Hope. That’s what has been absent during the Miami Dolphins’ two decades of dormancy, mediocrity and irrelevance. The once-proud franchise, so long led by the late, great Don Shula (the man known as The Jaw), had mostly taken it on the chin since last winning a playoff game back on December 30, 2000 — before Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl.
Now, though, things have changed. Brady is gone from the AFC East; the Dolphins have endured the most difficult part of their teardown/rebuild; they have belief in their coach (Brian Flores) following a stunning 5-4 finish; and they have the franchise’s most exciting prospect since 1983, the year they drafted Dan Marino in the first round.
When will quarterback Tua Tagovailoa play, in light of the hip injury that sidelined him during his final season at Alabama? Flores won’t say. “I think it’s way too early to speculate on this year and how this is going to go,” Flores said after he and GM Chris Grier delighted the Dolphins’ beleaguered fan base by taking Tagovailoa fifth overall in April. “You guys know we like to take a one-day-at-a-time approach anyway. That’s going to be the approach I’m going to have him take that approach as well.”
But it does appear that, at last, better days for the Dolphins are ahead.
Ryan Fitzpatrick was the Dolphins’ leading rusher last season. In many ways, this is a tribute to Fitzpatrick and his competitiveness, that — at 37 and with less than lightning for feet — he could pace his team on the ground.
But it also speaks to the sad state of the Miami offense last season and how little help Fitzpatrick got. Miami traded its cornerstone left tackle (Laremy Tunsil) and its only breakaway rushing threat (Kenyan Drake) during the season as the receivers (Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, Preston Williams) other than DeVante Parker all were slowed or stopped by injuries.
Now Fitzpatrick is back as the bridge quarterback, and so is a former Dolphins offensive coordinator, the grizzled Chan Gailey — nearly 20 years after Gailey helped the Dolphins to their last playoff victory. Gailey replaced Chad O’Shea in one of the offseason’s many surprise moves.
It would be a surprise not to see Fitzpatrick start the season, even with Josh Rosen still around following an unfulfilling first season in Miami, and even with the fans anxious to see Tagovailoa. Fitzpatrick went 5-8 as a starter while compiling an 85.5 quarterback rating, taking a beating behind a makeshift line (40 sacks) but continuing to battle until the end of the season.
That toughness will be required again, as the Dolphins break in an entirely new group, albeit a more talented one. Miami imported Ereck Flowers (a failure at tackle but solid at guard) and center Ted Karras in free agency while adding three offensive linemen (Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt, Solomon Kindley) in the first four rounds. The common theme? Size. The need? Patience, with the hope that they round into form by the time Tagovailoa is ready.
And there should be more production from the skill spots than last season. Parker, an oft-injured disappointment his first few seasons, broke out in 2019 with 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns. And Williams was a revelation as an undrafted addition before he tore up his knee. Both have the size to outmuscle defenders. And both will need to show they are healthy and can stay on the field now that Wilson and Allen Hurns, who signed a two-year extension with the team in November, have opted out this season. Other than Grant, the Dolphins are now having to count on a group of unproven options (including Isaiah Ford, Gary Jennings, Mack Hollins) to provide depth to the position. Tight end Mike Gesicki, while not a blocker, started to fulfill his receiving potential in his second season.
The backfield is better, too. Rather than watch Kalen Ballage keep plodding for 1.8 yards per carry, the Dolphins added a solid power-speed duo in Jordan Howard and Matt Breida, who should split the workload, with Howard getting many of the goal-line touches. Both have been productive (4.4 and 5.1 per carry, respectively) when on the field, even if both fell out of favor elsewhere (Philadelphia, San Francisco) because they didn’t stay on it enough.
When you give up more points than any team in the NFL, and more yards than all but two, it’s hard to find positives. But there were some in 2019.
While the Dolphins didn’t often play well, they always played hard. They were not heavily penalized, showing discipline that previous Miami teams lacked. They found some useful players on the scrap heap (such as young cornerback Nik Needham and linebacker Vince Biegel), got a bounce-back season from young linebacker Raekwon McMillan (who was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders in late August) and did get better as the season went on — the Dolphins allowed a ridiculous 163 points in the first quarter of the season but later held the Colts to 12 and the Patriots to 24.
And they did the latter after shutting down their shutdown cornerback Xavien Howard. Now Howard returns, to pair with Byron Jones, stolen from Dallas with a major payday ($57 million guaranteed). Jones isn’t the thief that Howard is, but few get open against him, and that is necessary until Miami finds a pass rush (just 23 sacks in 2019, worst in the NFL). Brandon Jones, a rookie out of Texas, will have a chance to earn a starting safety spot alongside a returning veteran, Bobby McCain or Eric Rowe, while another rookie, Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene, will likely be the nickel.
That’s how Flores defenses are built, with depth in the defensive backfield and less reliance on one premium pass rusher. Still, after giving up on first-round busts Charles Harris and Taco Charlton, the Dolphins appear to have more there too. Shaq Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah and linebacker Kyle Van Noy, all added in free agency, will be expected to apply some pressure. Van Noy’s value should go beyond that. He was a Dolphins target, out of New England, for his knowledge of Flores’ schemes, as well as for his intelligence and versatility.
If Van Noy commands attention, that will help Jerome Baker, who showed flashes as a rookie that he could be the next star of the unit but was up and down in 2019.
The strength of the defense, other than the corners, could be the defensive tackles. Christian Wilkins, the 2019 first-round pick, didn’t make a lot of big plays as a rookie, but his metrics were impressive, and he improved as the season progressed. Davon Godchaux, playing for a contract extension, has already been a pleasant surprise. And now Miami has added Raekwon Davis, Tagovailoa’s former Alabama teammate who looked like a top-10 pick a couple of years ago before leveling off.
Punter Matt Haack and kicker Jason Sanders combined to deliver one of the more memorable plays of the season, as Haack passed to Sanders for a touchdown on a fake field goal against Philadelphia. Each returns to his day job this season. Sanders was only OK in 2019, making 8-of-14 kicks outside of 40 yards. Who returns kicks and punts? Probably the speedy Grant, if healthy again.
Flores tried to change the culture upon arriving in Davie, Fla., painting the mantra “T.N.T.” (for “Takes No Talent”) on a wall leading to the practice field, cleaning or phasing out the malcontents and not accepting any media talk of “tanking.” What became apparent, as the season progressed, was that his straightforward style and general competence were connecting with his players. And now he has better players. It will take time — and maybe Tua — but the Dolphins should trend upwards somewhat from their surprising 5-11 record. They are probably two seasons and another strong draft (with five picks in the first three rounds in 2021) away from true contention.