The Miami Dolphins have been an organization in a funk for a long time. They haven’t gone deep into the postseason since making the AFC Championship Game since 1992. They haven’t gone to the Super Bowl since 1984 and they haven’t won it since 1973. In recent years, an AFC East title in 2008 and quick first-round playoff exit is the only interlude in an extended run of mediocrity.
Ryan Tannehill was given the keys to the offense last season. I was skeptical about it at the time, and the 2012 season did nothing to change my mind. In fairness to Tannehill, it’s not all on him. The passing game was awful in aspects, including pass protection, and now tackle Jake Long is gone via free agency.
Miami went out and got deep threat Mike Wallace to give Tannehill a target, but if you throw deep, you need time for him to get open, and there’s no reason to think Tannehill will get that time, nor to believe he’ll be effective if he does. Tight end Dustin Keller has been brought in to upgrade the short game, but he was average with the New York Jets and I can’t come up with a reason why this change is going to turn Keller into Tony Gonzalez.
The running game is going through a similar transition, with Reggie Bush gone. Lamar Miller is listed atop the depth chart, though rookie Mike Gillislee might also get a chance.
Miami has to rely on defense to compete, and at the very least this is not a bad unit. They pressure the quarterback very well, with Cameron Wake leading the way with 15 sacks. The secondary gives up a high percentage of completions, but does a good job limiting the yardage. Given the quality of the pass rush, it makes you wonder why the coaching staff doesn’t get a little more aggressive in their cover tactics and let Wake and his mates bail out any coverage deficiencies.
Las Vegas has posted a number of 7.5 for the Over/Under on Miami’s wins, although the market seems to be optimistic. If you go Over, you’ll have to lay (-170), whereas you can get (+140) on the Under. As the tone of this NFL analysis probably shows, I’d take the Under even straight up. While I can see Miami winning eight games, I can see them collapsing to 5-11 more easily than I can see them exceeding the number by a decisive margin.
The Miami Dolphins don’t have the pedigree of the New England Patriots. They don’t have the soap opera quality of the New York Jets. But what the Dolphins do have is at least a contender in the watered-down race for the AFC wild-card spots and you have to give Miami at least a puncher’s chance of upsetting New England in the AFC East race itself. With the Patriots on a bye this week at 5-3, Miami, at 4-3, can move into a tie for first. Let’s look at the overall trajectory of the Dolphins’ season—what they’ve done and what’s to come to get a handle on how seriously we should take their shot at a division title.
Let’s begin with Miami’s basic statistical rankings. They are defensive-oriented, ranking third in the NFL in points allowed, while sitting in just 22nd in scoring. Every strength of their team can be tied to the trenches—they rank 11th in running the ball, they’re 3rd at stopping the run and they’re 6th in sacks. They do allow pass yardage in big chunks, sitting just 27th in allowing teams to gain through the air. With that backdrop, let’s now walk through their first seven games…
Week 1: at Houston (10-30)—Playing on the road at one of the AFC’s best teams is a tough way to break in a rookie quarterback like Ryan Tannehill. And he threw three interceptions in the second quarter when the game got out of hand. The pass coverage allowed Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson to hook up pretty easily.
Week 2: vs. Oakland (35-13)—Reggie Bush made his biggest splash of the season, rushing for 172 yards, while the Dolphin defense completely shut down Darren McFadden. Tannehill was much-improved, at 18/30 for 200 yards and no interceptions. The pass defense allowed yardage, as Carson Palmer threw for 373 yards, but he was inefficient, at 24-for-48. And though Miami didn’t get a sack, they registered nine QB hits. This game is essentially the template of the ideal Miami game if you presume current strengths and weaknesses.
Week 3: vs. NY Jets (20-23, OT)—Another dominating display for the running game, with 185 rush yards and another day where the defensive line pressures the passer, at two sacks and seven hits. Mark Sanchez follows a similar pattern for opposing quarterbacks—he gets 306 yards, but at 21/45, it wasn’t exactly crisp. The edges in running game and pass rush offset a mediocre pass rush in a game that could have gone other way.
Week 4: at Arizona (21-24, OT)—The second straight overtime loss and this was even worse, as Arizona tied it with 22 seconds left in regulation on a touchdown pass. The defensive pass rush played its best game, getting eight sacks, more than half from linebacker Cameron Wake. Hartline had a huge game at receiver, with 253 yards. While the running game wasn’t very good, the rush defense was better. The problem? Four turnovers, including a pair of interceptions thrown by Tannehill.
Week 5: at Cincinnati (17-13)—No running game on either side, but Tannehill is efficient—17/26 for 223 yards and no interceptions, while Andy Dalton tosses two picks, and that’s the difference in the game.
