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Florida Sports

In one year, Dolphins’ defense goes from worst to 1st in NFL

By STEVEN WINE
AP Sports Writer
MIAMI (AP) — In one year the Miami Dolphins have gone from worst to first in the NFL in points allowed, which is a big reason their playoff hopes are on the rise.
So why is cornerback Xavien Howard the Dolphins’ only Pro Bowl player?
“Miami always gets overlooked,” Howard said. “If some of the guys were on a different team, they’d get recognized. As a team, we can pick that off with a Super Bowl, and everybody will be happy.”
The Super Bowl is heady talk coming from a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game in 20 years, and the Dolphins are probably still not-ready-for-prime-time players — in February at least.
But their improvement under second-year coach Brian Flores has been dramatic, especially on defense.
Last season the Dolphins gave up a franchise record 494 points, 30.9 per game and the most in the NFL, and went 5-11. This season they’re allowing 18.4 per game, the league’s lowest average, and are contending for an AFC wild-card berth at 9-5.
Because defense is often the best way to win on the road, especially in December, the Dolphins’ final two games — at Las Vegas and at Buffalo — don’t seem quite so daunting. They probably must win both to reach the postseason for only the third time since 2001.
Flores’ defense is a blitz-loving, ball-hawking bunch that leads the league in takeaways (26) and third-down conversions (33%) but ranks near the bottom in star power. That was confirmed by this week’s Pro Bowl picks, when Miami’s lone selection was Howard, who leads the league with nine interceptions, more than nine teams.
“He’s just a guy that you can count on consistently week in and week out,” Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said. “He’s really a complete player.”
But as with any good defense, the Dolphins’ success is a collective effort that includes five new starters this year: four free-agent acquisitions and second-round draft pick Raekwon Davis.
“We wanted to add the right people — guys who are tough and smart and competitive and team-first,” Flores said. “With every addition, we have that in mind.”
Safety Bobby McCain has been with the Dolphins since 2015, which gives him seniority on the defense and a unique perspective on this year’s transformation.
“We’ve got 11 guys who want to do their job well and play for each other,” McCain said. “That’s one of the biggest things — understanding that we’re a family, not just a football team. We have a lot of guys who are being selfless, just doing what they’re supposed to do and having fun doing it.”
McCain is part of a secondary that has allowed only 16 touchdown passes, second fewest in the NFL, after getting torched for a league-high 39 in 2019.
Sacks have increased to 37 from a league-low 23 last year. And the Dolphins’ streak of at least one takeaway in 20 consecutive games is the NFL’s longest.
“It’s just playing hard, just all effort,” the 330-pound Davis said. “It’s not a secret, not a scheme, not a play. It’s just chasing the ball down, getting to the ball and getting the ball.”
Davis’ teammates echo that attitude, a reflection of a unit that may be low on big names but is also low on ego.
“We”ve had a number of interceptions this year where there has been good pressure, and there have been a number of sacks where there has been good coverage,” Boyer said. “It all kind of goes hand in hand. We”ve got a good group of guys who play for each other and are all genuinely happy when somebody else has success.”
The disruptive nature of the defense diminishes the significance of some statistics. The Dolphins rank in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed rushing, passing and overall. They’ve been outgained by 426 yards, but are tied for the fifth-best point differential. Which stat best defines a good defense?
“Wins,” Boyer said.
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Florida Sports

