The Dolphins’ offensive line, a source of instability for a decade, seemed to start smoothly enough this training camp. The offseason plan had fallen nicely into place and outside of newcomer Tyson Clabo, the same players who finished as starters in 2012 manned the other four positions.
Then right guard John Jerry injured his knee.
And the Dolphins’ stable starting front wall collapsed like the Berlin Wall.
Suddenly, rookie Dallas Thomas was promoted to left guard.
That forced moving Pro Bowl left guard Richie Incognito to right guard.
And when that didn’t seem to work exceedingly well, the experiment went another direction.
So second-year veteran Josh Samuda started working at center. And Mike Pouncey, supposedly the unit’s anchor at center, was moved to right guard. And that prompted Incognito’s return to left guard.
And then, within the same practice Sunday, Samuda moved to left guard, putting Pouncey back at center but moving Incognito back to right guard again.
Round and round the offensive line goes. Where it stops only Jerry’s knee knows.
The Dolphins hope rehabilitation will get Jerry healthy within two to four weeks, a source said. The source declined to be specific what damage Jerry sustained to the knee and whether the lineman had surgery. The Dolphins’ stated policy is not to comment on injured players.
But what if Jerry’s knee doesn’t respond to treatment?
What if the knee does respond but following weeks of missed practices Jerry, a player who has battled weight issues his entire career, isn’t conditioned well enough to contribute?
“If our guard doesn’t respond to treatment then we’re going to have make some adjustments,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said.
The adjustments would leave the Dolphins with some interesting choices that aren’t necessarily great choices.
How else to view moving Incognito, who went to the Pro Bowl as a left guard, over to right guard?
How else to view moving Pouncey, the best center in the AFC East and among the best in the conference, to guard. (Yes, Pouncey played guard at the University of Florida and was quite good at it, but he was picked in the first round to be a center and he has been for 32 consecutive starts).
How comfortable can Dolphins coaches be with such juggling?
“It’s not how comfortable I’ll be, it’s how comfortable they’ll be,” Sherman said of Incognito and Pouncey “But I think they’re both very talented and flexible if we have to go that way.”
It must be said there isn’t a great amount of worry or urgency for the Dolphins to settle on a starting unit right now. Coach Joe Philbin, a former offensive line coach, says he would like to have his starting line set by the Aug. 24 preseason game against Tampa Bay.
That means the coaching staff has at least three exhibition games to figure out which players belong on the field.
That’s a lot of time considering things are changing almost on a daily basis.
On Sunday, for example, Thomas seemed to have a good practice. Working mostly with the second-team offense after getting repetitions as a starter several days ago, he might find himself back with the starting unit as early as Monday night’s scrimmage at Sun Life Stadium.
“He stepped up a notch, in my book anyway,” Sherman said. “Hopefully, he’ll continue to grow, and since we’re a week ahead of everyone else, we’ve got a week in with him already.”
Every minute Thomas gets is important because if he does end up as the starting left guard, that side of the line will be much less experienced than it was expected to be — as left tackle Jonathan Martin and the rookie can’t boast nearly the level of experience that Martin and Incognito on the left side would.
Regardless of whether Jerry gets healthy quickly, the Dolphins expect to pick their offensive line based on the best five players. Martin and right tackle Clabo don’t seem to be going anywhere, and Pouncey and Incognito are starting, although where is not precisely known.
But it’s fair to say one starting job on the interior of the line is open with Jerry, Samuda, and Thomas currently vying for the spot.
So what will happen when all is set?
No one seems quite sure. Sherman, however, is certain that whatever lineup the Dolphins eventually pick must play better than the mixed-and-matched lines that have been practicing, and generally struggling, against a very good Miami defense so far.
“I would say the defense has had the upper hand,” Sherman said at one point. “No question.”