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It was the first play of the first game of Matt Burke’s first season as defensive coordinator of the Dolphins. He was hoping the Los Angeles Chargers would line up in a specific formation that usually meant they were running the ball. Burke dissected hundreds of plays to know this. Carefully studied every tendency.
Well, the Chargers complied and, as Burke told inside linebacker Mike Hull right before the game, “I’m not going to be afraid.”
“At that point,” Hull recalled. “I said to myself this is going to be a good year.”
The point here isn’t that Burke got it right, the point is that he has demonstrated from his very first defensive call that he has what it takes to succeed on this level. He has the smarts. He has the guts. He has the belief of his players.
Five games into his first season running this defense, Matt Burke can’t grade out much higher. The defense, his defense, is playing awfully well, holding opponents to 20 points or less in every game this season, the improvement most evident with the rushing defense.
Those who play for Burke, those who know his story, are not at all surprised by this rapid-fire success. They understand the price he paid to get here, first as a video coordinator and then five years as an administrative assistant with the Titans, breaking down film, quietly learning his craft far away from the spotlight.
They also know what sets him apart. Ivy League grad from Dartmouth. As smart and calculating as they come. So bold in his thinking, even off the field, that he tests the boundaries of adventure on vacations that have taken him around the world, most recently looking for mountain gorillas in Uganda. No doubt this is a very unique man running the Dolphins defense.
Was he ready for this opportunity? Just listen to veteran linebacker Rey Maualuga, who spent two seasons playing for Burke, then coaching linebackers, at Cincinnati.
“I remember going up to him one day and saying, ‘You know, you’re going to be a defensive coordinator in this league.’ I asked him if he had a hidden binder somewhere with plays he’d love to call. He just looked up and smiled and said, ‘I’ve got my plays.’ You could tell he’s been preparing for this for a long time.”
I asked Burke last week what it’s been like on the sideline, being the person in control, calling each defensive play, having to react and adjust on the fly. He offered a quick grin and spoke with refreshing candor.
“It’s definitely draining,” he said. “I don’t know if you guys watch me on the sideline. I’m a little out of my mind. It’s a high intensity moment for four hours. Mentally, the information is constantly changing. I try to stay one step ahead of what we’re getting from the offense. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. I mean I go home on Sundays and I’m just like comatose on the couch for about five hours.”
But this is what he wants to do. It is his passion. Every game is a chess match. Every play is a different move. He has a database in his office that he turns to for tendencies and adjustments. But it’s his mind that is the real database. Nothing much gets past him. Ask him about his smarts, that Ivy League education, and he’ll roll his eyes and usually point the conversation elsewhere. You don’t have to tell people you’re the smartest person in the room. You just have to prove it.
“I love everything about this job,” Burke says. “It’s cool. I mean game days are the fun stuff for me. That’s why I do all of us. That’s why we work 100-hour weeks. It’s awesome.”
Coach Adam Gase has entrusted Burke with the keys to this defense. Gase spends most of his time on offense and that gives Burke the freedom to use all the skills he has spent these years developing. He isn’t afraid to make changes, evidenced by the decision to move rookie cornerback Cordrea Tankersley into the starting lineup.
“Whatever I need to do, whatever is best for this defense, that’s what I’ll do,” he says.
Each game you hear a different defensive player talk about a call made by Burke or a tendency he noticed or maybe just a subtle move or a slight tweak in a blitz package. “He is so smart,” said Hull. “He explains to us the reasoning behind everything so when it happens in a game, we understand and can adjust.”
The bottom line is that this defense has emerged as the undeniable strength of this team, never more evident in that second half against the Falcons. The players deserve plenty of credit but so does the soft-spoken man with the long bushy beard and the calculating mind.
In his first year as defensive coordinator, with just fives games on his resume, it’s already clear that Matt Burke was the right man for this job.