $90 million contract that puts him in the top seven among cornerbacks in average salary, total value and total guarantees.
‘Records are made to be broken’
As the Dolphins’ defense approaches October football, Madison, Surtain and the rest of the coaches will continue to try squeezing even more out of Howard.
Madison said he tells him you can never work on your ball skills enough, even if they come naturally, like Howard’s game seems to do.
In recent weeks, Howard has spent the early portions of practice catching passes from the quarterbacks as they warm up. Something small, but it’s more time getting your hands on the ball. It hasn’t helped spare Howard from two dropped interceptions so far, but the work is there.
Surtain said one specific teaching point the new coaches have centered on to help Howard get even better is learning nuances of the defense beyond his lockdown-cornerback role.
“X wants to lock up. He’s great at it,” Surtain said in August. “The way our defense works, you have to do extra stuff.”
The belief is that enhanced full-field awareness will lead to more of those big-play interceptions … and help Howard leapfrog his coaches in the franchise record books. Howard has a history of getting interceptions in bunches. He would surely love to start a run in Thursday’s “legacy game” in Cincinnati.
“Records are made to be broken,” Madison said during camp. “Right now, you’ve got three of the top Dolphins corners that ever played, together. One of them could overtake the others. Hopefully X does.”
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