Casting call: Skidding Jaguars holding QB, GM auditions

By MARK LONG
AP Sports Writer
The Jacksonville Jaguars are holding all sorts of auditions during Christmas week.
Coach Doug Marrone said Wednesday that Gardner Minshew and Mike Glennon will compete in practice for the starting job against Chicago.
Owner Shad Khan, meanwhile, was scheduled to interview current ESPN analyst Louis Riddick and former Houston executive Rick Smith for the team’s general manager position Wednesday. Khan fired Dave Caldwell late last month and made former San Francisco executive Trent Baalke the interim GM. Riddick, who gained front office experience as director of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles (2010-13) and was a scout with the Eagles and Washington before that, already interviewed for GM openings in Houston and Detroit. Smith, who spent a dozen seasons as Texans GM, already met with Atlanta and is expected to also interview with Detroit.
Jacksonville (1-13) has arguably the most attractive GM opening in the league. The Jaguars currently have a grasp on the No. 1 pick in 2021 NFL draft — likely Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence — to go with 10 more picks and close to $100 million in salary cap space.
They also have the youngest roster in the NFL, a group that includes key building blocks in pass rusher Josh Allen, linebacker Myles Jack, cornerback CJ Henderson, running back James Robinson, and receiver DJ Chark.
What they don’t have is — and haven’t had in decades — is a franchise quarterback.
Jacksonville failed to find one despite using top-10 picks on Byron Leftwich (2003), Blaine Gabbert (2011) and Blake Bortles (2014). It also wasted more than $50 million to sign free agent and former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles in 2019.
Caldwell and Marrone took a chance on Minshew this season, but the 2019 sixth-round draft pick showed more flaws than flashes. Minshew started Jacksonville’s first seven games in 2020, throwing 13 touchdown passes and five interceptions, but he also took 22 sacks.
Marrone turned to rookie Jake Luton at the bye week, partly because of Minshew’s struggles to get the ball down the field and partly because of a sprained thumb on his throwing hand. Luton made three starts, but ended up getting benched after a four-turnover performance against Pittsburgh. Glennon replaced him and started three games, a run that ended following his fourth turnover in six quarters.
Minshew regained the starting spot last week at Baltimore, but was sacked five times and missed several open receivers deep.
Now, Marrone will let Minshew and Glennon vie for the starting spot against the Bears (7-7).
“We’re going to split the reps and see how practice goes,” Marrone said. “We’ve got a competition going on and we’ll see who does well.”
Marrone also talked to his team about all the speculation regarding tanking the final two games and making sure the franchise secures the top pick in the draft.
“I told the players, ‘We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. But, hey, we’re in here today and our job is to go out there and win, and that’s the best thing we can do for each other,'” Marrone said. “When you’re not winning football games, there’s going to be a lot of talk out there and you have to understand that.
“It’s what we brought upon ourselves. … I understand it. I don’t really have a feeling either way. I’m not (ticked) off. I’m not overly excited about it. I’m focused on this team, these coaches and trying to win this game.”
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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP—NFL Copyright 2020 The Associated Press.

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Florida Sports

Catto leads Florida Gulf Coast over Georgia Southern, 73-60

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Caleb Catto registered 19 points as Florida Gulf Coast topped Georgia Southern 73-60 Tuesday night. Cyrus Largie added 16 points and eight rebounds for Florida Gulf Coast (5-2). Jalen Warren chipped in 10 points and Eli Abaev had 10 points. Eric Boone had 23 points for Georgia Southern (6-3). Elijah McCadden added 16 points and eight rebounds. Zack Bryant had 12 points.

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Florida Sports

Kim Ng’s crash course: She’s bullish on Marlins’ future

By STEVEN WINE
AP Sports Writer
MIAMI (AP) — For Kim Ng, the first three weeks as general manager of the Miami Marlins has meant less rest and more coffee.
She has been getting to know colleagues at work, contacting agents and other teams, and learning as much as she can about the 150 or so players in the Marlins organization.
“Let’s call it a crash course,” Ng said with a smile. “I got to sleep in until 5:30 this morning, so I’m doing pretty good. Not a big coffee drinker, but I’ve had to dip in there a bit these past couple of weeks. My husband has been really great making sure I’m eating three times a day.”
Having a husband in a supporting role is a reminder Ng is the first female general manager in major league history. That milestone wasn’t mentioned once during her 30-minute news conference Thursday, a sign of how quickly a breakthrough can become part of the norm.
Instead, Ng’s comments focused on efforts to build on the Marlins’ recent progress as CEO Derek Jeter’s ownership group begins Year 4 of a franchise revival.
This year the Marlins reached the playoffs for the first time since 2003. A rebuilt farm system ranked among baseball’s best began to bear fruit, and an abundance of prospects has the organization enthusiastic about 2021.
After three weeks studying video and talking with Marlins scouts, Ng shares in the optimism about the foundation built by Jeter and his group.
“They are ahead of the game,” Ng said. “It takes a really, really long time to build a farm system of this quality and caliber. That’s the most exciting thing about all of this, and making sure we as a front office are doing everything we can to help in their development.”
Heading into next week’s winter meetings, which will be held virtually, the Marlins’ priorities include upgrading the bullpen and adding a veteran bat, Ng said. But improvement can also come from within, she said, because so many prospects are on the cusp of major league success.
“If just one of those guys lives up to their potential that we haven’t seen yet, that would be a huge impact on our club,” Ng said.
The Marlins likely won’t be too busy in the free agent market, because they don’t want veterans clogging competition.
“Whenever we can give a prospect a chance to play, we really would like to do that,” Ng said. “The quicker they come along and develop, the better off we’re going to be as a club for a long time.”
One veteran who could be part of the long-term plans is third baseman Brian Anderson, who is heading into his fifth season with the Marlins. He’s unlikely to receive a long-term contract offer this winter, however, in part because the team has a new GM.
“I personally would like to see how this year goes before we venture down that road,” Ng said, “so I have a better understanding of who he is as a player, and I get a better sense of the situation.”
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More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports
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Florida Sports

