In My Opinion

Miami Dolphins’ progress evident at halfway mark

 
WEB VOTE Do you think the Dolphins can overtake the Patriots and win the AFC East?

asalguero@MiamiHerald.com

How are you going to grade the Dolphins? Are you going to grade on the curve because the quarterback is a rookie, the coach is in his first season and the culture is new? Or are you going grade like a chemistry professor in a foul mood because this team has tormented you for years, the roster has been made and remade a couple of times and you want a turnaround and great results, like, yesterday?

I’m going to grade the Dolphins now.

And I’m neither going to grade like your nightmare teacher nor on the curve. I’m going to grade the same way Dolphins coaches grade the team, the way players grade themselves and the way the NFL grades everyone.

Based on results.

Let’s stipulate that portions of this roster are still flawed, that the receiver corps needs someone to blow the top off the defense and the defense needs playmakers to keep from getting its top blown off.

I understand Ryan Tannehill has only eight NFL starts to go with his 19 in college. I know the offensive line is still trying to gel and linebackers have been playing with various injuries.

But mostly I know the Dolphins are 4-4 at the season’s halfway point. And although that’s better than many observers (me included) thought they would be, better than expected is still not great.

If you ask coach Joe Philbin, he might not even agree his team is better than expected. He believes, rightly, the Dolphins are neither exceptional nor exceptionally bad.

“I don’t know that anything’s necessarily exceeded my expectations so far,” Philbin said. “I’m not in the tank about any one specific thing, but we expect our guys to play well. As I said to our team … we’ve had some really good film, we’ve had some average film and we’ve had some bad film.

“And that’s why we’re 4-4.”

The Dolphins are a construction site. They are building something. And they are showing good progress.

But much work remains and the job might take several more years. That won’t help this team that has only eight more games together, but there is optimism throughout the organization. Folks believe the future looks bright.

Perhaps that more than their place in the standings or their final record will be this group’s legacy.

The midseason grades:

Offense

The bottom line here is points and the Dolphins are averaging 21.3 per game, which is slightly higher than the 20.6 they averaged last season. The running game was impressive early but has struggled the past month. The passing game is better than a season ago by 25 yards per game. This unit has yet to close out a game with a game-winning drive nor has it ended an opponent’s hopes with a successful four-minute drill to protect the lead. But the group isn’t a turnover machine, nor are mistakes a constant malady. Grade: C.

Quarterback

Tannehill is not yet the championship solution but he already has proved he isn’t the problem. “I don’t know that he has exceeded our expectations,” Philbin said. “I think he is playing well. I think his last four or five games have been better. I’m very pleased with his decision-making at this stage of the game, but we have high expectations from the quarterback position.” That’s progress at this position, because for years, Miami fans suffered with quarterbacks that simply weren’t up to the job. Tannehill, a rookie, doesn’t often make throws that cause baldness. He doesn’t throw into double coverage. He doesn’t sling wildly downfield hoping something good happens. He doesn’t always read the open receiver and doesn’t throw players open, but his accuracy is improving, his footwork is more consistent, and he is a hard worker during the week. Grade: B-minus.

Running backs

Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas complement each other well, with Bush providing the speed and elusiveness and Thomas the bulk. Bush started fast and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season. But his rushing average is down from a year ago and he has not been the explosive mismatch as a receiver that some expected. Thomas has struggled with injuries and a couple of fumbles. His rushing average also isn’t extraordinary at 3.4 yards per carry. But he has done damage on screens and had good moments in goal-line situations. Lamar Miller is basically being redshirted so far. Grade: C.

Receiver/Tight end

The Dolphins have six passing touchdowns and that is tied for the fewest in the NFL. That doesn’t mean receivers are bad or the quarterback is bad. It means all of them have to pick up the pace because the NFL remains a passing league and wins are determined by which team scores the most touchdowns. That said, Brian Hartline is on his way to a career-best 1,200-yard season and Davone Bess could get close to 1,000. The Dolphins still need a third receiver option to emerge, whether its Anthony Fasano, Charles Clay or Jabar Gaffney. All three have had moments but none has been consistent enough to be a defense’s worry every week. The good news is this group has dependable hands. Dropped passes have been rare since Legedu Naanee was cut. Grade: B-minus.

