Adam Gase’s Twelve Steps to Rehabilitating the Dolphins: Step 4


The Miami Dolphins are hoping that Adam Gase can mold the team into a playoff contender. The road to get there is not a matter of one big leap, but rather, a series of small steps.

There are lots of things Adam Gase intends to change about the Miami Dolphins, but in the earliest days of his reign, one area has commanded his attention above all others. Be it through free agency, the draft, or sweeping changes to the way the unit trains, Gase has done everything in his power to remake the offensive line well in advance of the 2016 season.

To understand why the rookie head coach is engineering  such a drastic makeover, we must first review just how poorly the offensive line performed during the Joe Philbin era, as well as the negative effects those failures had on the development of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill took a lot of hits during his 2012 rookie campaign. So many, in fact, that by 2013, it was clear that the young QB was developing a split personality of sorts, depending on whether or not his pocket collapsed. When not pressured, the former Texas A&M standout was ranked 8th best in the league that second season, compiling 19 touchdowns to only 7 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 94.2. However, severe inconsistencies arose when his protection broke down. On those occasions, and there were far too many of them for the team to be successful, he dropped to 18th in the league, tossing just 5 TDs to 10 INTs. Worse still, his completion percentage fell to 44.2, earning him a dismal 46.3 quarterback rating.

Things were so bad that by season’s end Tannehill had been sacked a league-leading 58 times. Unfortunately for him, things haven’t improved much since then. As a result, he has been sacked a staggering 184 times during his first 64 games in the league, and the Dolphins have become fixtures in the middle of the pack.

MIA Sacks Allowed35584645

To their credit, Miami’s front office has tried to fix the problem. Over the years, they have drafted linemen Dallas Thomas, Billy Turner, Ja’Wuan James and Jamil Douglas, but only James has lived up to the team’s immediate expectations. Yet, even he ran into trouble in 2014, when an injury to Branden Albert forced the rookie to move from right tackle to left tackle, where, out of his comfort zone, he faced some of the fiercest pass rushers in the league.

Even so, James’ troubles paled in comparison to the nightmare Dallas Thomas endured when he was subsequently shifted from guard to right tackle. In five starts at that position, Thomas’ already poor season turned abysmal as he allowed 7 sacks, 5 hits and 14 hurries. Worse still, the beleaguered guard’s downward slide continued in 2015, when he was graded as the worst guard in the league by Pro Football Focus (PFF) after allowing 10 sacks and 36 QB hurries.

That isn’t to say that the line’s issues have been limited to pass blocking alone. As the chart below clearly indicates, run blocking was equally problematic during the Philbin era, if not worse.

PFF Rank2012201320142015
Pass Blocking22nd14th32nd29th
Run Blocking20th28th31st32nd

With numbers like these, it is difficult to imagine what the Indianapolis Colts were thinking this past January when they hired Philbin to be, of all things, their new offensive line coach. Regardless, if we hope to grasp just how dreadful Miami’s decline was under their stoic coach, consider that the Dolphins’ run blocking only got worse after 2013, the year in which the team lost two starters, Ritchie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, to the now infamous bullying scandal.

Fortunately for the Dolphins, Gase’s keen football eye may finally change their fortunes. After all, it didn’t take him long to spot the unit’s inherent weakness…..literally. Almost immediately upon arriving in South Florida, he insisted upon a more stringent strengthening program for the offensive line.

“That’s one thing that when we came in, me and Mike (Tannenbaum) and Chris (Grier) had long conversations about,” explained Gase, via the Dolphins’ official site. “We said, let’s get back to some old, let’s lift. Let’s spend our two hours in the weight room. Let’s get these guys bigger and stronger and faster. That’s been a big focus.”

In order to carry out his vision of a hulking line, Gase promoted Dave Puloka, who has been with the organization since 2008, to head strength and conditioning coach. Furthermore, the Dolphins named Jim Arthur and Ted Rath assistant strength and conditioning coaches.

While Gase’s assessment of the situation took many fans by surprise, the players themselves saw it coming. In fact, the Miami Herald reported as much last November, after the Dolphins’ 20-19 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. According to reporter Armando Salguero, several players were talking amongst themselves, Mike Pouncey included, about the need for additional time in the weight room.

Pouncey’s admission that the line had grown soft is a further indictment of Philbin’s coaching philosophy, which saw the offensive line spend more time in the classroom that in the gym. Beyond that, the three-time Pro Bowler’s frustration should be taken seriously, not just because he is one of the finest centers in the league, but because he is part of the trio of players the Dolphins are hoping to build their line around.

At 6’5” and 311lbs, Pouncey’s near perfect combination of power and agility make him invaluable to the team’s playoff hopes. Just as crucial to those aspirations are the previously mentioned tackles, Branden Albert and Ja’Wuan James. At 6’7” and 315lbs, 31-year old Albert has earned Pro Bowl honors twice in the last three seasons, while James, a 6’6”, 311lbs titan, has shown flashes of brilliance during his brief career. Unfortunately for Miami, injuries have limited the three stars opportunities to play together.