Week 6: vs. St. Louis (17-14)–You never throw away a win in the NFL, but this one was not impressive. Miami was destroyed on the ground, losing rush yards 162-36 and beaten in the air, 300-156. But again, give Tannehill his due—at 21/29 for 185 yards and no mistakes, he at least did no harm. While counterpart Sam Bradford played well, the Rams couldn’t overcome 12 penalties. Sometimes you just have to let the opponent beat themselves and that worked for the Fish in this game.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: at New York Jets (30-9)–Miami’s defensive front got the job done, getting after Sanchez for four sacks and seven QB hits. Tannehill missed this game with a knee injury, but Matt Moore kept the pattern of low-risk play going and Miami won big even though they were modestly outrushed and significantly outpassed.
Tannehill’s status for this coming Sunday against Indianapolis is still up in the air, but he’ll be back for Week 10 at the latest and in either case Moore provides all the same assets. I think the real long-term problem for Miami is that the rush game hasn’t had 100 yards as a team since Week 3, and they haven’t outrushed the opponent since Week 4. Unless Tannehill is going to magically morph into Dan Marino when he comes back, the Dolphins are going to need to be winning this battle.
The defense is genuinely championship-caliber. Wake is having a huge year rushing the passer, and the Dolphins are getting a consistent push from defensive tackle Randy Starks. Being able to pressure the quarterback from the interior is invaluable, because it prevents an opposing offense from rolling the pocket away from the rush, as can happen when the pressure is coming exclusively from one edge player. If Miami stops the run, rushes the quarterback and allows fairly low completion percentages, they can live with some bigger plays made in the passing game.
Miami can feel very good when they look at the coming schedule—it’s at Indianapolis this week, then home against Tennessee, at Buffalo and home against Seattle. It’s very realistic to think the Dolphins would win all four of those games and at least three of four. They can be 7-4 or 8-3 by the time Decemer arrives.
December won’t be a lot of fun, as both games against New England await, as does a road trip to San Francisco. But Miami would at least be in positon to make the playoffs and possibly do more. If they do win their next four games, their confidence would be high and it would also mean that Tannehill is really settled in and playing consistently.
The cities of Miami and Boston have an intriguing sports dynamic going right now. In the NFL and NBA, they’re at each other’s throats and each city has one favorite and one challenger. In baseball, the cities rivaled each other for the honor of most dysfunctional team (I may be a Boston fan, but I feel confident in saying I think we still won that one).
I’m not ready to pick Miami to win the AFC East or even to make the playoffs. But if a partisan Dolphin fan feels like they’ve got a shot, I’m not going to be the one to tell them their nuts—so long as they start running the ball with some authority again.
The Miami Dolphins begin a new era this season, as former Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator Joe Philbin takes over as the head coach. Since the Dolphins won a surprise AFC East title in 2008, they’ve only produced 20 wins over the last three regular seasons and it got Tony Sparano the pink slip. TheSportsNotebook previews the Dolphins’ chances, as they start a fresh era with a new coach and rookie quarterback.
OFFENSE: Miami made a questionable decision to draft Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill with the ninth pick in the draft, something I see as a classic case of overreaching just because somebody plays quarterback. And even if you love Tannehill, there is absolutely no receiving talent on this team worth talking about. Basically, Reggie Bush has to carry the load at the skill position spots. He’ll have to carry the running game and be the team’s best receiver. Bush’s multi-purpose talent is unquestioned and he was a 1,000-yard back last year, but that’s an excessive burden for any running back to carry.
At the very least, Tannehill’s blind side is in good hands. Jake Long is one of the best in the business at left tackle, and the team made a sound draft choice at right tackle in Stanford’s Jonathan Martin. Mike Pouncey is a talented young center, so there are good lineman across the trenches, even is guard is a weak point.
DEFENSE: This is a very good front seven and while they’re officially listed as a 4-3 front, the Dolphins can play it with either three men down or four men down, depending on what they want to do with Cameron Wake at defensive end/outside linebacker. Wake had a decent season in 2011, but he was even better in 2010, and needs get back to that high level of rushing the passer. His fellow Penn State alum Jared Odrick is on the other side, and the interior is very good, with tackles Randy Starks and Paul Soliai. Running the ball on Miami is going to be tough and opposing quarterbacks can’t get too comfortable in the pocket.
It doesn’t get any easier for offenses when they get to the second level. Karlos Dansby is a very good football player at middle linebacker, Kevin Burnett is solid on one flank, and 25-year-old Koa Misi can be expected to continue the upward trajectory of his career.
When all is said and done, the Miami front seven better get after the quarterback, because they aren’t getting any help from the secondary. For as good as the front seven is, the back four is just as bad. While Sean Smith is a nice player at one corner he’s not someone who carries a unit and the other three spots are all big problems.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 7—This is a high number. It basically expects the Dolphins to at least maintain their level of the last three years in spite of all the changes. And if you want to cash an Over, they have to improve on that and go 8-8. Hence, the Under pick is very easy here. When you have a team that can’t move the ball and can’t defend the pass, plays with a rookie quarterback and is learning a new system, anything better than 6-10 would be reason to celebrate. And in fact, I think they’ll be worse.