Training camp excitement is buzzing around the Miami Dolphins franchise as the team looks to translate their talent on paper to the gridiron. Meanwhile, the rest of the NFL will have waited a full week longer to kick off their respective camps (with the exception of Miami’s first preseason foe, the Dallas Cowboys) which presents the Dolphins with a distinct and timely advantage.
The four-game preseason schedule has generated much disdain from players, fans, and coaches in years past. Grueling two-a-day practices lead into full contact yet entirely meaningless games that have teams crossing their fingers to begin the regular season in good health. 2011′s lockout brought that common feeling to life, resulting in the ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) which, among other things, sought to protect players in the crescendo to regular season action.
Under the current CBA, teams may report no sooner than 15 days before their first preseason match-up. Day one is mandated as an off-the-field work date, with players barred from padded contact until the fourth day of camp. Coaches may include an ancillary film study or walk-through, but are no longer permitted to hold traditional two-a-day practices.
These changes accomplish the goal of preserving players’ bodies, though they certainly detract from the intended purpose of preseason football: coming together as one cohesive unit. Tumultuous off-season transactions are ultimately counteracted by the gelling of incoming free agents and draftees with returning personnel. Each team installs it’s schemes, measures depth, and builds chemistry throughout the exhibition season, relying heavily on simulated drills and scrimmages. Taking away precious contact reps from new or inexperienced players undoubtedly steepens the learning curve.
Facing these circumstances, the Dolphins would appear hard-pressed to integrate their newly garnered play makers come week one and a visit with the Cleveland Browns. That’s where the honor of being selected for the 50th anniversary of the NFL’s Hall of Fame Game comes into play at perhaps just the right time.
Historically, the addition of a fifth preseason bout would be liable to draw groans from within a locker room. This year, however, the Dolphins have to be smiling. A free agency spending spree brought in multiple key contributors that are expected to have an immediate impact. At almost every position, there is an abundance of depth behind the starter, especially in the trenches. Equally as common is a rookie or second-year player jockeying for playing time in the starting role. Head coach Joe Philbin and his staff have some serious work to do to make sense of the roster in a relatively short time period. Folding in another week of practice and assessment without the early wear and tear suddenly seems like a pretty sweet deal.
For all the fanfare behind offensive additions Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson, Dustin Keller, and Tyson Clabo, they aren’t simply “plug -n-play” guys. Each must adapt to the cadence, timing, and rhythm of offensive coordinator Mike Sherman’s system. Lamar Miller is stepping into a feature role while Jonathan Martin prepares for his first full-time deployment at left tackle. Both players are coming into their second years and have much to prove.
Defensive imports Dannell Ellerbe, Phillip Wheeler, and Brent Grimes will be slotted into starting roles in a new defense. Rookie cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis will be asked to assist in nickel and dime sets. All five must learn to communicate and react on instinct with the rest of their teammates in short order.
Coaches have the added benefit of deferring their roster decisions as they now operate with a week’s buffer from league-wide cut dates. An extra week of practice and accrued game film gives those fringe players the chance to move up the depth chart and secure a spot on the final 53-man roster.
There’s also a long-term benefit for Miami. After a tough five-game opening to the regular season, the Dolphins will enter their bye week having practiced, prepared, and played 10 straight games. That leaves 11 games to be played before postseason action, marking an almost perfectly balanced midway point to rest and recuperate.
The debate will rage on over the significance of a four-game preseason. But with a newly formed roster seeping with talent and an extra game on their slate, the folks down in South Beach might be content to just let this all play out.