Jake Long is the leading Pro Bowl vote-getter among NFL offensive tackles, so, barring a collapse of support from fans and his peers the next few weeks, he’s headed back to the same all-star game to which he has been voted every season he’s been in the NFL.
That suggests Long is as good as he has ever been.
It also leads you to think the Dolphins should be feeling pretty good about having Long as their franchise left tackle and one of their cornerstone players.
Except that’s only the surface view of things and although all might seem fine to the Pro Bowl voters, all is most definitely not fine.
The truth is Long has not been playing up to his previous standards. The truth is Long is in the third season of a progressive decline because he played better in 2009 than in 2010, he played better in 2010 than 2011 and this has been his worst season so far.
Publicly, Long is putting on a good face and chiseled chin on his troubles. When he was asked this week if he’s playing as well now as last season he said, “yes,” without hesitation.
But privately, everyone knows that isn’t right. The truth is Long’s play has fallen so far off from an elite level he is more often mired in mediocrity than lifted up in excellence.
He has allowed four sacks this season.
His run-blocking grades have rarely been the best among Miami’s offensive linemen. He no longer is playing like the best tackle in the NFL. He’s not even playing like the best tackle in his conference (Houston’s Duane Brown is that) or division (D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nate Solder have been better).
The illustrations of Long’s 2012 struggles are startling and almost painful to watch.
You saw him struggle against Indianapolis linebacker Dwight Freeney in a loss to the Colts. Long could not consistently keep up with Freeney’s quickness and spin move, and gave up a sack, a couple of pressures and also committed a false-start penalty.
Afterward, Long made the point that Freeney is a great player who has given many offensive tackles difficult days.
That was true five years ago. Now Freeney is 32 years old and that sack against Long was his only one in November. He has two sacks this season and that ranks him tied for 97th in the NFL.
Anyone paying attention during the loss to Buffalo also saw the painful moment when Long was collapsed to his knees by Shawne Merriman on an outside run play. The play has been replayed multiple times on TV and if you saw it, you understand something is definitely not the same when it comes to Long.
And all that presents the Dolphins with a major issue:
What to do with their cornerstone player if the cornerstone continues cracking.
The only reason this is an issue is because everything with Long is relative. No, he has not been as good as he was three seasons ago. But he’s still a solid player.
No, he has not been elite, but he’s still worth keeping.
The trouble comes when you consider the price of keeping Long. When he signed his rookie contract, he became the NFL’s highest-paid offensive tackle. And that was fine at the time because he played like the NFL’s best offensive tackle.
Long was so good so fast that the final year of his contact was voided because he exceeded play-time parameters in the deal. So that means he is an unrestricted free agent after this season.