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November 8, 2012

New look doesn’t mean a different Jake Long for Miami Dolphins

Dolphins tackle Jake Long said cutting his long locks had nothing to do with his play of late; he just felt it was time for a new look.

Sometimes, a hair cut is just a hair cut.

That’s the point Jake Long tried to make (over and over again) in the Dolphins’ locker room Wednesday. Huddling reporters tried to glean a deeper significance from his decision this week to chop off his shaggy locks. Long, the team’s left tackle, swore there was nothing to the new hairdo.

“It was time for it to go,” Long said. “Had to cut it.”

So no, the not-so-extreme makeover wasn’t some thinly veiled, reverse-Samson psychological ploy to get Long to play better. But if it by chance it has that affect, the four-time Pro Bowler probably won’t mind it one bit.

Long, for years the rock on the team’s offensive line and the guy coaches never had to worry about, actually looks human this year. And the timing isn’t the best.

Long is in the final year of his contract, and in line for a fortune. Should he reach the open market, Long could earn upwards to $15 million annually. Yet there could be some money won or lost depending on how he finishes the season.

While he’s been solid for much of the year, Long had stretches last Sunday where he struggled against Indianapolis’ star speed-rusher Dwight Freeney. Long surrendered a sack, allowed three quarterback hits and was flagged for two penalties on the day.

“It’s going to happen,” Long explained Wednesday, surrounded by perhaps his biggest group of media members of the season. “It’s not acceptable and I’m going to work and get back and get better. I have full faith in myself. Everything will be good.”

Long’s long afternoon was a snapshot of an up-and-down season for the Dolphins offensive line, which the team has built mostly through the draft.

The starting unit has two first-round picks (Long and Mike Pouncey), a second-rounder (Jonathan Martin) and a third-rounder (John Jerry). Richie Incognito, the other starter on the line, joined the team as a free agent and earns $3.3 million in base salary this year.

On the whole, the team has protected relatively well, allowing 16 sacks in 297 pass plays. Pro Football Focus rates the Dolphins as the league’s ninth-best pass-protection unit.

But as of late, they have gotten their quarterback hit too often. The brace on Ryan Tannehill’s left knee is proof of that. Jets linebacker Calvin Pace had a free run at Tannehill in the teams’ Week 8 meeting, delivering a hit that knocked the rookie quarterback from the game.

“There’s been some very good play from our offensive line,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. “There’s been some OK play and some not very good. I think that’s why we’re 4-4. They’re part of that.

“I have full confidence that we will get better,” he added. “Sunday’s our first opportunity to do that.”

The Dolphins play the Titans on Sunday, and they’re not exactly Buddy Ryan’s Eagles. Tennessee has just 14 sacks in nine games; only seven teams in the league have fewer.

Run blocking also has been a concern for the Dolphins, who haven’t had a running back crack 100 yards since Reggie Bush did it in Week 2. Again, the Titans appear to be a cure to what ails Miami. Tennessee allows more than 140 yards per game on the ground.

“I think this line is playing up to its potential, but I do think we do have better football ahead of us,” Incognito said.

Incognito explained that offensive line play — particularly pass protection — is so complex that casual observers often place blame on the wrong player when things go sideways.

Added Inconito: “To the naked eye, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, he [stinks], he messed up.’ But you don’t know exactly what’s going on.”

Which brings us back to Long, who — fairly or not — will always draw the most scrutiny. That’s the burden associated with being the No. 1 pick, as Long was in 2008.

“I don’t even listen to that stuff,” Long added. “I listen to what the coaches tell me, what my teammates say. I don’t care what anybody says about me. I’m working hard to get better. None of that stuff bothers me.”

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