JACKSONVILLE -- There was some wringing of hands at Dolphins camp early in the week about the run defense having a bad game in the preseason opener and the tackling being shoddy and the unit failing the training camp assignment of causing turnovers.
Think of that as the shiny mostly unimportant object in one hand deflecting attention from the other hand that holds the true key to the coming season.
So what’s that thing in the other hand?
The Dolphins offense.
This team, you see, cannot make a leap from a loser that plays hard and comes close but never actually wins big until that offense starts doing its part.
This team will not get to the playoffs this year because the defense is good. The defense was playoff-good last year in allowing fewer points than 25 other teams and the Dolphins not only didn’t smell the playoffs, but couldn’t even reach .500.
The reason that happened is because the flip side of that solid defense was an offense that was, well, terrible.
Miami was 27th in the league in scoring while managing only 18 points per game. That paltry number is deficient but it glowed as embarrassing because the Dolphins play in the same division as the New England Patriots and they scored nearly 35 points per game.
So it’s the offense that was the primary target of stocking and improving and tweaking this offseason. It’s the offense that got the team’s highest-priced free agent addition. It’s the offense that got much attention because it will decide what kind of team the Dolphins will be this year.
The defense will be good. There’s little question of that.
How good the offense is will tell us how good or bad this season will be.
That’s the reason last week was such a disappointment and Friday night was something of a relief.
The Dolphins starting offense was not good in the preseason opener against Dallas. How else to describe a fumble on the first play from scrimmage and no points on the scoreboard?
But this game against the Jacksonville Jaguars was better. In this 27-3 victory, the starting offense showed improvement. It showed a certain amount of resilience. It suggested there is a chemistry building between quarterback Ryan Tannehill and one of his newly added receiving weapons.
And, best of all, the unit put up points.
All this despite a tough start that also showed much hard work is still necessary.
Let’s start there. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said he wanted his team to “start fast” when he was asked what he most wanted to see against the Jaguars.
The offense failed in that respect. Tannehill and company went three-and-out in the first series and those three plays were so bad, it was fair to exhale because Tannehill emerged alive.
Tannehill, obviously aware his offensive line is a proverbial work in progress, seemed uncertain and insecure standing in the pocket. He doesn’t seem to trust his protection and probably for good reason.
While the embattled left side of the unit, particularly left tackle Jonathan Martin, seemed to hold up well, the right side of the offensive line, particularly starting right guard Josh Samuda, couldn’t keep Tannehill from being hit repeatedly.
It was a sign of regression for Samuda, who has impressed coaches with great practice habits and solid work the past three weeks.
Samuda’s struggle adds urgency to the rehabilitation work the team is doing with John Jerry, who has missed nearly three weeks with a knee injury. The Dolphins hope Jerry will be back in a week or two. Based on this game, they need him healthy and in shape as soon as possible.
The offense also didn’t get a breakout moment from Lamar Miller, something he needs to solidify his grasp on the starting running back job.
Last week, Miller fumbled on his first carry but recovered strongly with a couple of good gains. This week, he avoided the disastrous turnover but also didn’t have a moment that showed he’s definitely the opening day back. Miller rushed only twice for 6 yards.
Miller could use a couple of solid quarters before any Dolphins coach puts his name in the starting lineup.
The good news?
Despite struggling the first three possessions, Tannehill seemed to find his footing on the fourth. He completed a 22-yard pass to Dustin Keller that would seem new to anyone that hasn’t been at practice.
Folks who have watched practice, meanwhile, have seen Tannehill and his new tight-end bond with each passing workout. That seam pass they completed in the game has been completed numerous times in practice.
And it isn’t a stretch to think you’ll see it over and over again when the real games begin. Indeed, it says here Keller will be Miami’s leading receiver this season because he is very good at getting open quickly, which quarterbacks love, and he’s still something of a mismatch for the defense, which they hate.
The Tannehill-Keller connection delivered the preseason’s first TD for the starting offense and that came on another 22-yarder that was a fine rolling catch by the tight end.
Interestingly, Tannehill has a kinship with Keller that he’s yet to show with receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace played his first preseason game and didn’t catch a pass, but that’s just a statistic. The interesting thing is that Tannehill didn’t seem to look much in Wallace’s direction either because he was hurried or felt more comfortable going elsewhere with the ball.
That will change. Tannehill to Wallace will come. Actually, it must come if the Miami offense is to be appreciably better this year.
It must come for the offense to start pulling its own weight and helping the team win.