The Miami Dolphins finished in third place in the AFC East for third year in a row in 2011. A devastatingly slow start was the final straw and Tony Sparano paid for the team’s inability to deliver on promise and expectations with his job. With Matt Moore under center and under the guidance of interim head coach Todd Bowles, they finished strong at 2-1 to give hope that the good times could return to South Beach.
However, after an offseason that promised much in terms of big name signings but delivered precious few of them, the Dolphins are firmly under the radar. The new ownership came in with the apparent ambition of pushing Miami back into the limelight and the headlines. After striking out on the big signings to achieve that, the Dolphins are left with the slow burn of development, a process that could prove more fruitful.
The Dolphins’ one big-name signing of the offseason has been unceremoniously cut. Can they use their outsider tag to sneak up on the rest of the division? There is talent on this team, is this the year they put it together?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Bringing the Heat
This summer another sports franchise from Miami brought the Heat; they brought a championship as well. This fall the Dolphins will be hoping that their edge rush will be bringing the heat to opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. Led by Cameron Wake they have the kingpin to make their pass rush one of the league’s best. Wake’s pass rush grade of +34.5 and his 81 total pressures were among the elite in the league last season. Wake’s role may change slightly in 2012, but he will get to rush with his hand down even more this season and should be a primary destructive force for the Dolphins. On his own he is a dangerous pass rush weapon, but he should create favorable pass rushing situations for whoever winds up emerging from training camp opposite him in base and sub-package defenses.
2) Long Road to Recovery
Whatever evidence you choose to look at, Jake Long played the 2011 season hurt and both he and the Dolphins suffered for it. Long’s individual performance was up and down while the Dolphins lost the stability they have come to expect in both the run and passing games on the left side of the line. Long was a non-factor as a run blocker for most of the season and his pass protection was inconsistent until the point that he was shut down after playing only 24 snaps from Week 14 through Week 16. That Long was able to put together a season with a cumulative grade of +4.4 proves his quality. If he can return anything close to his 2010 form–when, with a grade of +24.3, he was among the elite left tackles in the league–the Dolphins will be back on stable ground at left tackle.
3) Experience in the Middle of the Defense
Karlos Dansby may be climbing the wrong side of 30 now but his experience and consistency will continue to be invaluable for the Dolphins. In two years with Miami, Dansby has graded positively as a run defender, pass rusher, and coverage defender each season. After a slow start in 2011, earning a -6.4 overall grade prior to the Dolphins’ bye in Week 5, he ripped off eight games of +1.5 overall or better in the Dolphins’ final 12. The balance in his play that he brings, his wealth of experience entering his ninth NFL season and his undeniable quality will be crucial for the Dolphins to make a fast transition to their new defensive scheme under the tutelage of Kevin Coyle.
4) Safety Blanket
Questions abound over the Dolphins’ receiving corps but the one thing they do have is a talented all-around tight end in the shape of Anthony Fasano. He may not have nearly the level of athleticism or the versatility of the latest breed of tight ends, but he is a strong inline blocker and a safe pair of hands as a receiver. When combined with the potential of Charles Clay as a receiver from a number of alignments, the Dolphins have the potential to field a strong two-tight end personnel package. If they can get production from Fasano and Clay this will not only take pressure off of the quarterbacks (Fasano allowed only two pressures on 103 pass blocks last season and only dropped one pass) but also off a receiving corps that doesn’t look strong enough to lead the Dolphins’ passing game.
