The Dolphins’ Mission of Mediocrity

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As he enters his fourth season at the helm of the Miami Dolphins, Joe Philbin has to look back on his first three seasons with a certain appreciation for adequacy. After starting with a 7-9 mark in 2012, Philbin’s teams have gone 8-8 in both 2013 and 2014. The Dolphins have been outscored over that time frame by all of 32 points; the average score in their games under Philbin has been 21-21. They’ve been ho-hum for so long that you’re probably asking them to pipe down.

That’s all taking the longer view. Get down in the game-by-game details and you’ll recognize that the Dolphins have been a very frustrating average team over that span. It’s not as if they haven’t delivered any big wins under Philbin. They beat the Seahawks in 2012 just as Seattle was ascending into the dominant team we’ve known since. Miami has beaten the Bengals, Chargers, and Patriots two times each over the past three seasons. There are games in which the Dolphins look like they belong among the upper class of the NFL.

And yet, there have also been too many games in which the Dolphins simply haven’t shown up. Miami lost seven games between 2012 and 2013 against teams that finished the year with six wins or fewer.1 That includes the most important game from the Philbin era, a 19-0 humiliation in 2013 at the hands of the Bills in a game where the Dolphins could have clinched a playoff berth with a victory. A week later, with a second chance to stay in the hunt, they lost 20-7 to an 8-8 Jets team with a 5.4-win Pythagorean expectation. The Dolphins have the same record against the Patriots under Philbin, 2-4, as they have against the Bills.

As a franchise under owner Stephen Ross, the Dolphins have seemed to run through a series of scapegoats held up to justify their disappointing past. Exorcising them hasn’t worked. First it was Tony Sparano, who was replaced by Philbin.2 Then it was Mike Sherman, the offensive coordinator handpicked to work with his former college quarterback, Ryan Tannehill. Then general manager Jeff Ireland was thrown overboard. After that it was Jim Turner, the obstinate offensive line coach involved in the team’s bullying scandal.

Quite frankly, there isn’t anybody else left to bear the burden of disappointment. Having seen the team’s run defense evaporate during an ugly stretch in the second half of 2014, new vice-president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum went into the free-agent market and came away with the most expensive item in the shop, star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, before locking up Tannehill on a multiyear extension. They’re both going to be in Miami for the next several seasons. If the Dolphins fail to take that long-awaited step into the playoffs in 2015, the most likely candidate to hit the chopping block will be their head coach.

Florida Men

Since every Dolphins offseason seems to be about putting out the most recent year’s fires, let’s start working through the problems in Miami and see what they can do to solve them in 2015.

We can begin with an easy one. A quick look at last year’s DVOA figures notes that Miami was eighth-best on offense and 17th on defense. Both figures were pretty respectable for a team that finished 15th in overall DVOA.

How do eight and 17 add up to 15? Oh, there’s one other component to DVOA, isn’t there? That small matter of special teams was a huge concern last season for the Dolphins, who finished last in special teams DVOA, with those units costing 30.4 points worth of field position. The only place the Dolphins were above league average was on kick returns, and there, the Jarvis Landry–led return corps was all of 0.1 points ahead of the average.

Even worse, the Dolphins were actually incredibly lucky with how bad their opponents were on aspects of special teams over which Miami had no influence. Football Outsiders keeps track of a “hidden” special teams metric that incorporates things like kickoff and punt distance against each team, as well as the field goal percentage produced by kickers against given teams. Through no skill of their own, the Dolphins managed to “hold” opposing kickers to a 76.5 percent conversion rate on field goals,3 the second-lowest figure in the league behind the Buccaneers.

While there’s no way to sustain that sort of blind luck on special teams from year to year,4 the good news for Miami fans is that special teams is by far the most inconsistent aspect of football. Special teams is hardly random in terms of skill, but the significantly smaller sample size lends itself to wider variance in terms of performance on an annual basis. Even if the Dolphins don’t have better talent on special teams in 2015, they’re likely to get a better performance from their players out of sheer chance.

Well, pay attention to the word “likely” in that sentence. I’m not really sure what’s going on with the Dolphins and kicker Caleb Sturgis. Last year, Miami’s kicking woes made up the majority of those special teams problems, and Sturgis was primarily to blame. He went 29-for-37 (78.4 percent) on field goals, the 27th-best percentage in the league for a kicker with 20 or more tries, and an ugly figure in an era when kickers are more accurate than they’ve ever been. Football Outsiders, which adjusts those figures for distance and location, says Sturgis was 8.8 points worse than an average kicker last season on field goals and extra points, the second-worst rate behind Detroit’s band of mistakes at kicker.