Offensive line

Jake Long has not been elite this season. That doesn’t mean he has been bad, but he simply hasn’t played up to his previous levels. Left guard Richie Incognito was recently voted the NFL’s second-dirtiest player by a poll of his peers, but aside from that, he has neither been consistently great nor consistently poor. Mike Pouncey is consistently very good. He’s Miami’s best offensive lineman. Pouncey has taken John Jerry under his wing and the right guard has improved from the past two seasons. Jerry is still mostly an average player. Right tackle Jonathan Martin had a poor preseason and wasn’t very good early in the year, but he’s much better now and his ceiling is high once he gets stronger and more experienced. “There is some very good play from our offensive line,” Philbin said. “There is some okay play and there is some not very good, and that’s why I think we are 4-4. They’re part of that.” Grade: C-plus.

Defense

Is this unit very good or has the competition been so bad that it gives us a false read on the truth? Well, consider the Dolphins have played one game against a team (Houston) that is among the top 10 in scoring. They have played five games against teams ranked in the bottom third (20-32) of the league for points scored. That said, the Dolphins have been outstanding on third-down efficiency, excellent against the run and they have not surrendered a lot of points — indeed, they’re the sixth-stingiest unit in the NFL. Grade: B.

Defensive line

Cameron Wake has already equaled his sack total from a season ago (thank you, Bobby Massie!) and has been surprisingly good holding the edge on run plays. Paul Soliai has been a rock on the inside and Randy Starks is a fine combination of inside pass rush and good inside run defense. The rest is a work-in-progress. Jared Odrick is a good run defender but hasn’t developed his pass rush enough to turn the Pee-wee Herman dance into a staple. He has two sacks. Tony McDaniel has struggled staying healthy and durability is a crucial factor for players. Olivier Vernon is learning and his pass rush has slowly improved, but he’s a liability on run defense. In the second half, the one-man gang needs more help. Grade: B.

Linebackers

Karlos Dansby is on his way to his most productive season in Miami. He’s on track for 120 tackles and has been around the football more than in the past. Kevin Burnett similarly has played well against the run and often wins in coverage against running backs. Koa Misi, miscast as a 3-4 outside linebacker, is finding a home as a 4-3 OLB more responsible for setting the edge of the run defense. He also has been effective with the occasional surprise blitz. None has made a game-deciding play. All have played, well, solid. Grade: C-plus.

Secondary

Richard Marshall’s first season with Miami was a complete bust. He struggled in the four games he played and then missed four games before going on injured reserve — remember that durability is a crucial factor in judging players. Sean Smith was excellent in shutting down A.J. Green and Larry Fitzgerald, but had a particularly bad game in Indianapolis. Nolan Carroll has improved compared to the past couple of seasons and is actually playing better than Marshall did. Jimmy Wilson, a late-round pick last year, started the season as a safety but depth issues have forced him to play as the nickel. He has struggled. Reshad Jones has been solid and has delivered a couple of turnovers, which is what the Dolphins have expected the past couple of seasons. Chris Clemons also has been around the ball more than in the past but he is something of a liability in coverage. His angles to receivers or ball-carriers are sometimes curious. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams

Dan Carpenter had a very shaky time in late September and it could be argued he cost the Dolphins games against the New York Jets and Arizona. But he has recovered nicely, connecting on six consecutive attempts. The rest of the special-teams play has been stellar. Vernon has a couple of blocked field goals and has a recovered punt for a touchdown. Wilson blocked a punt. Marcus Thigpen started his NFL career with a 72-yard punt-return touchdown. They have tried and successfully executed an onside kick. Oh, and Brandon Fields is among the best punters in the NFL. Grade: A-minus.

Coaching

Philbin is never too high or too low. He didn’t panic through a winless preseason. He didn’t celebrate during a three-game win streak. And his team has adopted his personality, which is a sign players are following their coach. The Dolphins have put together a solid, veteran staff that has players such as Hartline, Jerry, and Carroll playing better than in the past whereas rookies Tannehill, Martin and Vernon have contributed to one degree or another. There have been some questions about late-game play calling on offense, but overall, this coaching staff puts a team on the field that is prepared and disciplined. Grade: B-plus.

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