By STEVEN WINE
MIAMI — Jason Taylor stopped by the Miami Dolphins complex this week, met new coach Joe Philbin for the first time and sensed a change.
Taylor, who will be inducted into the team’s Honor Roll at halftime of today’s game against St. Louis, played with the Dolphins for 13 years and never reached an AFC championship game, much less the Super Bowl.
So when Taylor says the team seems headed in a new direction, Dolphins fans should rejoice.
“There’s reason for optimism here,” he said. “The team is going to take on the personality of your coach, and it’s different than what we’ve had in years past here. There’s less yelling and screaming, a more professional approach: ‘Take care of your business, here’s what I expect to be done, I’ll hold you accountable for it.’
“And the product on the field so far has been good.”
The sense of rejuvenation among fans of the Dolphins (2-3) is shared by folks in St. Louis. The Rams (3-2), led by new coach Jeff Fisher, have climbed above .500 for the first time since 2006 thanks to consecutive victories, and they’ve already exceeded their 2011 win total.
Today’s game offers a chance to compare the work of the two new coaches — one hired by the Dolphins in January, and one who turned them down.
Nine months ago, Fisher arrived at the Dolphins’ complex aboard owner Stephen Ross’ helicopter for a job interview, before landing for good in St. Louis. The Dolphins then hired Philbin, and everyone now seems happy with the outcome.
“I just felt like this was a better opportunity for me,” Fisher said. “I think they made the right decision. They’ve got things going.”
Praise for the Dolphins’ modest success shows how far things had slipped after three consecutive losing seasons. Expectations are slowly on the rise, and after winning last Sunday at Cincinnati, Miami is favored for the first time this year.
An exuberant locker room after a midweek practice reflected the team’s belief there are better days ahead.
“We have the right coach here,” center Mike Pouncey said. “You can tell with the vibe of the team. Guys want to be here, and we don’t take losing well at all. Last year I felt like we accepted losing. This year we’re all about winning, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
The Dolphins lead the NFL in rushing defense, Brian Hartline is first in receiving yardage and running back Reggie Bush is having another career year. Despite a pair of overtime losses, Miami trails AFC East leader New England by only one game.
With a promising but inexperienced quarterback in rookie Ryan Tannehill, the even-keel Philbin is focused on the long-term foundation rather than the weekly standings.
“We’ve got a ton of work to do, and we’re hopefully going to improve as the year goes on,” Philbin said. “I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
A former Packers offensive coordinator, Philbin is a first-time head coach at age 51. Fisher has the more extensive resume, including four 12-win seasons with the Tennessee Titans, but also the more daunting challenge in trying to revive a franchise that totaled just 15 victories over the past five seasons.
“In this locker room this year, everyone believes,” Rams quarterback Sam Bradford said. “Everyone thinks that if we go out and do our job, we have a shot to win. Everyone just feeds off of coach Fisher’s confidence.”
St. Louis ranks fourth-worst in the league in offense, and doubts persist about Bradford, who is coming off a 7-for-21 performance in a win over Arizona. But the Rams’ rapidly improving defense has developed a fierce pass rush, and their kicking game might be the league’s best.
Like Miami, St. Louis is one game out of first place in the surprising NFC West, where every team has a winning record.
“I wish it was just us that got this good this fast,” Bradford said.
At home the Rams are 3-0 this year, but on the road they’re 7-35 since 2007, including 0-2 this season.
“Being 3-2 is pretty cool for us,” defensive end Chris Long said. “But we still have a ton to prove.”
Today will offer a further gauge of progress for the Rams — and the Dolphins.