The Miami Dolphins kicked off their 50th training camp in team history on Thursday, the start of what will be a season-long celebration of their golden anniversary as an NFL franchise. Already we’ve seen a flurry of marketing and promotional events to create even more excitement and buzz than in recent years. Perhaps the topper came on Wednesday, with the unveiling of a beautiful throwback 1966 aqua uniform that many feel is more attractive than the team’s current primary threads. There is also a Top 50 Players contest that yours truly will have something to say about later in the preseason.
Getting to this point has been a dizzying ride. The Dolphins began with an emphatic statement in free agency, which included an almost clean sweep of the Jeff Ireland era. WR Mike Wallace, a highly talented but ill-used player, was traded to Minnesota for a sack of beans. Overpaid and underperforming players, like Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler, were either traded or waived. And good players like Charles Clay and Jason Trusnik found greener pastures elsewhere.
Fresh talent, headlined by the best defensive tackle in football (Ndamukong Suh), was brought in. At wide receiver, an almost total rebuild was undertaken, headlined by first round draft pick DeVante Parker and vets Kenny Stills and Greg Jennings. Some have already called Parker the best rookie WR they’ve ever seen in a Dolphin uniform. We’ll have to see about that, but we will soon enough!
The net of all this activity is the clear intention of EVP Mike Tannenbaum, GM Dennis Hickey, and Head Coach Joe Philbin to re-make this roster in their image and to be judged accordingly. Character, hard work, intelligence, and a love for the game are becoming a common theme for the new arrivals. Hooray for that.
But there is a lingering credibility gap with the front office. A deep mistrust of Tannenbaum persists amongst Dolfans given his spectacularly failed tenure with top rival NY Jets. And Philbin was in danger of being fired given his repeated failures to lead the club out of mediocrity.
This lack of inspired leadership has left Dolfans fickle. They have become accustomed to being disappointed by this revolving door of GMs, coaches, and other front office types and their respective philosophies, broken promises, and poor returns. Will 2015, this 50th season in Dolphins history, be any different?
Here are 10 questions that must be answered if we are to know:
1) Has QB Ryan Tannehill improved his accuracy and decision making?
I like how Don Shula characterizes Tannehill as “a good athlete who is becoming a good quarterback”. Some take issue with the “becoming” part, but they shouldn’t if they remember where he came from. We don’t know for sure how many deep and red zone touchdowns Tannehill missed on last season, and how many wins it likely cost, but the Dolphins certainly do. Judging by the heavy turnover of the WR corps and a new, elite $96 million contract for Tannehill, the brain trust has made it clear where they are placing their bets. Fair enough given Tannehill’s progression as an NFL QB. So now the hot spotlight is on Tannehill. If he’s going to take the next step and lead the Dolphins into the postseason, he must make teams pay when the opportunity presents. This is what elite quarterbacks do.
2) Will the run defense be improved?
The Dolphins were ranked 24th in run defense last season. Both Super Bowl teams were in the Top 10. If the Dolphins want to be a playoff team, they have to do a better job stopping the run. To stop the run, a defense must be strong up the middle. The $114 million acquisition of Suh, as well as Jordan Phillips and CJ Mosely, considerably hardens the nose of that unit. But what about the linebackers, especially Koa Misi or perhaps Kelvin Sheppard? Logic and history suggest that Suh will make others around him better. We’ll see. And what about the logjam at safety? Who will emerge? Reshad Jones is a lock and Louis Delmas is the frontrunner to return as a starter, though he is coming off of an ACL injury. The loss of highly regarded defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers, who is now defensive coordinator of the hated Jets, will be something that must be overcome. The suspension of Dion Jordan for the season is a major disappointment.
3) Is there a legitimate #2 CB opposite Brent Grimes?
Teams with playoff aspirations need a bonafide shutdown corner, a guy who can take away the opponent’s best WR. The Dolphins are fortunate to have that talent in Grimes, who reminded us of his greatness yet again this past season. But Grimes’ contributions are diminished if opposing offenses can get away with playing away from him with impunity. The Dolphins thought they had a stopgap answer last season with Cortland Finnegan, but his diminished skills and nagging injury issues left him a shell of what he once was and the Dolphins paid the price. In 2015 the suggested answer is Jamar Taylor, the team’s 2013 second round draft pick who has been slow to develop. This is Year Three for Taylor and the excuses have run out. Will he deliver?
4) Is the offensive line ready?
The Dolphins have a lot invested in Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner: two third round draft picks with five combined offseasons of development. The team’s expectation is that they will step up and assume the two starting guard positions. Thomas was a bust as a Tackle, mainly due to inconsistency with his technique, though he may have a brighter future as a guard. Turner, a rookie last season, hasn’t had much of an opportunity to play yet. Of the two, Thomas is under the most pressure to produce in his third year as a pro. If he falters, will the Dolphins make a move to sign former Pro Bowler Evan Mathis? For now an even bigger need is the successful and timely return of left tackle Brandon Albert. Without him, the team’s postseason hopes will suffer a significant blow. It is encouraging to see him start the season on the active roster even if in a limited capacity. Still, one wonders if the Dolphins would have been prudent to procure an upgrade over reserve Jason Fox. Tannenbaum, Hickey, and Philbin have to get this unit right or it will cost them the postseason, and perhaps more.
