The State of the Miami Dolphins

January 10, 2016

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The Miami Dolphins beat their division rival and defending Super Bowl winning New England Patriots 20-10 at home last Sunday to finish their season with a 6-10 record, marking a bizarre end to an underwhelming and turbulent 50th season that saw the Dolphins win only two out of their last seven games. As a result, the Dolphins have now gone seven seasons without a playoff appearance, having only won one playoff game since 2000.

The lost 2015 Dolphins season was met with high expectations. Fourth-year starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill was coming off of his best statistical season and a six-year, $96 million contract extension. Moreover, the team hauled in a player who seemed like the most talented available player in free agency, All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, to help anchor potentially the most dominating defensive line in the NFL alongside Cameron Wake, Earl Mitchell and Olivier Vernon. Nonetheless, despite spending big money on players, having a successful draft picking up Devante Parker with the 14th pick in the first round and having a favorable early season schedule, the team never met expectations. The Dolphins seemed to be held back by bad coaching and questionable play calling.

Thus, the Dolphins fired Joe Philbin after a 1-3 start to his fourth season as head coach. Many experts attributed his inability to motivate players, his ultra conservative coaching approach, in which he and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s (fired seven weeks later) offense relied too much on Tannehill and never managed to create a run-pass balance as well as his team’s poor record (24-28 over his tenure) as primary reasons for his dismissal. Tight Ends coach Dan Campbell took over as the interim head coach and for a brief period of time, the Dolphins seemed to be heading in the right direction. Despite his ability to unite the locker room and open up the running game, the ‘Fins could not maintain the form they exhibited through their 2-0 start under Campbell.

The Dolphins entered the season with a revamped roster and the possibility to win the division with a potential Tom Brady-less Patriots (his suspension for involvement in the ‘Deflategate’ scandal was uplifted) seemed like a realistic possibility, and for that reason cautious optimism surrounded the team as training camp wrapped up in August.

Yet, as the season progressed it became evident that the team still had many glaring weaknesses in every aspect of the game. The offensive line played horrendously, yielding 45 sacks, among the most in the league. Sacks have been an issue that plagued the Dolphins throughout Ryan Tannehill’s four years, in which he has been sacked more times than any NFL quarterback. With a poor offensive line, the ability to throw deep passes is minimized, and in effect, a lack of explosive plays was a major reason for the Dolphins finishing the season with the 27th-best offense in the league, (amongst 32 teams) averaging 19.4 points per game. And with a defense that gave up 24.3 points per game and gave up the fifth-most rushing yards (2019 yards), the ‘Fins were unable to excel in any facet of the game. Unfortunately, the defensive line that was poised for greatness fizzled. Suh played well, yet not to the capabilities that he showed with his previous team, the Detroit Lions, where he led the best defensive unit in the league a year ago. Also, team captain Cameron Wake was sidelined in a week-eight loss to the Patriots, the moment that seemingly took the life out of the team. Despite these negatives, there were some bright spots.

Second-year wide receiver Jarvis Landry had the best season in franchise history at his position, catching 110 passes for 1,157 yards, becoming the first Dolphins wideout to exceed the 100 mark. Moreover, Landry now has 194 receptions over his first two seasons, the most in NFL history. Although the team found solace in Landry’s consistent performance and in beating the Patriots in week-17, these victories do not help the Dolphins in the long haul.

Had they lost, the Dolphins would have secured the sixth pick in next year’s NFL Draft, however since they won, they will have to settle for the eighth selection. While a top ten pick is bittersweet, no mixed emotions come with losing. In a city with notoriously impatient fans, Dolphins management and owner Stephen Ross not only face making the right pick in the draft; they have to find a way to sign valuable free agents with the least amount of cap room in the league and hire the right head coach, something the Dolphins believe they have accomplished. Former Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase was hired by the team on Saturday, considered by many to have been the most promising available coaching candidate in the NFL this offseason. Gase most notably called plays for the 2013 Denver Broncos, the most potent offense in league history and helped rejuvenate the aging Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. In addition to signing Gase, the Fins are currently overseeing the completion of a two-year, $450 million renovation of their team’s home, Sun Life Stadium, despite the possibility that the seats might be empty come fall despite any drastic organizational changes that may follow.

Unfortunately for the Dolphins, the problems do not end there. The management that will carry out these moves is not fully capable. Vice President of Football Operations, Mike Tannenbaum, fired General Manager Dennis Hickey and replaced him with the previous head of college scouting, Chris Grier. While this does not seem like a reason for skepticism, many analysts have concluded that these moves were purely political and that it was a way for Tannenbaum to gain full control of football operations without a struggle for power. Moreover, owner Stephen Ross is often criticized for taking a backseat by heading the Dolphin’s operation from his home in New York. He has been labeled the worst NFL owner by many analysts and is seen by many as clueless, given the fact that he had no previous ties to an NFL team; the real estate developer was nothing more than a fan before he decided to buy the team in 2008.

For the Dolphins to compete like they did during the era of Don Shula and Dan Marino, they may need a completely new front office. Like all businesses, success starts at the top. A devoted owner, insightful decision makers at the top and efficient playcalling, along with motivational coaches are key to a well-rounded NFL franchise. If the Dolphins hope to win a  Super Bowl in the near future, let alone compete for a playoff berth, they need to fix the glaring holes on and off the field that have made the franchise mediocre to bad over the last fifteen years. If not, the dysfunctional Dolphins may have to settle for the same results that disappointed fans witnessed throughout the franchise’s 50th season.  

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