Dolphins try to translate on-paper expectations to real-life success
DAVIE, Fla. -- The hype and hope of the offseason spending spree was fun while it lasted, but the Miami Dolphins are slogging through a much tougher stage of 2013 at the moment. They're at that point where they're trying to take what looked so good on paper this spring and turn it into tangible results in the fall. They're doing the hard work of trying to build a team and forge their new offensive identity, and unsurprisingly, it's not all going as swimmingly as free agency did.
In the NFL, "winning'' big in the talent acquisition portion of the offseason is rarely a harbinger or guarantee of happy days ahead. At least immediately ahead. Ask the 2011 Eagles. Or the 2012 Buffalo team that thought Mario Williams was the missing piece on defense. It just doesn't work that way, and the Dolphins might be the latest example that money can't buy you instant chemistry or cohesion. In the day I spent at Miami's camp last week, I heard a half-dozen variations on the same theme: We're still trying to get on the same page, and we're very much a work in progress.
At least the Dolphins, who went 7-9 and finished second in the AFC East last season, their 10th non-playoff finish in 11 years, aren't deluding themselves. March was productive, and the league's worst receiving corps got dramatically better, but the headlines are long forgotten once you start work between the sidelines.
"We're really in the formative stage and still trying to figure out who our 53 guys are,'' Miami's second-year head coach Joe Philbin said. "Our guys understand in professional football you have to earn everything you get, and you have to compete for everything you get. That's kind of how we've framed it. We haven't patted ourselves on the back in the team meeting room, 'Hey, we had a great offseason so we're going to go out and play well.' We've got a lot of work to do to get there.''
It's not so much the Dolphins defense that has the heavy lifting to do this summer. The unit was already fairly stout last year to begin with, and Miami added some quality free agents on that side of the ball -- linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler and cornerback Brent Grimes -- who should increase the Dolphins' speed and athleticism. In the draft, the defense got more help with the addition of one of the premier pass rushers available, defensive end Dion Jordan of Oregon, who went third overall, as well as a pair of cornerbacks in Boise State's Jamar Taylor and Utah State's Will Davis in rounds 2 and 3, respectively. Davis, especially, has been an upgrade out of this year's draft class, while Taylor struggled to stay healthy and on the field early in camp.
But the Dolphins offense, ranked 27th in the league last season with 18 points per game, has managed only baby steps so far this preseason. Last week's 27-3 win at Jacksonville represented definite progress compared to Miami's sloppy Hall of Fame Game loss to Dallas in its early opener, but the pace of fully integrating high-priced deep-threat receiver Mike Wallace, play-making tight end Dustin Keller and reliable slot receiver Brandon Gibson -- all free-agent additions -- into the passing game has been relatively slow.
Wallace missed a good chunk of camp with a groin injury before returning last week and hasn't yet provided the vertical threat that Miami was in dire need of last season, when it had just 42 pass plays of 20-plus-yards, ranking 24th overall. He and second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill simply haven't had enough time to work on their passing-game rapport, though Keller and Gibson have started to make their presence felt, with Keller catching a 22-yard touchdown pass from Tannehill in the win against the Jaguars.
"On paper, and those are the key words there, we have all the pieces you would need in your passing game,'' said Keller, the former Jet who has an excellent shot to emerge as Tannehill's best friend (ie, go-to target) in this offense. "We have a deep threat in Mike, a possession guy in [holdover] Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson holding down the slot. With me playing tight end. It looks great on paper, but if you're not putting in the work, it means nothing. You'll be as bad as the worst team if you don't go out there and make it happen. We know it's going to take a lot more than just bringing in a few key free agents in order for it to carry over into the season. I can see what this offense can be, but we're not quite there yet.''
The Dolphins had little choice but to go out and renovate their dreadful receiving game after trading Brandon Marshall to Chicago last year. No Miami receiver had more than one touchdown catch last season (Hartline and the departed Devone Bess had one each). After drafting Tannehill eighth overall last season out of Texas A&M, the Dolphins needed to get him more weapons if he is to make good on offensive coordinator Mike Sherman's prediction that he'll "be the most improved quarterback in the National Football League from Year 1 to Year 2.''
The day I was in Dolphins camp, Tannehill had his worst showing of the summer, throwing three interceptions and looking indecisive after going five or six consecutive practices without tossing a pick. He rebounded in the preseason game in Jacksonville, but his accuracy and touch on the vertical patterns that are Wallace's specialty need improvement and repetition. He's got an arm that's plenty strong enough to reach that part of the field, but that part of Tannehill's game didn't get a lot of work last season because the Dolphins had no true deep threat.
"We left plays on the field all over last year, not just on the vertical stuff,'' said Tannehill, who threw nine interceptions in his first nine starts as a rookie, but then had just four in his final six games. "I missed some throws and it was definitely an area I wanted to work on. To bring in a speed receiver, a guy who can get vertical like Mike, it's going to really help us. I'm looking forward to airing it out.''
Even with the new playmakers in the receiving game, don't look for Miami to throw it 50 times a game, Philbin said. The Dolphins want balance on offense and plan to run the ball plenty with new starting tailback Lamar Miller, the team's fourth-round pick in 2012. Miami trusts its defense enough to play a field position game with solid punting and kicking on special teams.
But can the Dolphins trust their remodeled offensive line to protect Tannehill long enough to find Wallace on those game-changing deep balls? Early on, the shift of second-year offensive tackle Jonathan Martin from the right side to the pivotal left tackle slot has required patience, with the ex-Stanford second-round pick having some rough patches in practice and in the Hall of Fame Game against the Cowboys. In addition, free-agent right guard Lance Louis has been kept off the field with a knee injury, and incumbent right guard John Jerry went down with an early camp knee injury, leaving the job for now in the hands of second-year undrafted collegiate free agent Josh Samuda.
"He's a second-year player playing the premier position and he's going against some pretty good pass rushers in practice, so they can mess with your head a little bit,'' said Sherman of Martin, and referencing Miami defensive end Cameron Wake and outside linebacker Koa Misi. "He's going to be fine. You always worry about a guy that just goes in the tank, but he doesn't go in the tank. When he gets beat, he gets ready for the next play. He'll be a work in progress going into the season, as any second-year left tackle would be for the most part. The Jonathan Ogdens and Richmond Webbs of the world are few and far between.''
Sherman could have been speaking about his entire offense with the work in progress part. Miami's roster undoubtedly stocked up this spring. But the Dolphins need time to make sure the talent upgrade translates into real improvement. It wouldn't be the first time in recent NFL memory we learned that the expectations game can fake us out. Once the real games start, the hype and hope often don't last.