Coming off one of the more eventful 8–8 seasons in recent memory, the Miami Dolphins hope they are ready to make more of their news on the field. Dogged by an embarrassing bullying scandal that put them in the national spotlight while taking two starters off the offensive line, Joe Philbin’s team was actually positioned to make the playoffs prior to a punchless finish: They scored a total of one touchdown in dropping their final two games to the also-ran Jets and Bills.
Philbin survived the offseason, but, much to the fans’ satisfaction, GM Jeff Ireland, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and offensive line coach Jim Turner were sacrificed. After several top candidates took their names out of contention for the GM job, Tampa Bay executive Dennis Hickey took a promotion to run the personnel operation.
Hickey kept most of the core intact during the offseason, aiming to provide third-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill with better protection, while working in greater harmony with Philbin than Ireland did.
“We are on the same page of what we want our organization to be founded on,” Hickey says. “Trust, integrity, respect, communication, all of those things are common.”
Uncommon of late? Playoff appearances. There’s been only one (2008) in the past 12 seasons. If Miami falls short again, the axe may fall on Philbin.
Tannehill is now on his own, and yet, perhaps, less alone. Make sense? Consider that he’ll be without his college coach, Sherman, for the first time as a pro. The Dolphins heeded the complaints of players and fans and made a change at coordinator. Miami hopes that new coordinator Bill Lazor can replicate his success working with Nick Foles in Philadelphia, where he served as the quarterbacks coach. At age 42, Lazor has already had a diverse set of coaching influences, working under Chip Kelly, Mike Holmgren and Joe Gibbs, among others.
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“What I’m interested in is these three things with Bill — increased play speed, the increased accuracy and cut down on turnovers,” Philbin says.
It will help if Tannehill has more time, after his sacks skyrocketed from 35 to 58 in his second season. Miami will go to a zone-blocking scheme, likely with four new starters flanking talented but still immature center Mike Pouncey. The key new component is left tackle Branden Albert, a long-time target who received $25 million guaranteed to leave Kansas City. Albert's addition is even more important considering Pouncey underwent hip surgery in June and could be out until November.
Miami could very well have a new starting running back too. And while Knowshon Moreno likely won’t be as productive as he was when playing with Peyton Manning, he should upgrade a spot that was one of the worst in the NFL last season. Moreno underwent knee surgery during the offseason, but he was activated from the PUP list just prior to the first preseason game. Lamar Miller showed breakaway flashes but was inconsistent in all phases, and Daniel Thomas has never shown the necessary physicality.
The Dolphins do have some weapons, if Tannehill can stay upright. His primary assignment is finding a way to connect with speedster Mike Wallace, whose first Dolphins season was a letdown. Sometimes, Wallace was wide open and Tannehill was short by several steps. Sometimes, Wallace seemed not to want to fight for the ball.
In fact, Tannehill still appeared most comfortable with Brian Hartline, who led the team in receptions and yards, and with Charles Clay, who surprised everyone by becoming a consistently productive tight end. Others, including the improving Rishard Matthews, the healing Brandon Gibson and the rookie Jarvis Landry give Miami quality depth.
For all the change, there was something that needed to stay the same: Brent Grimes manning a cornerback spot. The diminutive but ultra-athletic Grimes proved to be a steal on a one-year deal, and now he’s back on a long-term contract. The Dolphins, who slipped in most defensive categories from 2012, couldn’t afford to lose their most consistent performer.
After a breakout 2012, strong safety Reshad Jones made few impactful plays in 2013 and often took poor angles. He’ll need to be better, whether he’s paired with holdover Jimmy Wilson or veteran newcomer Louis Delmas, but any impact Jones has on the field for the Dolphins won't come until Week 6. Jones has been suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the season for violating the league's perfomance-enhancing drug policy. The competition is open at the other cornerback, where rookie disappointments Jamar Taylor and Will Davis have a shot, especially if feisty addition Cortland Finnegan’s best days are behind him.
Linebacker came to symbolize Ireland’s struggles in free agency: Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler proved to be downgrades from the departed Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett. Both are back, as is Koa Misi. But they’ll all be pushed. Even Philbin, loathe to criticize players, admitted that, “I think there was some inconsistency there. We have to get more consistency.”
There’s more promise on the defensive line, in part because Olivier Vernon (11.5 sacks) proved that he could be a worthy bookend complement to the dynamic Cameron Wake. Perhaps Vernon’s blossoming reputation will shake Wake free of some double teams. The hope was that 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan would play more of a significant role along the line, but like Jones, Jordan will sit out the first four games due to a PED-related suspension.
Inside, the Dolphins lost long-time stalwart Paul Soliai in free agency but surprised many by retaining the versatile Randy Starks to pair with Jared Odrick. Earl Mitchell, just 26, has some upside. The Dolphins were 24th in the league in rushing yards allowed and 18th in yards per carry allowed. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle needs to address those numbers before anything else.
After winning the placekicking job from Dan Carpenter in training camp, rookie Caleb Sturgis made all seven of his field-goal attempts in his first four games before falling off some down the stretch. He was 26-of-34 overall, including 3-of-7 from outside of 50 yards. The Dolphins should feel a bit more comfortable about their punting situation. Brandon Fields remains one of the best, and veteran long-snapper John Denney never seems to make a mistake. Marcus Thigpen returns as the kickoff and punt returner. He fumbled three times, though he generally provided quality field position.
The fans can stash their banners and call off their chants. Ireland, the target of their frustration for the past several years, is gone, now just an advisor to the Seattle Seahawks. So, now what? Can the Dolphins get enough out of his leftovers, and Hickey’s additions, to steal a wild card spot? That, again, will largely depend on Tannehill. He’s been given a pass for his erratic passing, in part because of his relative newness to the position, after switching from receiver while at Texas A&M. But he enters this season with 32 NFL starts, just 15 wins and a pedestrian 79.1 quarterback rating. It’s time to produce.