Halfway home in a season that has been full of surprises, the Dolphins are essentially back where they started:
They’re 4-4, a game out of the playoffs and just on the edge of national relevance, with some encouraging signs for the future but still plenty of questions about their present.
“I’m surprised too,” receiver Brian Hartline said when asked about the team’s expectations-busting start.
Hartline then added with a sly smile: “I thought we’d be 5-3.”
Here’s what is really shocking about a team expected by many to win no more than six games: With the right breaks and bounces here or there, the Dolphins could even be 7-1. Three of their losses have been by a combined nine points, and two came in overtime.
Then again, they could (and probably should) have lost at least one that they won (the Rams game comes to mind).
“We’re exactly what our record is,” Davone Bess said.
So as we pause, however briefly, at the midway point, let’s take a moment to remember from whence the Dolphins came — and what’s needed to get where they want to go.
Statistically, the Dolphins look a lot like they did last season, when they were 22nd overall (317.4 yards per game) and averaged 20.6 points per outing. This season, they’re 23rd in total offense (332.5), scoring a shade more than three touchdowns each Sunday.
But at the most important position — quarterback — there’s no comparison. Ryan Tannehill looks like the real deal.
Through eight games, the rookie has completed 58.9 percent of his passes for 1,762 yards, with five touchdowns and six interceptions. He hasn’t turned the ball over since September, and — short of injury — will obliterate the team’s rookie passing record (2,210 yards, set by Dan Marino in 1983).
“The best thing about him is he’s getting better every week,” Bess said.
Matt Moore, last year’s starter, already has proved his worth as a backup. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown in relief, leading Miami past the rival Jets. Third-stringer Pat Devlin has not been activated for a game this season.
No one is happier about Tannehill’s emergence than Hartline, who already has more receiving yards (662 yards on 41 catches) than any previous year in his career.
Hartline and Bess (38 receptions for 483 yards) give Miami a potent one-two punch. But after that, production at the receiver position falls off considerably. Jabar Gaffney has caught three passes for 57 yards in two games since signing with the team in early October. Gaffney’s arrival has relegated Marlon Moore mainly to special teams, while Rishard Matthews hasn’t been in the mix.
The team’s No. 3 receiving option is Anthony Fasano. With three receiving touchdowns, he has half of the team’s scoring catches. Pro Football Focus ranks Fasano as the ninth-best tight end in football.
Charles Clay (six catches for 76 yards, one touchdown) has been largely invisible in the passing game, and Jeron Mastrud has taken just 56 snaps on offense all season. Rookie Michael Egnew is still waiting to see the field.
Miami’s running game started strong, but hasn’t done much in the past month. It has managed 111.9 yards per game — 13th in the league — and although Reggie Bush averages 4.4 yards per carry, he only gets about 15 runs per game.
Daniel Thomas (192 yards on 57 carries) has missed two games with head injuries, and Lamar Miller (5.5 yards per carry) has been effective — when he’s given the chance. His snaps on offense have dwindled in recent weeks. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane has been called upon to block, catch the football and run in short-yardage situations.
Then there’s the offensive line, which shares the blame in the offense’s struggles.
Four-time Pro Bowler and former No. 1 pick Jake Long does not appear to be the same player. He has given up three sacks, according to Pro Football Focus — which ranks him the 46th tackle in the league. Jonathan Martin, the Dolphins’ right tackle, had typically rookie growing pains, particularly in run blocking.
The unit’s strength has been its interior play. Mike Pouncey is performing at an all-pro level; the Dolphins average 4.7 yards per carry when they run up the middle. Left guard Richie Incognito has been solid in pass protection, and John Jerry has held his own on the right side, playing every snap this season.
The line has been mostly healthy this year, meaning reserves Will Yeatman, Nate Garner and Josh Samuda have not been needed.
How does a defense with potentially four Pro Bowlers — Cameron Wake, Randy Starks, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett will get varying levels of consideration — rank 24th in yards allowed?
It’s this simple: The front seven has been stellar. The back end has not.
The Dolphins’ run defense ranks third in the NFL, surrendering just 83.9 yards per game. But the team also allows nearly 300 yards each week through the air. No defense has been thrown on more (356 pass attempts by opposing offenses this year).
“You can twist rankings and statistics a lot of different ways, [but] obviously we’re giving up way too many yards,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said.
The problem is not with Wake, whose 8 1/2 sacks are fifth-most in the league and whose 55 quarterback disruptions lead the NFL. Starks also has been a force, with three sacks and 15 quarterback hurries.
Paul Soliai is a walking, talking road block, rated by Pro Football Focus as the league’s seventh-best interior lineman against the run. But Jared Odrick has had few “wow” moments (18 tackles, two sacks).
Olivier Vernon (2 1/2 sacks) has had the biggest impact in a group of rookie defensive linemen that also features Kheeston Randall and Derrick Shelby. Tony McDaniel has battled a knee injury for much of the season.
At linebacker, Dansby (63 tackles) and Burnett (48) could surpass 100 tackles this season. Pro Football Focus ranks both in the top 10 at their position. Koa Misi has been stout against the run.
Jason Trusnik, Austin Spitler and Jonathan Freeny have been key contributors on special teams, and Josh Kaddu has been activated just once.
Then there’s the secondary, which looks much different now than in training camp. First, Vontae Davis was traded to the Colts. Then Richard Marshall injured his back and hasn’t played in a month.
That means the Dolphins’ starting corners have been Sean Smith and Nolan Carroll, both of whom have played well in stretches, and not so well in others.
Smith has allowed just 53 percent of passes thrown in his direction be completed, although quarterbacks’ ratings have been over 100 when targeting him in four games. Carroll has allowed two touchdowns and 437 receiving yards this year, but just 78 after the catch.
Reshad Jones is the top-rated safety in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, with high marks in coverage and run defense. Chris Clemons’ 45 tackles are third-most on the team.
The Dolphins didn’t intend for Jimmy Wilson to be their nickel corner, and he has been picked on at times in coverage.
R.J. Stanford has played sporadically on defense, while De’Andre Presley and Jonathon Amaya have been limited to the kicking game. Anderson Russell has not yet played.
Miami added to its secondary Tuesday by signing Bryan McCann, a corner from Southern Methodist who most recently played for the Raiders.
Dan Carpenter has bounced back after a nightmarish game against the Jets in Week 3, making seven of his past eight kicks.
Brandon Fields’ 51.6 yards per punt leads the NFL. Long snapper John Denney has been nearly flawless.
Marcus Thigpen has been effective in the return game, averaging 28.2 yards per kick return.
Darren Rizzi’s group also gets high marks in field-goal percentage allowed and kickoff return yards surrendered. Vernon has deflected two field-goal attempts, and Wilson blocked a punt. Trusnik leads the team with seven special-teams tackles.
“I’d say it definitely is a strength of our team,” Spitler said. “[But] we obviously have some work to do. We’re 4-4. We’re obviously still playing for something, which is a good thing. I think we’re going to get things going in the right direction.”