TIME TO DELIVER
In theory the Dolphins should contend with the Super Bowl--champion Patriots in the AFC East and be a threat for a deep playoff run—but theory is an empty word in this NFL.
Miami has made glacial progress over the past three years. After a 6--10 finish in 2011, coach Tony Sparano's final season, the Dolphins improved to 7--9 in Joe Philbin's first campaign, then to 8--8 in each of the past two. Philbin, for one, might point out that, even though last season didn't represent any improvement in terms of wins and losses, his team did go from a minus-18 point differential in '13 to plus-15 in '14.
That's progress. Slow progress.
September 7, 2015
But in perhaps the most important area, the innards that make one team a winner and another a loser, the Dolphins are still the Dolphins. Two years ago, after upsetting the Pats in Week 15, Miami was 8--6, only to fall on its face, losing its last two games by a combined score of 39--7 and missing the playoffs. Last season? Same thing. The Fins were 7--5 before—splat again—three losses in their final four games and a January spent at home.
So, here we go again. Even owner Stephen Ross, who has poured millions into renovating Sun Life Stadium and his roster, says "you're goddam right," he's getting antsy for winning results. His players and coaches know it.
Says quarterback Ryan Tannehill: "That's his expectation, that's our expectation. That's what we've been working to do. We haven't gotten it done the past few years, but I feel like we have every piece we need."
Much of the focus will be on Tannehill and whether he continues to progress, especially in a second season under coordinator Bill Lazor. Tannehill has improved in each of his three years as a starter: His completion percentage, yards, TDs and passer rating have all increased, while his interceptions dropped from his rookie total. Now he has targets to burn in veteran receivers Greg Jennings (a free-agency pickup from the Vikings) and Kenny Stills (trade with the Saints), second-year talent Jarvis Landry and 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker (Louisville), plus free-agent tight end Jordan Cameron (Browns). The line should continue to improve with the trio of left tackle Branden Albert, center Mike Pouncey and right tackle Ja'Wuan James. Running back Lamar Miller is better than most realize.
There's no justification for the offense failing. If the Dolphins are to make the move from preseason pretender to postseason contender, it's going to fall on two areas: Philbin and the defense.
Miami has lost steady ground on D, giving up more points each subsequent season under fourth-year coordinator Kevin Coyle, who was in step with Tannehill when he said in camp, "I expect us to be a dominant defense and I believe we have the pieces that can do that."
There's no bigger piece, literally and figuratively, than former Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, a four-time Pro Bowler who was given the biggest nonquarterback contract ever: $114.375 million over six years. Putting Suh—and a mix of Earl Mitchell, 2015 second-round pick Jordan Phillips (Oklahoma) and former Lion C.J. Mosley—in between standout ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon should give the Dolphins one of the league's top units.
But the linebacking corps, the lifeblood in Coyle's 4--3 defense, is a mix of young and unproven. And the secondary, outside of cornerback Brent Grimes and safety Reshad Jones, is stocked with middling veterans. This D is certainly capable of playing winning football, but it hasn't put it all together yet.
The same could be said for the entire Dolphins roster, which means that much of the pressure falls on Philbin. The former Packers offensive coordinator is already on borrowed time. With ex-Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum installed as a heavy-handed executive vice president of football operations, Philbin is now working with his third personnel chief. That's almost unheard of in this league. Tannenbaum's prints are all over these Dolphins, so it's likely playoffs or bust for Philbin.
There won't be any excuses for Miami this season. The pieces are in place on offense and, largely, on defense. The Patriots aren't as strong in the secondary, and that's a major vulnerability; the Jets and the Bills continue to deal with quarterback issues. The division's there for the Dolphins. In theory.
SI'S PREDICTION: 7--9
ANDY BENOIT ON THE DOLPHINS' RISKY INVESTMENT
Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (above) became the splashiest (read: most expensive) free-agent signing this off-season when the ex-Lion joined the Dolphins for a staggering $60 million guaranteed. Suh, it is hoped, will fortify what was already a strong pass rush (ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon are both superb off the edge) and aid a run defense that, in each of the three years under coach Joe Philbin, has worn down at season's end. With his quickness off the snap and raw physical strength, plus his keen technique and willingness to do the dirty work, Suh can redefine this defense by getting penetration and negating the need to blitz. Coordinator Kevin Coyle can now keep more bodies back in coverage. But is this really worth guaranteeing $60 million? The Dolphins remain weak in the secondary, and it will be hard to rectify this in future years. In 2016, Suh alone will take up an estimated 19.1% of Miami's salary cap. The next highest cap percentage among NFL defensive tackles belongs to the Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy, at 8.7%. The Dolphins spent megabucks to amplify a strength (their front four), but it came at the expense of multiple other weaknesses.