5) Strength in the Middle of the Defensive Line
What is the most important part of a defense? A shutdown corner? A devastating pass rusher? It’s an interesting hypothetical question with no correct answer. There’s no doubt, however, that a strong inside triangle is crucial to any defense, whether they run a 3-4 (NT and two ILBs) or 4-3 (two DTs and MLB) defense. We’ve already discussed the positive effect Karlos Dansby should have on this defense, but the two guys slated to start on the line in front of him, Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, will be just as important to the Dolphins in 2012. While Soliai–a tremendous run defender–can be neutralized by forcing the Dolphins into a sub-package, Starks is the sort of three-down inside force that defensive coordinators dream of. Over the past three seasons he has earned a +49.5 overall grade, which has included a positive pass rush grade every single season. A team’s starting defense may still be defined by their base, but sub packages (the nickel in particular) are fast catching up in terms of importance, if they haven’t already become more important. Starks adds strength to both base and sub-package defenses and his continued high level of play will be pivotal to a strong first season for Miami’s new defense.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Uncertainty at Quarterback
First the Dolphins were after Peyton Manning, then they were going to make a run for Matt Flynn… then they had to “settle” for David Garrard and Matt Moore while being perceived by many to have “reached” for Ryan Tannehill. It was set in motion before training camp opened, and the roulette wheel hasn’t stop spinning for Miami’s quarterback job. With Garrard’s unexpected knee surgery and Tannehill’s impressive debut against the Bucs’ second string, if anything, the spinning has sped up in the past two weeks. In spite of the promise shown by Tannehill–and the supposed steadying factor of two veteran quarterbacks battling it out to hold the fort–the Dolphins still have no certainty at the games’ most crucial position. It means receivers cannot build chemistry with their passer for the regular season opener, and the lineman don’t know which quarterback with which characteristics they’ll be blocking for. Tannehill gave promise for the future last week, but in the short term there are far more questions than answers for the Dolphins at QB.
2) Uncertainty at Wide Receiver
If things are uncertain at quarterback for the Dolphins, they are positively grim at wide receiver. After the sideshow that was Chad Johnson blew through South Beach like a tropical storm, the Dolphins are back where they were: Square 1. In the shape of Davone Bess and Brian Hartline they have some safe pairs of hands, but the receiving corps, now minus the departed Brandon Marshall, lacks a dominant presence or a dynamic threat. That a player the caliber of Legedu Naanee started their first preseason game raises serious questions about this receiving corps. If the players behind him have potential, they should be playing and trying to prove that potential with the first team. A receiving corps built on potential, catching passes from an uncertain quarterback situation? The Dolphins passing game could explode in any direction.
3) Long Stands Alone?
Their left tackle might be returning to full health and old form but the rest of the Miami offensive line is far less of a certainty to be a strong point. Mike Pouncey had a solid rookie season at center and Richie Incognito is still a capable, if ill-disciplined left guard. However, on the right side of the line the Dolphins are starting a rookie and enduring one of the most undesirable battles for a starting offensive line job in the league. While Jonathan Martin surely cannot be worse than Marc Colombo was last season (-26.8 overall grade), there is no guarantee for good play on that side with Artis Hicks, John Jerry, and Eric Steinbach vying for the starting gig at right guard. The Dolphins need a step forward across the board on the offensive line this season; do they have the personnel to get it?
4) Please Wait While the System Installs
The simple fact of the matter is that the Dolphins are installing new systems on both offense and defense. Installing a new system on one side of the ball often leads to teething problems for the players and coaching staff. Bringing in new systems on both sides of the ball is a recipe for major struggles at various points during the season. Sometimes a new coaching staff is the breath of fresh air that revitalizes a team and brings them immediately back to competitiveness. However, it’s not something that should be relied upon and the odds seem stacked against Miami.
5) Backfield Rebound Required
The Dolphins have spent high picks and plenty of money on their secondary in recent seasons, but they did not get good returns for that investment in 2011. The coverage grade from their secondary last year was a pitiful -50.9, combine that with more than a penalty per game from secondary players and you have a lot of problems to fix. The Dolphins coaching staff has questioned their most talented corner, Vontae Davis, on HBO’s Hard Knocks program and demoted him to nickel duties behind Richard Marshall. Davis was the Dolphin’s only defensive back to put together a string of games at a solid level last season, and he has the talent to be one of the best corners in the league. Outside of him, the Dolphins are scrambling for talent and the right chemistry for base and nickel defensive backfields. They only need look at last season to know what damage a weak secondary can do to a team, and their passing game is not good enough to be able to keep up if this weakness lands them in a series of shootouts.
What to Expect
Teams frequently go from worst to first and Miami has had talent for years, but expecting it all to come together immediately for a new head coach with so much uncertainty on offense is asking a lot. Teams don’t go into the season aiming for .500–every team starts aiming to win it all–but if the Dolphins can build as a team and get close to that mark, this year should be viewed as a success. The Dolphins’ new owners are determined to make a big splash immediately, but this team is built for longer term development, drawing the dividends from that development will take more patience from Dolphins fans.
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