The Miami Dolphins fan base should be cautiously optimistic. Dolphins fans have a renewed enthusiasm and more hope than they have had since the first announcement of Bill Parcells being hired. We all know how that worked out. Following a draft that many fans feel was by far the best draft class Miami has had in a decade, that fever of hope and joy is at a very high level. I’m here to bring that level down a notch or two.
The truth is that while it’s fun to speculate on the future and dream of a return to the playoffs too much has changed this year for a Cinderella season.
I’m not completely a downer here. I realize that they hype is simply due to the fact that finally, the Dolphins seem to have made the right choices, at least on paper. The hiring of Joe Philbin has brought a new system to Miami’s stagnant offense and could be the first offensive system since Don Shula and Dan Marino that actually is geared towards scoring points and not ball control. That has Miami fans buzzing about their season hopes.
For all the talk of the west coast offense though, is still a new coach to the ranks of the NFL head men. Only 32 men get to be the HC on Sundays and it is not something you simply slip into with nary a hiccup. Not everyone shows up on the NFL scene and pulls a Jim Harbaugh. For Philbin, he has never been a head coach on any level. That is not to say that he can’t handle the pressure or the game planning but there is a marked difference between prepping as an OC and doing the same as an HC. For one, he now has to control both sides of the ball and special teams.
The good news for Sherman, unlike Tony Sparano, he will have a seasoned veteran NFL HC on his right hand side who has been successful on the NFL level. That will be a valuable asset to Philbin and the rest of the staff.
The Dolphins made no significant free agent signings outside of their deal to retain Paul Soliai. They did lock up Cameron Wake for another four years over the weekend. What does that mean? Well for starters, the bulk of the roster is still comprised of players who contributed to the 6-10 season of last year. How well they slide into the offensive and defensive schemes will go a long way to deciding whether or not this team will start the season where they left off, finishing with 6 wins in the last 9 games or if they will yet again be slow out of the gate while they learn these new systems.
Of course much of this off-seasons enthusiasm surrounds the Dolphins draft. Many fans believe that Jeff Ireland got it right and even Ireland himself said that if his board was correct, they hit it out. The issue here of course is that these players are rookies and as such there is a learning curve. Just like with Philbin.
Ryan Tannehill is supposed to be Miami”s next franchise QB and every fan hopes that is true. He knows the system, has a tremendous upside, and is not close to his potential level. He is still raw however. Playing in a pro-style offense at Texas A&M doesn’t meant he played against pro-style defenses. The speed of the NFL is something that practices do not teach. The hits that come from opposing defenders is something that practices do not prepare you for. Can he have success in his rookie season? That all depends on whether he can get on the field as a rookie. He will be competing with Matt Moore and David Garrard.
Jonathan Martin is supposed to shore up the right tackle position on a line that was horrid on the right side. The issue is not how well he can translate to the NFL but the fact that he hasn’t played on the right side. Martin was a left tackle in college and will need to relearn several of his first steps and techniques. The good news is that HC Joe Philbin is lauded as one of the best Oline coaches in the NFL. Of course the same was said about Tony Sparano as well. Of course next to Martin is hole that has a giant question mark in it. Who is going to play the right guard position?
The Dolphins are relatively secure at the RB position with Daniel Thomas and Reggie Bush which makes 4th rounder Lamar Miller a luxury who can be fed onto the field in match-ups that help the offense. The question however resides on the outside where WR is a big question. With no Brandon Marshall, the Dolphins lack a proven receiver who can make the tough catches and more importantly draw coverage from the safeties. Brian Hartline and Davone Bess do not bring out that coverage concern and Clyde Gates, Marlon Moore, and Roberto Wallace are only marginally more proven than the incoming rookies at the position.
If there is good news, the Dolphins new offensive system is more designed as a flowing offense that creates mismatched coverage so the need for a true number one wide-receiver is not as important as it has been in the teams previous systems. While that is, I suppose, good news, the reality is that the Dolphins WR corp, for now is still relatively weak or at the very least as a whole unproven.
Defensively, the Dolphins have a decision to make at safety. Will they run a two safety system or use one safety with and extra corner? The switch to a 43 will also have a learning curve attached to it, especially considering that the Dolphins did not add any players to the new defensive system that significantly change the personnel from what they had in a 34.
Paul Solia will still anchor the defensive line but he is a NT. Can he move to the tackle position in a 43? Will he only be used when the team uses the 34/43 hybrid? The addition of Miami University pass rushing DE Olivier Vernon will also be under the micro-scope. Vernon could pay off big for the Dolphins but which position will he need to play to be more penetrable of the opposing offense? Does he posses the speed burst and up-field mobility to collapse a pocket opposite Cameron Wake? If not, who then takes on that role? Koa Misi?
What about the inside LB positions? With a switch to 43 there will only be one LB in the middle yet the Dolphins have Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett inside. One of them will need to be moved outside or will not likely be on the field. The Dolphins need playmakers on the field as much as possible. For all of the above information about the rookies and the system changes, it’s also worth pointing out that the division itself needs to be taken into consideration.
All three of the Dolphins division opponents have also made strives to improve through the draft and/or free agency and one of those teams, the New England Patriots are coming off a Super Bowl appearance. In other words, the Dolphins may have made some great strides from adding a new coach, new system, and finally a new QB, but that does not mean that they are ready or even close to being ready to challenge the Patriots or even the Jets and Bills for the division title.
Finally, there is the fans themselves. How much room do they give Ryan Tannehill before they start calling him a bust? How long is Joe Philbin going to have to prove that his coaching methods will translate to winning for the Miami Dolphins? Will the fans turn out to return Sun-Life Stadium to a home field advantage or will they wait it out at home, quietly, to see if things turnaround?
The reason that point is made is simple. The fans ultimately will decide if any of this is pass or fail just as much as the players and coaches themselves turn this franchise around and start winning. The latter may take a little longer than what fans are willing to give.
There are a lot of reasons to be thrilled, excited, and hopeful of the Dolphins future. This article is not meant to bring down that enthusiasm. Only to serve as a reminder that the team still has some questions going into next season and none of them are going to be answered immediately. When I visit forums around the Internet, I notice a lot of fans believing that the Dolphins can turn this ship around in one short off-season and blast out of the gates to a fantastic season. The fan inside me wants so desperately to believe that while the realist inside me keeps his foot on the breaks.
Regardless of whether the Dolphins do in fact make major strides this season, one thing is for certain. They appear to have a plan and staff in place to keep that plan moving forward. No gimmicks of the Wild Cat or Pat White. No ground and pound back-field with no notion of who can lead the team from behind center, and while concerns over the Oline are valid, it is safe to say that this regime will not play merry-go-round rotation with the lineman.
Despite the fact that Jeff Ireland is still managing the team, it’s safer to say that on the surface, this new lineup of coaches seem to have better preparation than the last one. Tony Sparano may have known the number of plays each player played and whether those were positive or negative but those kind of numbers mean nothing on the field, especially when you are a new HC with no support from the top. One thing that we can agree on with Sparano is he never got to pick his own coaching staff until his final season. He had to work with Parcells gave him. Philbin chose his own staff. We will see if that works out better.