A stunningly successful season crashed with a thud, a 56–26 defeat in Buffalo that ensured the Miami Dolphins would not make the playoffs, extending the franchise’s playoff win drought to a full 20 years.
“We’re disappointed in our performance today,” then-second-year Dolphins head coach Brian Flores said. “It wasn’t good enough in any phase.”
Still, as disappointing as the finale was, it shouldn’t put a damper on what the Dolphins did in 2020, rising from 5–11 to 10–6 and doing so while breaking in a rookie quarterback, shuffling multiple rookies on the offensive line and integrating several new players on a much-improved defense — all while dealing with COVID-19 and other distractions.
Now, in the third year of the Flores/Chris Grier plan, no one is discussing tanking or even rebuilding. It’s time to make the playoffs and do something when they get there.
Tua Tagovailoa arrived with considerable hoopla. But during his rookie season, it felt like he was forced to jump through too many hoops. Some of it was due to the quarterback’s serious hip injury at Alabama, which was the only reason he was still available for the Dolphins to pick at No. 5, but which also limited his strength and football training during the offseason. But then, he didn’t get the benefit of a normal training camp or even a single preseason game to acclimate to the NFL. And once the season started, Flores and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey kept going back to security blanket Ryan Fitzpatrick, which appeared to undermine Tagovailoa’s confidence.
Flores has repeatedly said he believes in Tagovailoa, and the front office showed signs this offseason that it trusts him as well. Gailey is gone, replaced by co-coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey, both promoted from within and familiar with Tagovailoa’s strengths and weaknesses after he went 6–3 as a rookie. And while the Dolphins added running back Malcolm Brown to low-cost options Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed, they significantly upgraded the speed at receiver to generate more yards after the catch.
That started with Will Fuller V, a burner from the Houston Texans who joins on a one-year deal; he will debut in Week 2 after he finishes out a six-game suspension in Week 1. And it continued in the first round of the draft with Tagovailoa’s former Crimson Tide teammate Jaylen Waddle at No. 6 overall. They will complement more physical holdovers DeVante Parker and Preston Williams, both of whom have had injury issues but have shown the ability to get the ball in single coverage, and tight end Mike Gesicki, who emerged as a top-flight target and should be energized with his contract expiring.
Now Tagovailoa, who threw for just 181 yards per game in a mostly micromanaged offense, must show a willingness to let it rip. He is certainly arriving more physically ripped than last season, as evidenced in his Instagram posts. But to lift the offense (22nd in yards in 2020), he needs to trust himself, his receivers and his line.
The latter may remain a work in progress. Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt and Solomon Kindley all had their moments, good and bad, as rookies, and all project to start in their second seasons, with Jackson working at tackle and Hunt and Kindley likely at guard. Now another rookie, the durable Liam Eichenberg, arrives to compete for time. Matt Skura is the new center; he’s proven to be a dependable blocker but struggled with his snaps last season for Baltimore. It will also help if Gaskin breaks out. The Dolphins put enormous faith in him by passing on top running back prospects such as Alabama’s Najee Harris for the second straight draft. He has some wiggle, while Ahmed is more straight ahead. Both averaged better than four yards per carry, but it’s still questionable whether either can carry an offense.
Ultimately, it’s on Tagovailoa to develop and to show more of the flashes he did in a few games last season, such as shootouts against Arizona and Kansas City. Miami brought in proven quantity Jacoby Brissett as his backup, but if Brissett supplants him, something has gone wrong.
X marked the spot in 2020, as cornerback Xavien Howard keyed one of the NFL’s most improved defenses with 10 interceptions, part of the Dolphins’ NFL-leading 29 takeaways. Howard, who merited NFL Defensive Player of the Year consideration, returns to lead a unit that should be improved, as last season’s prized offseason acquisition, Byron Jones, settles further into his role on the other side, and young players gain greater experience.
One of those is Brandon Jones, a sure tackler from the safety spot as a rookie. He will be joined by Eric Rowe, who specializes in covering tight ends. And since Flores prefers to play six or more defensive backs, there’s plenty of depth. The former Patriots defensive coordinator, Flores recruited Patriots favorite Jason McCourty to provide leadership, particularly to 2020 first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene, who struggled some in his first season.
It will help the secondary if Miami mounts more pressure from players other than defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, who broke out with nine sacks after being given a more substantive role than he had with the Chiefs. Miami cut ties with Kyle Van Noy (six sacks) after one season but can expect production from linebacker Jerome Baker (seven sacks, 112 tackles) and blossoming big-play specialist Andrew Van Ginkel, who is always around the ball.
But the key may be the quick development of first-round pick Jaelan Phillips, a physical outlier from Miami (Fla.) whose primary question is durability; he had to retire briefly due to concussions. Phillips will be given every chance to start, since he has shown he can play the run, and the Dolphins aren’t particularly deep on the edge. They have more talent inside, with Christian Wilkins continuing to grow last season and all of his metrics improving; and Raekwon Davis, a Flores favorite, flashing major potential as a rookie.
This group has one advantage the offense does not: continuity, with Josh Boyer returning after a solid first season as defensive coordinator. This unit will likely give up yards but, with its ball-hawking, is capable of creating short-field opportunities for the offense.
Jason Sanders may have been the Dolphins’ most reliable and important player in 2020, converting 36-of-39 field goals, instrumental in Miami winning several close games. Miami is making a change at punter, with Michael Palardy (a former Panther) replacing Matt Haack. Palardy missed all of last season with a knee injury.
The Dolphins do have several options at returner. The question is whether the diminutive, explosive Jakeem Grant Sr., one of the most dynamic returners in team history, makes the final cut, since Miami added so much depth at receiver, and he had a drops issue in 2020. If not, Waddle figures to be the guy. Flores has shown he will use his core players as returners, though it backfired when Williams got hurt.
After two seasons, Flores and Grier have turned the Dolphins around. Now they have cashed in some of their assets to add to the young core. But ultimately, this season comes down to Tagovailoa. The Dolphins have had more than 20 starting quarterbacks since Dan Marino retired more than two decades ago, and only Jay Fiedler won a playoff game, and just one at that. Flores spent the offseason explaining why he had such a quick hook in Tagovailoa’s rookie season.
“He’s been working,” Flores told longtime NFL writer Peter King. “He’s doing everything necessary to make some improvements. That’s really all we can ask for. My thing is if you put the work in, the results will take care of themselves.”
Now that the Dolphins put some work into upgrading Tagovailoa’s offensive assistance, a playoff appearance is a real possibility.