Pouncey has missed 8 games over the last three seasons, including the last two contests of 2015 due to a foot injury suffered against the San Diego Chargers in week fifteen. Albert hasn’t played a full season since 2011, and has missed 9 games since coming to Miami in 2014. While James, who is just 24-years old, missed 9 games last season alone due to a toe injury.

Even so, according to Alain Poupart, of the team’s official website, the Dolphins offensive linemen are confident they can turn things around in 2016.

“Obviously, we feel like we’ve got a lot of talent on (the) offensive line,” said Pouncey, before going on to explain what he would consider a successful season. “Keep the sacks down. Keep Tannehill on his feet. Obviously, we want a 1,000-yard running back. Our ultimate goal is to get to the playoffs and win a championship. If we can accomplish that, we’ll be happy with everything.”

Albert shared Pouncey’s positive outlook, but acknowledged the squad’s success hinges on avoiding injuries.

“We have to stay healthy somehow. A little bit of luck. A little bit of prayer. A little bit of extra work,” he insisted. “Once we all stay healthy, we stay cohesive, and we find the right five, I believe we could be a heck of an offensive line.”

“Once we all stay healthy, we stay cohesive, and we find the right five, I believe we could be a heck of an offensive line.”

Albert and Pouncey have reason to feel optimistic, particularly if they, and James, can actually manage to stay healthy. Miami is 6-1 when the trio have taken the field together, and in those games, Tannehill has completed 70% of his passes, managed a 15 to 5 touchdown to interception ratio, and registered a 101 QB rating.

Impressive as those numbers seem, Gase knows better than to make the same mistake as his predecessor. Namely, relying on the far-fetched hope that his starters will stay healthy all season. So, with that in mind, the Dolphins signed free agent Jermon Bushrod. Bushrod, a former two-time Pro Bowler with the New Orleans Saints, began last season at left tackle for the Chicago Bears under Gase’s tutelage, but ironically, the 6’4”, 315lb lineman lost his starting job due to injury. Nevertheless, it was the versatility he showed upon returning to the Bears that caught Gase’s eye.

“The good thing with me being with Bushrod last year was I saw a guy that played five spots in practice,” recounted Gase, via the team’s official site. “We put him as our big tight end, and he did a great job. And then in practice, he just kept trying to learn different positions. He played guard. He played center. He played right tackle. Him developing that flexibility last year, that was very intriguing for us to say, hey, here’s a guy that we can add to our team (who) gives us some flexibility, gives us some depth at a lot of different spots.”

The 31-year old’s willingness to learn new positions fits in perfectly with the mindset Gase wants to instill upon his entire line from the onset.

"“When you go into a game and you have seven guys active, you better have a whole bunch of guys that know how to play a lot of different positions,” Gase recently explained, according to ESPN’s James Walker. “If you’re going to do it, this is the time to do it.”"

As impressed as Gase was by Bushrod, he didn’t stop there. The Dolphins also brought in additional veteran help in the form of Kraig Urbik, a 6’5”, 323lb guard who hasn’t missed a game since 2012. A cap casualty at 30-years old, Urbik has 84 career games under his belt, including 57 starts with the Buffalo Bills from 2010 through 2015. He should compete for the lone vacant guard position with Bushrod, Douglas, Turner and Thomas.

The other guard spot will, in all likelihood, be manned by first round draft choice, Laremy Tunsil. Tunsil’s fall from the top five on draft night due to the release of a video showing him smoking pot has been well documented, but Gase and company bucked the trend and took a chance on the 6’5”, 310lb lineman, unable to ignore his supreme talent. As a result, many analysts believe Miami got away with the steal of the draft.

Now, the Dolphins’ coaching staff is working hard to indoctrinate the 21-year old into their flexible offensive scheme. Thus far this offseason, Tunsil has played both left guard and left tackle, providing him an opportunity to learn from Albert. And while he has performed well, Gase is far from satisfied.

“He’s got a lot of room to get better. Any position you play as a rookie is like a different animal,” said Gase at a press conference during minicamp. “We were talking with him and a couple of other guys, we were talking about…training camp is going to be another speed. Preseason is going to feel like another speed. Then, when you hit the regular season it is a completely different speed…and then, when you get to the playoffs, you’re talking about guys playing for one thing. I mean, really…the paycheck, I mean, everybody’s making the same thing. You’ll see a completely different speed there.”

Even with the addition of a prized rookie like Tunsil, proven veterans Bushrod and Urbik, and a strengthening program intended to maximize the talent already on the roster, Gase remains unsatisfied. He knows the Dolphins’ offensive line has a lot of work ahead of them before they can adequately protect Tannehill, or open holes for running back Jay Ajayi. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the rookie coach is talking to his newest players about  the playoff experience reveals an underlying confidence in just how far this new, stronger and more versatile line may yet carry this team.

To read Step 3 in this series, click here.

To read Step 2 in this series, click here.

To read Step 1 in this series, click here.