The insults hurled at the Dolphins’ receivers were so loud, Anthony Armstrong could hear them all the way in Washington.
When the chattering class sized up Miami’s roster, particularly after Chad Johnson’s inglorious exit, there was a consensus: the team’s wideouts were its weakest link.
And it’s not like the team’s front office gave critics any reason to pause. Jeff Ireland infamously quipped on Hard Knocks the team had a bunch of “fours, fives and sixes,” when asked about his pass-catchers.
“It was well-documented that they were saying there was no No. 1, [it was] a very weak corps,” said Armstrong, who joined the Dolphins in September after spending the preseason with the Redskins. “That’s all I knew from the outside looking in.”
A month into the season, it’s still true the Dolphins don’t have one clear-cut threat on the outside. But for a far different reason than most expected.
They might have two.
Fresh off his team-record, 253-yard day against the Cardinals, Brian Hartline leads the entire NFL with 455 receiving yards. Hartline averages an eye-popping 18.2 yards per catch.
Then there’s Davone Bess, who ranks in the top-five league-wide in third-down receiving yards (142) and third-down catches (nine).
Hartline and Bess are listed among the league’s 10 best receivers by Pro Football Focus, ahead of superstars Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and, yes, Brandon Marshall, the ex-Dolphin now in Chicago.
“They’ve both obviously defied expectations,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former league scout who now works as an analyst for NFL Network. “It’s a nice little duo they have: Hartline over the top and Bess across the middle.”
Jeremiah said of Hartline: “I didn’t see it coming. He’s impressed the heck out of me. There’s been nothing phony about his production. It’s been legitimate.”
Not to mention completely unexpected. Hartline, who has flown below the national radar for much of his first three seasons, has shattered personal records in two of the past three weeks.
His run started against the Raiders, catching nine passes for 111 yards. Then in Arizona last Sunday, he caught 12 passes, including an 80-yard touchdown on a double move that got him so wide open, there wasn’t a Cardinals defensive back within 20 yards when the ball arrived.
And with that, Hartline’s days as a relative unknown were over. Afterward, his phone was abuzz with well-wishers, and national football writers wanted a piece of his time.
The fantasy football world took notice as well. Last Sunday, Hartline’s ownership in CBSSports.com leagues was 33 percent and his start rate was 5 percent. As of Thursday, his ownership is 97 percent and his start rate is 64 percent, but those figures are subject to change until 1 p.m. this Sunday.
When asked if he had ever had a game that dominant on any level, Hartline chuckled.
“In Pop Warner, that was a good day,” Hartline said. “You would just run around the defense and keep running.”
How about high school or college?
“Never. That was pretty special.”
At the season’s quarter mark, Hartline is on pace to shatter Mark Clayton’s team record for receiving yards in a season (1,389). Hartline can break the record by averaging 78 yards per game for the rest of the season.
His production couldn’t come at a better time. Hartline is in the final year of his rookie contract, and a league source said the team already has begun preliminary discussions about an extension.
Bess has been a bit of a forgotten man — which is staggering, considering he’s also playing at his highest level as a pro. Bess has caught 20 passes for 297 yards, and is on pace to set career highs in both categories.
With 752 combined yards, Bess and Hartline make up the league’s most productive wide receiving tandem through the season’s four weeks.
That’s a testament to their talent, for sure, but also speaks to the difference Ryan Tannehill has made under center.
His 431 passing yards last week were the most by a Dolphins rookie, and the sixth-highest total of any quarterback in the team’s 46-yard history.
“We’ve just got to keep pushing and stay humble,” Bess said. “We know our expectations, we know our potential, but if we don’t reach it, then it’s nothing.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding and don’t really let the numbers and what everybody’s saying get to us. Just keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
It has worked so far.