CLEVELAND -- Jeff Ireland escorted a visibly angry Mike Wallace toward the Dolphins locker room Sunday afternoon, the general manager’s arm locked around the player’s waist as he led him away from other people. Ireland talked to the visibly upset and sullen Wallace the entire time as Wallace shook his head in disgust until they both disappeared into the Miami locker room.
The winning locker room.
The same Dolphins locker room where everyone else would soon be celebrating.
Minutes later, a nattily dressed Jared Odrick grabbed the microphone from a TV reporter and, trying to contain his humor, turned to fellow defensive lineman Cameron Wake to conduct an interview.
Odrick promised Wake he’d ask only one question but in true media member fashion went on a four-question barrage in which the two discussed Wake’s 2 1/2 sacks, the possibilities for the defense in the future and, yes, their vastly different philosophies about pocket squares.
(Odrick is more colorful, and Wake is more conservative.)
And in these two snapshots — Wallace and Ireland on one hand, Odrick and Wake on the other — you see where the Dolphins are today.
They are troubled on offense.
They are feeling great and playing well on defense.
And the direction this team travels in 2013 will be determined by which feeling lasts longer.
Let’s start with the offense, which showed no running game, feeble pass-blocking and curiously didn’t try to throw to Wallace even once in the first half.
There are issues there, folks, and it begins with Wallace and how he perceives his role and the culture in Miami.
Wallace, who signed a $60 million contract in the spring, was disturbed about catching only one pass for 15 yards and not even being on the radar for the Dolphins passing game the entire first half, a club source said.
That’s not an entirely bad thing. You don’t want him satisfied with merely cashing a check. And the Dolphins, after all, didn’t pay him to become the NFL’s highest-paid decoy, so he has something of a point.
But when his simmering frustration boils over so publicly after a victory, it suggests he’s more concerned with “me” than “we.”
And that’s bad for the Dolphins.
Yet that’s exactly how it looked when Wallace was among the first players to get dressed and leave the locker room while still wearing a scowl on his face.
“I don’t feel like talking, man,” he said, as he walked past me.
He was asked about not being targeted in the first half.
“Ask coach,” he said. “It’s not my game plan.”
He was asked if he complained (of course he did) at halftime when the Dolphins were trailing 7-6 and quarterback Ryan Tannehill hadn’t thrown to him and hadn’t even looked his way. This, by the way, is problematic because Wallace was being single-covered throughout the game by Cleveland’s Joe Haden, and if your best wide receiver isn’t getting the ball when he’s single-covered, when is he going to get it?
Anyway, Wallace wanted nothing to do with the topic. But his non-answer showed clearly where his displeasure was directed.
“Ask coach,” he said.
The Dolphins must resolve this issue — immediately. That’s because it’s actually multiple issues wrapped into a problem that can avalanche.
First, it puts Joe Philbin and his coaches in the crosshairs because Wallace is a proven, excellent deep-threat receiver. He’s done it before in the NFL. So if he doesn’t do it in Miami, it’s not just on him. It’s on the authors of the game plan. It’s on coaches who don’t have an in-game answer for getting him the ball when another team is shutting Wallace down.
Defenses around the NFL make it their business to shut down Calvin Johnson or Adrian Peterson. And yet their teams get them the ball anyway. Well, the Dolphins must get Wallace the football somehow.
Secondly, the offensive line has to resolve whatever problems kept it from run-blocking or pass-blocking effectively because, well, run-blocking and pass-blocking is what an offensive line is supposed to do.
The Dolphins rushed 23 times for 20 yards against the Browns, which almost surely means they are the worst rushing team in the NFL today. The line also allowed four sacks, and Philbin almost certainly will say there are other causes for this not involving the line. Sorry, it was the line.
The line must protect Tannehill better so he can have enough time to scan the field for receivers. It must protect the quarterback so that Wallace can get open on deep routes. None of that happened against the Browns. The line also has to give Miami running backs some daylight to run the ball because otherwise the Dolphins won’t be able to run the ball and a one-dimensional offense is a recipe for failure.
The good news?
The Dolphins have the luxury of some time because while the offense has much to overcome, the defense looks to be in midseason form.
Wake had those 2 1/2 sacks, and the team is using him in various ways that will make him harder to block this year, including putting him on the field with other defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Dion Jordan and standing him up and letting him roam.
“We kept some cards in our back pockets throughout the preseason,” Wake said. “When we started this offseason, we looked at our room, the defensive front, and said we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things well.
“We don’t have to line up and do the same thing. We got guys that can stand up. Guys that can drop. Rush up the middle. Rush outside. All the guys doing different things and keeping offenses guessing at the end will help the whole team win.”
Wake, among the NFL’s best players, led a defense that had a veritable competition for best highlight moments.
Cornerback Dimitri Patterson had two interceptions.
Nolan Carroll had an interception.
That, by the way, is outstanding for a defense that spent the entire preseason focused on getting turnovers. The Dolphins had a plus-2 turnover margin in this game.
The rookie Jordan was credited with a sack in his first game.
Derrick Shelby came off the bench to get a sack.
And Randy Starks, who did not start the game, also came off the bench and had 1 1/2 sacks.
The Dolphins defense allowed only 47 rushing yards, and after the offense was finally able to score a couple of touchdowns in the second half, two things happened:
Miami’s defensive linemen got a little rabid in their eagerness to chase Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden.
“It’s that point in the game when you know it’s free reign,” Odrick said. “You let the dogs out and go after the quarterback where they have no option but to toss the ball around.”
That, by the way, was an impressive sight seeing Miami linemen competing with each other for sacks. It was.
The other thing that happened is the Dolphins took control of the game. Even as the offense was playing hit-and-miss football, the defense was so dominant that Cleveland fans left with five minutes to play in the game and their team down by less than two touchdowns.
Yes, that speaks on some level to how bad the Browns have been for some time. But it also speaks to how good and prepared the Miami defense seems to be this early in the season.
That’s important because even with good teams like Indianapolis, Atlanta, Baltimore and New Orleans on the schedule in the next month, that suggests the Dolphins still have a chance to succeed.