In my opinion

Armando Salguero: Dolphins far from being elite

 

asalguero@MiamiHerald.com

Late in the second quarter of this nationally televised show, future franchise quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted, setting up present day franchise quarterback Drew Brees for an eventual touchdown pass.

And immediately after that play, cameras caught Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman in his coaching booth perch burying his head in his hands.

In despair.

Just like Dolphins fans around the nation.

And the soundtrack to that moment was that of a bubble bursting. It was the moment that most everyone realized the Dolphins, a good team, were in a game against an excellent team.

It was the moment most everyone recognized the Dolphins, who have come a long way in winning their first three games, have a long way to go before they’re elite.

The Dolphins are no longer undefeated today. That’s what this blowout 38-17 loss to New Orleans says on its surface.

But the message we should all take from this Bayou Beatdown is the Dolphins simply have to grow up before they can actually win games like this. They have to play more games like this to learn to win games like this.

This game reminded the Dolphins, a team that is moving toward better days, are a long way from having arrived.

Combine that truth with the fact the Saints are truly a seasoned, well-coached team with a quarterback that has won a Super Bowl and been in more prime-time games than he remembers, and you have the recipe for a long night.

And that’s what the Dolphins had already suffered when this game was 35-10 to start a fourth quarter of garbage time football.

Be happy the Dolphins made it kind of, sort of close in the end. It will look better in the history books. But the truth is this game wasn’t close because, well, these teams aren’t really close.

The difference here is obvious, it is significant, and it might start at the top by the way.

For the Saints, it’s no coincidence the return of Sean Payton to the sideline has seen a resurgence in this team. New Orleans was 0-4 after four games last year when Payton was serving an NFL suspension. Now, they’re 4-0 with an offense that has cut down on mistakes and turnovers.

For the Dolphins, Joe Philbin and his coaching staff have done a fine job so far this season. But games like this require more than just good work. They require extraordinary work.

In games like this, calling on Daniel Thomas to pick up a first down on third-and-an-inch when Lamar Miller had basically gashed the Saints until that point does not show wisdom.

Two words on third-and-an-inch: Quarterback sneak.

In a game like this the Dolphins can plan on containing tight end Jimmy Graham and double him and bracket him and mug him all night with success. But if you don’t have an answer when the Saints turn to Darren Sproles to slice up the defense, you’re in trouble.

One more thing on the coaching end: The Dolphins have had great success winning the coin toss and deferring to the second half this year. And they did that again Monday night.

Except that in the noisy Superdome, in front of a rabid crowd, and against a quarterback like Brees, giving him the ball first is a recipe for failure.

Brees took the opening kickoff and the Saints scored. It established tone. It set momentum. Miami had to play catch up the entire rest of the night.

On the field, the Dolphins were also outclassed at the most important position on the field.

Brees threw for 210 yards by halftime as his team led 21-10. Then he actually got hotter with two touchdowns in the third quarter.

Tannehill, meanwhile, had his worst game of the season, not only failing to keep the Miami offense in the game, but throwing that interception in the first half, two more in the second half, fumbling the ball during a scramble for another turnover and failing to connect with any of his receivers with any consistency.

That doesn’t make Tannehill a bad quarterback. His first month of this season was good and highlighted by that comeback drive against Atlanta.

But in a game he had to outduel Brees, the young Miami quarterback just wasn’t up to the task.

Tannehill got precious little help. Mike Wallace, coming home to New Orleans for the first time as Miami’s newly minted deep threat, dropped what would have been a deep completion and possibly a touchdown. Then he dropped another pass in the third quarter that had first down completion written all over it.

The pass protection was good early, but once the Saints led 35-10, the offensive line gave up three sacks.

And the defense, playing without starters Cameron Wake and Dimitri Patterson and struggling to keep Nolan Carroll and others healthy, was never really a factor. Yes, Paul Soliai’s heroic effort playing despite a knee injury helped the run defense.

But Saints are a passing team. And they had passing plays of 48- and 43-yards, two 21-yard completions and two 18-yard completions. It was a chunk play festival for the Saints.

So where does this all leave the Dolphins?

They’re still a good team, folks. No matter how much this game reminds of the past horrible decade and the past four losing seasons, this game is not a complete picture of what the Dolphins are.

They remain good enough to win more than they lose. They might improve and still challenge for the AFC East even as they trail the New England Patriots by one game.

But elite team?

Not yet.

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