Buccaneers confident they will rebound, finish season strong

By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Bruce Arians never promised it would be easy to transform the Tampa Bay Buccaneers into championship contenders. Even with Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, LeSean McCoy, Leonard Fournette and, more recently, Antonio Brown joining an offense that already included talented playmakers Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Ronald Jones, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
The Bucs (7-5) have gone all in to try to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium this season. But to even have a shot at getting to the NFL title game, they first have to end the the league’s second-longest playoff drought.
Tampa Bay hasn’t earned a postseason berth since 2007. It hasn’t won a playoff game since capturing its only Super Bowl title 18 years ago.
Brady & Company limped into this week’s bye, having lost three of their past four games — all at home — to playoff contenders.
“Everybody tried to hand us the Lombardi Trophy in August,” Arians said. “You don’t just throw guys out there with names. You’ve got to practice. You’ve got to learn to get in sync with each other. That takes time.” With seven wins, the Bucs have already matched their victory total from all of last season.
And, the remainder of the schedule — home games against Minnesota and Atlanta, in addition to road dates against Detroit and the NFC South rival Falcons — seems favorable nail down a spot in an expanded playoff field.
Still, Arians has mixed feelings about whether the team’s record should be better than 7-5 at this point.
“Yes and no. I think defensively, we’ve had our chances to be better. Offensively, it was going to be a work in progress all season. I thought our kicking game has been outstanding for us, which was a problem in the first game only,” the coach said.
“I’ve seen us get better throughout the season,” Arians added. “We’ve just got to win the next one and stay in this playoff hunt.”
Inconsistency on offense has been part of the problem, with Brady playing poorly in a pair of lopsided losses to New Orleans, as well as missteps against Chicago and the Los Angeles Rams.
The Bucs have been outscored 52-7 in the first quarter of their past four games, including 17-0 during last Sunday’s 27-24 loss to reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas.
Brady rallied the team from a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit with a pair of TD passes, but also threw a pair of costly second-half interceptions against the Chiefs.
Through 12 games, the 43-year-old quarterback has thrown for 3,300 yards and 28 touchdowns while being besieged by questions about whether Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” push the ball down the field offense is a good fit for the six-time Super Bowl champion.
Nine of Brady’s 11 interceptions — three more than he had a year ago in New England and tied for second with Kirk Cousins and Drew Luck for the most in the NFL this season — have come in four games against the Saints, Rams and Chiefs.
Brady, like Arians, said a lack of execution, especially on third down, has contributed to the team’s offensive woes.
“I think as we keep going forward, we are learning more and more about ourselves, about what we need to do,” Brady said. “We’re going to get back to work and try and do a lot better of a job the last quarter of the season.”
The defense has had issues over the past month, too. Despite ranking No. 1 against the run and being among the league leaders in sacks, takeaways and points off turnovers, Tampa Bay has struggled to get off the field on third down and keep opponents out of the end zone lately. Patrick Mahomes completed passes to Tyreek Hill on 13 of 15 targets for 269 yards and three touchdowns last week. More than 200 yards of that damage, including TD receptions of 75 and 44 yards, was inflicted in the first quarter alone.
The defense did a better job over the final three quarters, however the offense wasn’t able to overcome the poor start.
“This is a game of inches and it’s about who is going to make the play. If everyone has the ‘I want it more’ mindset I think we’re going to be all right,” White said. “We are giving it our all, but we’ve got to take the next step. … Weíve got four more games to get it done.”
The Bucs have missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons, the second-longest drought in the league behind Cleveland, which hasn’t earned a berth since 2002.
Tampa Bay will be favored in each of its remaining regular-season games. And while most of the team’s players, including Evans, Godwin, White and linebacker Lavonte David, have never been to the playoffs, there’s enough veteran leadership on the roster to show them the way.
Brady, Gronkowski, McCoy and Brown, as well as defensive stalwarts Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaquil Barrett and Ndamukong Suh have all either won Super Bowl rings or appeared in at least one NFL title game.
“We know what we need to do, what’s at stake. We win every game, we’re in there. We don’t have to worry about somebody losing or anything,” Pierre-Paul said.
“We know what it takes to get there,” the team’s sack leader added. “It’s are we going to do what it takes to get there?”
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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP—NFL

