Regroup and reboot. That’s been the annual ritual at the Davie headquarters for more than two decades, since the Dolphins’ last appearance in an AFC Championship Game. They haven’t even appeared in the postseason since 2008.
The latest change? The replacement of interim coach Dan Campbell — who had taken over for Joe Philbin — with former Bears and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who, at 38, will be the NFL’s youngest coach this season. Executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum, who researched 25 candidates and interviewed seven, said that “what kept resonating is we wanted to get the right leader. Someone that could relate to young and talented players that we believe we have, and somebody that was high energy and competitive.”
Gase believes he’s ready. “I’ve been in this profession since I was 18 years old, so that’s really more than half my life right now,” he says.
The Dolphins have been in a ditch for about as long. It’s his task to dig them out.
In what was supposed to be a breakout season — with better weapons around Ryan Tannehill — the offense regressed in 2015, as the Dolphins dropped from 14th to 26th in yards and 11th to 27th in points. The Dolphins are largely counting on Gase to serve as the source of improvement. He’s known for working well with quarterbacks; Chicago’s Jay Cutler praised Gase all season and then praised the Dolphins for the hire. Gase will call the plays and is expected to put fewer restrictions on Tannehill, who was limited in his ability to audible under Philbin, Campbell and since-fired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor.
At this point, Tannehill must prove he’s still worthy of “franchise” quarterback status — his contract structure makes him a possible release next offseason. He’s durable, starting all 64 games the past four seasons even while getting sacked 184 times, but has only 29 wins to show for it. His statistics were solid and roughly the same last season as in 2014, other than a dip in completion percentage, but he continued to struggle at times with awareness in key situations.
He will again rely on upon tough-to-tackle receiver Jarvis Landry, who has 194 catches in two seasons, but mostly for modest yardage. The field-stretching may need to be done on the other side, as 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker gets more comfortable. After taking time to overcome a preseason foot injury and learn the offense, Parker was targeted 42 times in the final six games and had 22 catches for a 22.2-yard average. With Rishard Matthews gone as the third receiver, Miami will need more from tight end Jordan Cameron.
Also gone? Running back Lamar Miller. And while the Dolphins never seemed to use him enough — giving him 20 carries only once in the past two seasons — he was capable of breaking the occasional big play. The first shot at the starting running back job now goes to Jay Ajayi, a 2015 fifth-rounder who got 49 carries as a rookie. He’s a hard runner, but Miami will need to spell him, possibly with slippery rookie Kenyan Drake.
They should have more running lanes, provided that Laremy Tunsil can make the transition to guard, where he’s never played. Tunsil was projected as a top-3 overall pick prior to video of illicit drug use surfacing on his social media account on draft night. His elite quickness and explosion should make him a massive upgrade over the Dolphins’ guard starters last season. Veteran Jermon Bushrod may put those starters, Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner, both in backup roles if he can also convert from tackle to guard. Branden Albert remains the left tackle for now, and he should be back to full strength now that he’s further removed from knee surgery, while 2014 first-rounder Ja’Wuan James gets a fresh start after missing the second half of 2015 with a toe injury. Center Mike Pouncey may be the offense’s best player.
Branden Albert solidified the left tackle spot prior to a season-ending knee injury, so his return to full health is critical. With Albert, center Mike Pouncey (newly signed to a lucrative extension) and right tackle Ja’Wuan James (coming off a good rookie season), Miami appears settled at three spots. The guard spots are in flux; the Dolphins may need fourth-round rookie Jamil Douglas to step in immediately.
They’ll be blocking for Lamar Miller, who had some ups and downs after taking over as the primary ball carrier. Miller, however, finished strong with 270 yards in the season’s final two weeks. Now the question is whether he can handle an even greater load; he averaged 5.1 yards per carry but never had more than 19 attempts. There’s questionable depth at the position.
Kevin Coyle, who had worn out his welcome with most players, is gone as defensive coordinator, replaced by former Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph. While Joseph has experience in 3-4 systems, it appears the Dolphins will run mostly 4-3 schemes — for now.
That seems better suited to Miami’s personnel, even as different as it looks from last season. The Dolphins were supposed to be powerful at the point of attack, but that didn’t play out; even with mega-free agent signing Ndamukong Suh largely playing well, Miami was 28th against the run. Earl Mitchell, who had a disappointing season as Suh’s sidekick, remains the starter and must take better advantage of the attention paid to Suh.
The Dolphins had just 31 sacks, and nearly half of those came from Olivier Vernon and Cameron Wake, one of whom (Vernon) fled for big bucks with the Giants, while the other (Wake) is returning at age 34 from an Achilles tear. Miami will be counting on free-agent acquisition and former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams looking more like the malevolent disrupter he was in 2013 and 2014 (with 27.5 sacks) than the malcontent he was in 2015 (five sacks). The Dolphins also signed veteran Jason Jones in May to a one-year deal to add depth.
Miami is betting big on two other reclamation projects (linebacker Kiko Alonso and cornerback Byron Maxwell), both acquired from the Eagles in a deal that cost the Dolphins five slots in the first round. Alonso is a volume tackler when healthy, but that’s been the problem. Maxwell signed a lucrative contract last offseason with Philadelphia, which saw enough in one season to part ways.
There are questions at every spot in the back seven other than strong safety, where Reshad Jones bounced back from a down 2014 and was a dynamic playmaker, leading the team in tackles while adding five interceptions, two for touchdowns. But Miami doesn’t appear to have many other game-changers in a group that includes linebackers Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins, or even new free safety Isa Abdul-Quddus. Xavien Howard, a second-round rookie, will get a chance to make an immediate impact.
Two seasons into his NFL career, Caleb Sturgis still hasn’t cemented his status, not after making 77.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 20-of-33 from 40 yards or more. If he’s not better, he’ll likely be replaced. Brandon Fields didn’t have his best season, with his lowest percentage (36.2) of punts inside the 20-yard-line since 2009, and he was in danger of being released prior to restructuring his contract. Landry was the primary punt and kickoff returner last season and — a couple of hiccups aside — did decent work. Ideally, though, the Dolphins would like more of a burner at those spots to save Landry for his receiving duties. So that search will continue.
Consider this season a referendum on Tannehill and Tannenbaum; even though Tannenbaum didn’t draft the quarterback, their futures seem tied together. Gase, who signed a five-year contract, will be given some room to grow, and this roster will require it. What will separate him from others? “I think my passion, my attitude, the way that I go about interacting with players and the relationship that I develop with players,” Gase says. But he will probably need better players before the Dolphins return to the playoffs.