They’ve been trying to recreate the early ‘70s in Miami for the past four decades. Can it be that long ago since Don Shula was winning Super Bowls with the Dolphins?
Post-Shula, however, Miami has found the winning recipe to be quite elusive. The fact the era also roughly coincided with Dan Marino’s retirement has been another factor in a mostly-forgotten decade-plus of Dolphins football.
Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron and Tony Sparano have all tried and failed to recreate the Shula magic in South Florida. Now Joe Philbin, most recently the offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, gives it a stab as the 10th head coach (including a couple of interims) in the franchise’s history that began as an AFL expansion franchise in 1966.
Expectations are rather optimistic in Miami despite the Dolphins’ 6-10 finish a year ago. The AFC East doesn’t appear to be quite as menacing these days, especially with the Jets loaded with trip wires and the Bills still struggling to gain traction. Which might be why most Las Vegas sports books have posted the Miami 2012 win total at 7½, with many bettors not blinking before casting their 'over' preference. The DonBest.com odds screen already has posted a number on the Dolphins’ September 9 opener at Houston, with the Texans installed as an early 7-point favorite.
Philbin made sense as the culmination of the Miami head coaching search after last season, mainly because of his offensive credentials from his decorated stint on the Packers staff. Philbin is also considered a sage play-caller and QB tutor after helping Aaron Rodgers achieve greatness in such a short period of time at Lambeau Field.
He has never been a head coach at any level, however, and the list of high-profile coordinators who have failed as head coaches is long and distinguished. As usual, we’re taking a wait-and-see attitude before considering Philbin the right man for the job at Sun Life Stadium.
Philbin insists he is not rebuilding anything in Miami, and the Dolphins did close with a rush last season, winning six of their last nine games. The only problem was that the uptick occurred after Miami broke 0-7 from the gate.
Offensive woes were the main problem a year ago; among other things, inconsistent work along the line proved problematic in protecting Dolphin QBs, who were sacked 52 times.
Philbin’s first order of business is to install an up-tempo West Coast offense similar to the one he coordinated in Green Bay. Finding a pilot to fly the new plane, however, figures to extend throughout the preseason.
Miami took its first step in its remake at the April Draft when tabbing Texas A&M’s QB Ryan Tannehill as its first-round selection. Tannehill had moved up the draft boards dramatically in the preceding weeks after further impressing in the pre-draft workouts. A one-time WR at A&M, Tannehill seems to possess the athletic intangibles necessary to succeed in the NFL. Whether the fundamentals and other factors develop as needed remains to be seen.
It is also regarded as a plus that Tannehill’s former A&M coach, Mike Sherman, is also Philbin’s new offensive coordinator. The Philbin version of the West Coast is similar to what Sherman was running at College Station. The adjustment phase for Tannehill, goes the thought, might be smoother because of these unique dynamics.
Still, many AFC East scouts believe that Miami can win with holdover Matt Moore at QB as the Dolphins did late last season when Moore proved a better option than Chad Henne, whose injury problems ironically triggered a mild turnaround with Moore at the control. Moore passed for 2427 yards with 16 TDs and 9 picks a year ago and became more comfy at the controls as the season progressed.
But the QB derby remains undecided, as not only did Miami add Tannehill, but also added veteran free agent David Garrard, who figures to compete for the job in August as well.
A development to monitor is Tannehill’s contract status, which had yet to be resolved at the end of July. Tannehill missed the start of training camp and would figure to have to be in the fold soon if he has designs on the starting role for the opener at Houston.
Several AFC East observers, however, believe that Philbin will likely go with Moore until Tannehill is ready, with Garrard as a fall-back option. Stay tuned for further developments.
Whoever is in the lineup at QB will have plenty of skilled weaponry to utilize...at least in the running game. Reggie Bush experienced a long-overdue breakout campaign in 2011 when rushing for 1,086 yards, and 2nd-year ex-Kansas State RB Daniel Thomas flashed plenty of upside last fall when gaining another 581 yards Explosive Miami Hurricanes rookie Lamar Miller, a 4th-round draft choice, adds another dimension to the infantry.