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Florida Sports

Panthers hire Peterson, NHL’s first Black assistant GM

By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
The Florida Panthers on Tuesday hired Brett Peterson as an assistant general manager.
The team said Peters is believed to be the first Black assistant GM in the National Hockey League.
Peterson’s hiring comes days after the nearby Miami Marlins hired Kim Ng as the first female GM in Major League Baseball. Among its recent anti-racism and diversity initiatives, the NHL formed an executive inclusion council that aims to increase minority participation in front offices and on coaching staffs.
The 39-year-old Peterson has a background as a player agent just like GM Bill Zito and fellow assistant Paul Krepelka. He was previously vice president of hockey for Wasserman Media Group and has been an NHLPA certified agent since 2009.
“His substantive hockey experience as a player, significant developmental and evaluation skills and business acumen as a negotiator combine to form an elite skill set that is very difficult to find in our sport,” Zito said in a news release. “There are many who can excel in one of those disciplines but few who excel in all three.”
Peterson played five pro seasons in the minors after winning a national title during his time at Boston College. The Northborough, Massachusetts, native also advises and consults for a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring and hockey programs for underprivileged youth and underserved communities.
The Panthers say Peterson will take an active role in their foundation’s community programs aimed at making the sport more inclusive in South Florida.
“I’m very excited for this opportunity with the Panthers and with Bill’s growing front office team,” Peterson said. “It’s a special day for myself and my family, and I can’t wait to get to work.”
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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

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Florida Sports

Hockey champions laying off 30 workers because of virus

(AP) — Just months after winning the Stanley Cup, officials with the Tampa Bay Lightning said Monday that they are eliminating 30 positions in a sign that even winning a championship does not spare a team from the effects of the coronavirus.
The positions were across the company and effective immediately, team officials said. The layoffs represent less than 10% of the team’s workforce.
“Rest assured, these decisions were not made lightly,” Lightning and Vinik Sports Group CEO Steve Griggs told the Tampa Bay Times. “But with the sports and entertainment industry being impacted like at no other time in modern history, this was a necessary step as we position ourselves for maximum recovery.”
Because the National Hockey League’s postseason was played in bubbles in Canada, the team did not earn any revenue from the playoffs. The Lightning lost money last season and is expected to do so again during the upcoming season, team officials said.
Every employee who was working full-time in late September when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup by defeating the Dallas Stars, will receive a championship ring, the newspaper reported.
On Monday, the Florida Department of Health tallied more than 4,500 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, bringing the total to more than 889,000 cases. Since the pandemic began, the virus has caused 17,559 deaths in Florida.
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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Florida Sports

