There is an old but standard axiom in football: "Everything starts up front".
And so it will be for the Miami Dolphins in 2004.
The starting AND the ending.
No, I'm not talking about Jay Fiedler or A.J. Feeley. We can expect that debate to rage on all season long.
Quite frankly, it won't matter much who is playing QB if the re-built offense line cannot open holes for the running game or close them for the passing game.
This is why the performance of the NEW offensive line is THE key to Dolphin success in 2004.
The most important personnel need the Dolphins had to address this offseason was the offensive line, a unit that had taken hits due to injury, age, and free agency. New personnel boss Rick Spielman needed his "A" game in order to make the deft moves required to get the job done.
So what happened? Well, we're not really sure yet.
Here's what we do know: After a revolving door of activity that left Wade Smith as the only remaining starter from 2003, the Dolphins have decided to go into the 2004 campaign with what can only be classified as an unproven and unfamiliar group.
You won't get much of a debate here on the releases of incumbents Tim Ruddy, Jamie Nails, and Todd Perry. Ruddy and Perry had clearly succumbed to age, Nails to injury. Their collective play had deteriorated; something had to be done.
The decisions at both Tackle positions, however, warrant concern.
Thus far, Smith has not rewarded Spielman's faith. His play has been so uneven that the team is considering a change to free agent acquisition Damion McIntosh, fresh off of the Physically Unable to Perform list.
At Right Tackle, the Dolphins spent heavily (first and fourth round draft picks) on Vernon Carey, one of this year's top college prospects. At the time, this was clearly a wise move to solidify a real need. Unfortunately, things haven't panned out for Carey. Instead of glowing praise for Carey's play, we hear Coach Dave Wannstedt lauding the play of free agent signee John St. Clair.
Nothing against St. Clair, a solid player who has seized the opportunity, but Carey's absence from the starting offensive line is a disappointment. Given what they paid St. Clair, and the opportunity cost of the draft picks (and money) spent on Carey, it is fair to suggest that the Dolphins hurt themselves by not re-signing Todd Wade.
We are not even sure that St. Clair is as good as Wade. Using free agency as a barometer, the clear answer is that the Houston Texans preferred Wade enough to easily accede to his large contract demands.
In all fairness, the Dolphins did try to hook John Tait. In retrospect, one wonders if they ever had a realistic shot at him.
At Center, the Dolphins appear to have at least achieved a "push" with Seth McKinney. He's cheaper than Ruddy and is physically superior, though he is less experienced. Given some seasoning, one can see the potential upside with McKinney.
Jeno James is clearly an upgrade at Left Guard over the 2003 version of Jamie Nails (but maybe not the 2002 version). Coaches rave over James' practice habits and leadership.
Finally, at Right Guard, second year man Taylor Whitley appears to have won the job by default over Greg Jerman and, briefly, Vernon Carey. The Dolphins tried to sign Damien Woody but balked at the sky-high dollars Woody wanted. Whitley has been mostly respectable but arguably not even on par with the departed Perry, at least not at this time.
At this point, the Dolphins are beyond any reasonable hope of improving over what they currently have. The main focus now for offensive line coach Tony Wise is continuity and cohesion in ensuring that the starting five get into sync.
This is not an overnight process; it takes a number of weeks for this to take place. With all of the shuffling that has gone on, particularly on the right side of the line, it is fair to say that the offensive line is not fully prepared to face Tennessee's defense this weekend.
Spielman has decided to go the way of youth in rebuilding the Dolphin offensive line. It is his view that, given time, this young line will come together and steadily improve into an effective run-pounding and deft pass protecting unit.
Objectively, there is sound logic in this philosophy. However, this "coming together" must happen quickly if the Dolphins are to have any realistic chance at making the playoffs. As we all learned last season, even a Week 1 loss can cost a team the postseason.
If Rick is right about the choices he has made, he's a genius and the hero of all Dolphin-dom.
If he's wrong, there will be hard criticism and tough questions to answer regarding wasted first and fourth round draft picks on a player who couldn't start (Carey), as well as "penny-wise, pound foolish" free agent decisions that were made (Wade, Woody).
The Dolphins are expecting success. They just hope it doesn't take too long to come.