Miami was even worse on kickoffs, with its 12.6 points below average the worst rate in the league. It’s unfair to pin all of that on Sturgis, since Miami’s kickoff coverage obviously comes into play there, but he didn’t help the cause. He was 25th (among kickers who had at least 20 kickoffs) in touchback percentage at 43.5 percent, while he also booted one kickoff out of bounds.

On one hand, you would expect Sturgis to get better in 2015. Kicking accuracy is wildly inconsistent from year to year, and while kickoff distance tends to be a far stickier statistic, Sturgis was 13th in touchback percentage as a rookie in 2014. But assuming he’ll improve also assumes he’s already exhibited some level of NFL competency in terms of his accuracy, and that may not be true with the 2013 fifth-rounder. It’s still a sample of just two seasons, but Sturgis has hit just 77.5 percent of his 71 field goal attempts. The only regular kicker worse over that time frame has been Sebastian Janikowski (76.9 percent).

Oh, and one other concern with Sturgis: his health. He struggled with groin problems in each of his first two training camps, and while that hasn’t been an issue this summer, a quad injury left him as a question mark heading into training camp. It wasn’t just any quad injury, though; Sturgis hurt himself playing kickball. And it wasn’t some illicit underground kickball game that his contract clearly forbade him from attending out of fear of injury, but in a team-building activity.

So if the Dolphins do decide they want to move on from Sturgis this offseason, they might run into an NFLPA grievance. That’s more than anyone bargained for with the Miami kicking game, but it matters. For a team perennially on the verge of the postseason like the Dolphins, a good kicker could very well be the difference between football or golf in January.

Second Swoon

I mentioned the run defense issues the Dolphins dealt with during the season’s second half as part of their reason for signing Suh. Let’s check out their defensive DVOA splits for the first (Weeks 1-9) and second (Weeks 10-17) halves of the season to see how they shifted:

Just a tiny change, then. While the run defense received most of the attention for the downright awfulness over a three-week stretch — with the Dolphins allowing 661 rushing yards to the Broncos, Jets, and Ravens — it recovered some as the season finished up. I can’t say the same about the pass defense. Here’s what their raw numbers looked like:

I mean, it’s hard to imagine this was even the same team. The Dolphins made the opposing quarterback look like Derek Carr for the first eight games of the year and Drew Brees for the final eight. It’s true they faced a tougher run of quarterbacks during that second half, but DVOA adjusts for opponent strength, and the Dolphins look awful even after that adjustment.

What happened to this once-elite unit? The biggest drop-off came in terms of takeaways. You can see that Miami’s interception totals didn’t change all that much from the first half to the next, but the team stopped forcing fumbles. Dolphins opponents fumbled 15 times in their first eight games, with Miami recovering nine. During the final eight games, they fumbled just four times, with Miami recovering two. In all, the Dolphins created 18 takeaways during their first eight games, producing two or more in six of those eight games. During the brutal second half, Kevin Coyle’s group forced just seven turnovers, never once nabbing two in a single game.

The pass rush also fell off. The Dolphins had the league’s fifth-best sack rate through eight games, at 7.6 percent; although it doesn’t seem like a huge drop to fall to 5.1 percent, that was enough to bounce them all the way down to the league’s seventh-worst rate during the second half. Star pass-rusher Cameron Wake mostly kept up his end of the bargain, with 6.5 sacks in the first half and five in the second, but the team around him simply stopped getting to the quarterback. Only the Bengals pressured quarterbacks less frequently in the second half than the Dolphins.

And when you have a defense that isn’t pressuring a quarterback and isn’t creating takeaways, it’s going to take an awfully great coverage unit to lock down the field. The Dolphins didn’t have that last year, and teams ate them alive when the pressure disappeared. Miami was roughly league-average on third down during the first half of the season, but it fell apart during the second half. Teams needed only 6.4 yards to pick up first downs against the Dolphins (the league’s fifth-lowest average), and they managed to convert on 48.1 percent of their tries. Only the Saints, at 48.2 percent, were worse.

Taking all of that into account, you can understand why the Dolphins wanted to bring in a monstrous force on the interior like Suh. The former Nebraska star has never missed a game because of injury, with his two absences in 2011 coming as a result of a suspension after that infamous stomp on Evan Smith. He also doesn’t seem to fade or require much rest; Suh played 81.4 percent of his team’s defensive snaps last season, more than any other 4-3 defensive tackle.5 It was his third straight season suiting up for more than 80 percent of Detroit’s defensive snaps.