Brady-led Buccaneers working to establish offensive identity

By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — By Tom Brady’s own admission, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still trying to establish an offensive identity.
The six-time Super Bowl winner is surrounded by an impressive collection of playmakers that have helped him lead the team to its best start in a decade. However, the Bucs (7-3) have not performed with the consistency
Brady feels is necessary to realize the team’s vast potential.
“I think we’re trying to figure it out. It’s going to change from week to week based on who we play. That’s what teams are all about,” Brady said.
“Football is a tough sport,” the 43-year-old quarterback added. “There’s different matchups every week, there’s different elements to every game that are a challenge. It’s never really the same.”
That was before Sunday’s 46-23 rout of the Carolina Panthers, which saw the Bucs rush for 210 yards, gain 544 overall and score on nine consecutive possessions after an early fumble positioned the Panthers for a quick 7-0 lead.
It was exactly the kind of response Brady and coach Bruce Arians were looking for coming off a 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints the previous week.
Ronald Jones scored on a 98-yard run and finished with 192 yards rushing as Tampa Bay revived a ground attack that had been nonexistent the previous two weeks, including a league-record-low five carries for 8 yards against the Saints.
Brady, meanwhile, enjoyed better pass protection and threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns without an interception while completing throws to eight players, including Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski.
Arians said the dominant performance was a significant step in the right direction, evidence it is possible for the Bucs to have numerous players involved in the offense without force feeding anyone.
“It’s all about their egos,” the coach said Monday. “If you check your ego at the door and it’s all about winning, it’s not hard at all.”
The Bucs improved to 3-0 in games following a loss this season. They’ve scored 31, 38 and 46 points in those victories.
“It’s a team sport, so the team has got to come together and understand the things we need to improve,” Brady said, explaining his knack for rebounding from losses with strong performances.
“Football, it’s tough. It’s not a game of perfect,” Brady added. “You’ve got a lot of talented players, you’ve got a lot of talented coaches, and you’ve got to figure out ways to win. Every week is a little different.”
WHAT’S WORKING
The Bucs are 7-3 for the first time since 2010, when they finished 10-6 but didn’t make the playoffs. They’ve already matched their win total for all of last season, while they failed to earn a postseason berth for the 12th consecutive year. That’s the second-longest playoff drought in the league.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Bucs have played three games with prime-time starts and started slowly in each, losing to Chicago and New Orleans and barely holding off the New York Giants for a 25-23 victory three weeks ago.
With the Los Angeles Rams heading to town next Monday night, Arians is adjusting practice times this week in hopes it helps the team perform better. Instead of working in the afternoon, they’ll practice at night Friday and Saturday.
“We’ve got to try something,” Arians said.
STOCK UP
Linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul had a sack against the Panthers, giving him a team-leading 7 1/2 this season. He also had his third career interception one week after failing to snare a possible pick against the Saints.
STOCK DOWN
For the third straight game, the defense started slowly. The unit redeemed itself by limiting the Panthers to 35 yards and six points after halftime. Pierre-Paul stressed the importance of being more consistent moving forward.
INJURED
Left guard Ali Marpet has missed the past two games due to a concussion. With veteran Joe Haeg standing in, the Bucs yielded three sacks and Brady was hit nine times against the Saints. Arians juggled the lineup against Carolina, with center Ryan Jensen shifting to left guard and A.Q. Shipley starting at center. The move worked. Brady was hit seven times Sunday, however, he was sacked once.
“Those two guys, you’re talking about two grizzly, old veterans who are really pro football players. … I thought they really, really played well,” Arians said.
KEY NUMBER
192 — Jones’ career-best rushing total was the third-highest total in the NFL this season. Only Derrick Henry, who has topped 200 yards twice for the Tennessee Titans, has run for more.
NEXT STEPS
Monday night’s test against the Rams begins a tough two-game stretch heading into the team’s bye week. Defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City visits Raymond James Stadium the following Sunday.
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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP—NFL

Categories
Florida Sports

Florida tweaks schedule again, now opening with UMass Lowell

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida is shuffling its basketball schedule again.
Having already been forced to replace their home-opening opponent, the Gators will now face a different team to start the season.
Florida said Thursday it will open against UMass Lowell instead of Maine on Nov. 25 at a resort casino on tribal land in Connecticut. Event organizers swapped opening-round matchups between Florida and No. 4 Virginia.
Virginia will now face Maine on Nov. 25. The Cavaliers and Gators will meet two days later.
It’s the latest scheduling shuffle for Florida, which initially had UConn coming to Gainesville for its Dec. 6 home opener. But the Huskies pulled out to play North Carolina State a day earlier in Connecticut. Teams across the country have moved games to make schedules more regional in hopes of minimizing travel and the potential spread of COVID-19.
Florida scrambled to fill the void with Stetson.
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More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP—Top25

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Florida Sports

Miami Marlins hire Kim Ng as GM

By STEVEN WINE
AP Sports Writer
MIAMI (AP) — Kim Ng became the highest-ranking woman in baseball operations in the major leagues when she was hired Friday as general manager of the Miami Marlins.
Ng is believed to be the first female general manager for a men’s team in a major professional sport in North America, the Marlins said.
She has 21 years of big league experience in the front offices of the Chicago White Sox (1990-96), New York Yankees (1998-2001) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2002-11).
Ng becomes the fifth person to hold the Marlins’ top position in baseball operations, and succeeds Michael Hill, who was not retained after the 2020 season.
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More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports
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