5) Is there a dependable Kicker on the roster?
There are moments during a season when a kicker becomes the difference between winning and losing; such is the margin for error in today’s NFL. It’s not just field goal scoring, but field position created by accurate kickoffs that maximize the effectiveness of coverage units. Last season Caleb Sturgis wasn’t very good (29th in the NFL in FG accuracy and 16th in total touchbacks). And Dolphin kickoff coverage was 4th worst in yards yielded per return. Yet the Dolphins seem unfazed by this. Undrafted rookie Andrew Franks will try to unseat Sturgis; he is the only competition in camp as of this writing.
6) Can the Dolphins replace Charles Clay’s production at Tight End?
The Dolphins did not want to lose Clay to free agency, but the Bills were determined to outbid them for his services. Whether or not Tannenbaum and Hickey were wise to let Clay walk remains to be seen, opting instead for the oft-concussed Jordan Cameron (Browns) together with incumbents Dion Sims and Arthur Lynch. Cameron is the key to this play, for he is expected to be a big help to Tannehill in the red zone. If he cannot stay on the field and Sims, entering a critical third season, cannot take the next step, there will be a ton of second guessing.
7) Has there been an upgrade at WR?
The answer to this question begins with the departed Mike Wallace. No one on that offense worked harder, or commanded more fear from opposing defenses, than he did. Perhaps he would still be with the team if he hadn’t quit on them in season finale, but it was clear he was past fed up with how Philbin and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor were using him, as well as Tannehill’s frustrating inability to get him the ball in the deep third of the field. Then there is the case of Brian Hartline, who went from consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and a $31 million contract to a torn PCL and being cut from the team. Now the Dolphins will rely on Parker (already injured), Stills, Jennings, Jarvis Landry and Rishard Matthews to make up for their departures. It will be very interesting to see if this bunch is an upgrade over 2014.
8) Is Joe Philbin the right man for the job?
Owner Steve Ross knew he was hiring a rookie head coach when he tapped Philbin in 2012, and that’s exactly what he got. Philbin’s a good man and a good teacher, but is he a good leader? His learning curve has been painful and, at times, very public. There’s been an absence of signature wins during his tenure and he presided over one of the most embarrassing episodes in team history (“bullygate”). Over his first three seasons we’ve heard claims of individual player development, but haven’t seen that translate into team wins on the field. And winning is how a head coach should be judged. This is Year Four for Philbin to prove himself; he will be on the hot seat if the Dolphins aren’t tracking early on towards the postseason.
9) Is Kevin Coyle the right man for the job?
Coyle, the team’s oft-criticized defensive coordinator, oversaw a unit that suffered continuous breakdowns as the season rolled on. Some players openly blamed his schemes, which wasn’t always the case. Yet there were times in the season where Coyle asked his guys to do things they weren’t good at, and he was robustly and fairly criticized for his decisions in the wake of painful losses to the Packers and Lions which went a long way to costing a postseason berth. Philbin’s answer for 2015? More Coyle but a thinner, simplified playbook. The slimmer playbook, together with Philbin’s love for “kodaking” (calling timeouts to reset his defense in response to a snapshot of what the offense may do) suggests there was a lack of faith in the preparation of the players to do their jobs. If true, shame on the coaches and shame on those players. Now that there has been a good amount of turnover with starters and key reserves, and a simplification of schemes, let’s see if there is improvement. This is one of the career decisions that Philbin will live with, good or bad, at season’s end.
10) Will strong and respected team leaders emerge?
Philbin has been accused of crushing any semblance of locker room leadership in the past, the result of which is that the team is perceived by outsiders to be leaderless in the locker room. Philbin has yet to answer related questions in a straightforward manner, which is expected to a degree. That’s fine, but the concern remains open for 2015. Defensively, Suh is said to lead by example as his game is deeply respected. But he was absent during the optional offseason activities, which doesn’t help with chemistry. Is he what the team needs? What about Grimes and Cam Wake? Have they been effective leaders? Offensively, the obvious answer is Tannehill. But one wonders if he has amassed enough collateral and respect from his teammates to live that captain’s “C” on his chest. His new $96 million contract raised eyebrows because he hasn’t yet delivered performance commensurate with that reward. Hey, players notice this stuff too! No such questions surround C Mike Pouncey’s $52 million contract, but he is dragging some character baggage behind him that could give some followers pause. For any successful team, a solid core of veteran leadership is essential. Do the Dolphins have it?