I can’t fault the Dolphins for signing Suh, but as I wrote about when Miami signed him in March, I’m skeptical that he’ll solve all of Miami’s problems overnight. He’s been great from the moment he stepped into the league, and he was the best player on one of the NFL’s best defenses last season, but those team accolades haven’t always been the case; Detroit was 24th in defensive DVOA and 26th against the run as recently as 2012. That isn’t at all to say that Suh was the problem with those teams, but he can’t single-handedly make a defense great on his own. The Texans were 18th in defensive DVOA in 2013 with J.J. Watt lining up for them; no defensive player can do it by himself.

Suh also offers the Dolphins another excellent pass-rusher to play alongside their duo of Wake and Olivier Vernon. Suh’s talent and tape clearly show that he’s an absolute wrecking ball in the middle that interior linemen have neither the athleticism nor strength to handle, but that talent hasn’t always translated into production. Suh’s sack numbers are relatively consistent, but his quarterback knockdown figures — a better measure of how frequently a defensive player is disrupting the offense — are more erratic:

There’s no question Suh will make the players around him better. I just don’t know how effective we should expect those players to be. His mammoth contract6 and the franchise’s previous cap concerns prevented the Dolphins from adding much in the way of talent around their new tackle. Miami will have to hope that 2013 second-rounder Jamar Taylor, 2013 third-rounder Will Davis, and journeyman Brice McCain can form a reliable cornerback rotation in the spots across from veteran star Brent Grimes. There’s little depth at defensive end, and oft-injured safety Louis Delmas tore his ACL again in today’s practice. And Miami’s linebackers are basically a guess; it will hope to get a full campaign out of Koa Misi, who hasn’t made it through 16 games since 2010, while cycling through the likes of Jelani Jenkins, Spencer Paysinger, and Chris McCain at the other linebacker spots.

I would even say there are reasons to worry about the stars in Miami’s fold, if only because they’re older than you think. Wake has been in the NFL for only six seasons, but it’s easy to forget he came out of Penn State in 2005, in the same draft year as DeMarcus Ware and Shawne Merriman, before toiling in the CFL. There were 16 linebackers taken in the first three rounds of that draft, and 13 of them are retired. The 33-year-old Wake hasn’t slipped much and can still take over games, as he did against the Patriots in last year’s opener, but it would be unfair to count on him to be just as good as he was in years past. He’s far closer to the end of his career than he is to its beginning.

It’s even time to start wondering how long Grimes will be able to keep it up. He’s another one of those Russell Wilsonesque players who have made a career out of proving wrong those people who doubt him because of his stature, but the track record for cornerbacks on the wrong side of 30 is messy. It’s true of all corners as they get older, and Grimes has been a worthy Pro Bowl selection during each of his first two seasons in Miami, but he’s also a 32-year-old cornerback with a torn Achilles in his recent past. There’s no reason to think he’ll be bad, but it would be natural for him to slip a bit from the lofty heights of 2013 and 2014.

By going with a stars-and-scrubs approach on defense, the Dolphins are leaving themselves little margin for error. They basically need Suh, Wake, and Grimes to play like three of the best players at their positions while requiring the likes of Misi, Vernon, and Reshad Jones to stay healthy and productive. That’s not out of the question, of course, and relying on guys who played well to keep playing well is a lot better than hoping that middling players will turn into worthwhile contributors overnight.7 This is just a high-risk, high-reward strategy. And as was the case in 2014, expect there to be stretches when the Dolphins look very good on defense mixed in with weeks when they look downright abysmal.

Off Topic

Which leaves the offense, a unit that was far more consistent and effective than its brethren on the other side of the football. Bill Lazor’s first season as offensive coordinator has to be considered a success. The Dolphins went three-and-out on a league-low 13.5 percent of drives last year and finished eighth in offensive DVOA, up from 18th the previous year.

Having found success, Miami promptly blew the offense up. Six of the 11 players who started for the Dolphins on offense against the Patriots during that 33-20 win in last year’s opener are no longer on the roster. Nearly 58 percent of the passes Tannehill threw last season went to players who aren’t in camp with this year’s team, including four of his top five receivers. There’s all sorts of change happening here.