More serious questions offensively have to do with the receiving corps and the forward wall. In particular the former, which looks to lack a game-breaking threat after Brandon Marshall (who led Dolphins receivers by a wide margin last year when catching 81 passes) was traded to the Bears. The late-spring addition of Chad Johnson, formerly Ochocinco, who from all indications is past his sell-by date, appears a desperate roll of the dice. Holdovers Davone Bess and Brian Hartline certainly lack the home run dimension Marshall provided.
Meanwhile, the offensive line, nicked by injuries a year ago, remains filled with questions. Sources say the line lacks top-flight athleticism, and might not have the sort of mobility that Philbin prefers for his zone-blocking schemes. Although LT Jake Long and C Mike Pouncey are solid, the entire right side of the line is undergoing another rebuild. For what seems like an eternity, the Miami offensive line again remains a work in progress.
Philbin, however, does inherit a capable defense from the previous regime. Miami’s stingy defense ranked sixth in points allowed a year ago, and prospects are encouraging for continuing that pattern.
Still, some adjustments are being made, and new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle will be switching the Dolphins to a 4-3 base from their previous 3-4 looks. The most important offseason development was retaining Pro Bowl NT Paul Soliai, who will anchor from a more-traditional DT spot this fall.
Coyle, however, might be asking a lot of 3rd-round draftee Olivier Vernon, another former Miami Hurricane but already penciled into a starting role opposite Cameron Wake, who has 28 sacks the past three seasons.
Coyle is also hoping that the alignment modifications will help to better unleash the potential of LBs Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who each recorded 100-plus tackles last year but whose ceilings suggest more upside is possible.
Meanwhile, although 4th-year CBs Vontae Davis and Sean Smith have collectively matured into a pair of competent corners, and the FA addition of CB Richard Marshall provides extra options, especially in nickel looks. There are, however, some questions at the safety spots, especially at free safety where someone has to emerge to complement emerging SS Reshad Jones.
Special teams-wise, the Dolphins have Pro Bowl-caliber kickers in P Brandon Fields and PK Dan Carpenter, but the return units have lacked pizzazz in recent years.
The Dolphins developed several extremely interesting spread patterns in the Sparano years, including a year ago when their spread performance (not surprisingly) reflected their straight-up pattern that reversed at midseason; Miami was 7-1 vs. the line its last nine games in 2011 after covering just one of its first six outings.
Sparano’s Miami was also one of those rare “inside-out” teams that performed better vs. the line on the road than at home. Over the past two seasons, the Dolphins posted an eye-opening 12-4 spread mark away from Sun Life Stadium but were just 5-10-1 vs. the mark at home. Correspondingly, Miami was 13-7 as an underdog and just 3-8-1 as chalk.
With the recent inconsistencies on offense, and the solid defense, it was also no surprise that Miami recorded a 12-4 'under' mark last season, and is 'under' 16-5 in its last 21 games since late in the 2010 campaign. Philbin’s arrival, and his offensive emphasis, could change those dynamics.
Summary: Perhaps Philbin is right; maybe Miami isn’t in a rebuilding phase, as the Dolphins were playing playoff-quality football for the last half of the 2011 campaign. But we’re not sure the uptick continues into this fall with Philbin and his new staff making several adjustments and hardly endorsing Matt Moore, under whom the Dolphins won down the stretch last season, as the starting QB. The thought persists that whether it be Moore or Garrard at QB, either is simply holding the position until Tannehill is ready. But if Tannehill gets on the field this fall, it’s probably because the Dolphins are not progressing into the playoff mix. And whoever is at QB will be looking over their shoulder.
There are other issues at the receiver spots and along the line on the offensive side and the defense, while good, probably can’t carry the team to the playoffs. We suspect we’ll have a better read on the direction of the Philbin Dolphins at this time next summer.
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