In a vacuum, you wouldn’t be too upset about the changes Miami made with its offense. If Kenny Stills isn’t as effective of a wide receiver as Mike Wallace, the dramatic difference between their cap hits (nearly $11.5 million if Wallace had stayed on his deal in Miami) more than makes up the difference. First-rounder DeVante Parker certainly profiles as a more explosive no. 2 wideout than Brian Hartline. The shell of Greg Jennings would be an upgrade on Brandon Gibson after the latter tore his patellar tendon. And while Charles Clay took a huge offer sheet from the Bills, even his best season with Miami falls well short of what Jordan Cameron did for the Browns in 2013, and that was while catching passes from Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden.

And yet you can raise realistic doubts about most of those options. Stills was super-efficient as a deep receiver in New Orleans, but that was with Brees, and second wideouts in great offenses tend to produce sob stories elsewhere. Parker underwent surgery in July to replace the screw inserted in his foot last year; even if he’s healthy enough to suit up in Week 1, he’ll have missed most of his final season at Louisville and all of the preseason with an ailing foot. And Cameron has suffered concussions in each of the last three seasons, with a shoulder injury helping limit him to just 24 catches in 10 games last year. I guess you can count on Jennings, as much as you want to do that in 2015.

It’s also reasonable to be concerned about Tannehill’s offensive line. It would have been impossible for last year’s group to be anything but a massive upgrade on the Superfund site that failed to protect Tannehill in 2013, but they developed their own problems as the season went along. Most of them stemmed from star left tackle Branden Albert, the team’s big-ticket free agent from last offseason, tearing his ACL in the middle of November.

This year, while Albert is expected to return for the beginning of the season, it’s impossible to say whether he’ll be as effective. It would be fair to expect more from 2014 first-rounder Ja’Wuan James in his second season on the right side, and center Mike Pouncey will return to his more familiar spot at the pivot, but guard remains a major question mark. The Dolphins look like they’ll roll with third-rounders Dallas Thomas (2013) and Billy Turner (2014); Thomas wasn’t very good last season, while Turner barely played. The Dolphins have been linked all offseason with former Eagles guard Evan Mathis, and while Thomas and Turner could develop into something, it’s a surprise Miami hasn’t come to terms with Mathis on a short-term deal.

If the Dolphins can get their offensive line sorted out, they should have a hell of a running game, and one they should rely on more frequently in 2015. They were second in rushing DVOA last season, which seems impossible for a rushing attack that flew almost entirely underneath the radar. Part of that is because their best games came 16 weeks apart, with a 191-yard performance against the Patriots in Week 1 and a 179-yard day against the Jets in a meaningless Week 17 game, highlighted by Lamar Miller housing one from 97 yards out. The offensive line deserves a lot of credit for that, as the average Dolphins run saw their back untouched for 3.17 yards, the second-highest rate behind the Chiefs.

The other part is that the Dolphins really didn’t run the ball very frequently. My favorite quick-and-dirty measure of what a team wants to do on offense is what it chooses to call on first-and-10 while the game is within 14 points. Miami ran the ball just 43.9 percent of the time in those situations, the third-lowest rate in the league — only the Bears and Eagles threw the ball more often.

When they did run the ball on those first downs, though, the Dolphins averaged 5.1 yards per carry, the league’s third-best average. Granted, that includes Miller’s 97-yard touchdown run, but take that out and they’re still at 4.6 yards per carry, which would have been good enough for 12th. (And they would rise even higher if you took out everyone else’s top carry, too.) It’s obviously not an accident the Dolphins ran the ball so infrequently, and they would lose some rushing efficiency if they chose to run it more consistently, but it seems like the equilibrium point leans toward a more run-heavy approach than the one they executed in 2014.

It seems difficult to get nearly 4,000 words in on a team without discussing the quarterback, and that’s especially true of this franchise in years past, but we’ve gotten to the point where Tannehill isn’t the thing that needs to improve for this Dolphins team to make the leap into the playoffs. While his numbers were inflated some last year by shorter throws (as I wrote about in discussing his contract extension earlier this offseason), he’s become an effective enough quarterback to be part of the solution leading a team into January. His eventual upside still remains a question mark, but given how many issues you can raise with the rest of the Dolphins roster, he’s well down the line. Tannehill will be here in 2016. Philbin may only join him if some of the more pressing questions about this team go his way.

This article has been updated after the news of Louis Delmas’s ACL tear.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Preview, Miami Dolphins, Joe philbin, Ndamukong Suh, Ryan Tannehill

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell