Armando Salguero: Early season test will dictate Miami Dolphins’ season

07/23/2013 12:01 AM

07/23/2013 2:41 PM

Brian Hartline, swimming in open water, looked into the tooth-filled jaws of a hungry oncoming shark on Monday and loved it.

Well, the Dolphins wide receiver wasn’t really in the ocean but instead covered in sweat after a morning football practice. And he wasn’t really looking at an oncoming man-eater but rather pondering the ominous start of the Dolphins’ regular season.

No matter because the effect could be the same.

Crisis.

Problems.

Maybe havoc.

Hartline was actually talking about Miami’s opening five weeks of the regular season. That span includes games against defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore, an Atlanta team that won 13 games and went to the NFC Championship Game, an up-and-coming Indianapolis team that beat Miami last year, and a New Orleans team that’s getting its coach and swagger back.

And, amazingly, Hartline was excited about that schedule.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “That’s kind of the way you want to go out. If you want to get started and have high expectations to be sharpened right off the bat either with wins or tough losses, however it goes, playing the best of the best of the past year is a great opportunity.”

That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another:

The Dolphins, a young team urgently trying to find itself during this training camp, are looking like prey compared to their more accomplished and experienced opponents the first month or so of the season.

After the regular-season opener against lowly Cleveland, from Week 2 through Week 5 Miami’s opponents boast a 41-24 record based on last year’s records. That represents a superior .630 winning percentage.

“It’s a chance to see where we’re at right away,” Hartline continued.

It’s also a chance to define the season before the leaves up north are on the ground. That, by the way, can be either good or bad.

If the Dolphins can win three or four of those first five games, there would be little reason to doubt they could compete for a playoff spot the rest of way because the remainder of the schedule doesn’t seem nearly as difficult, and the young club is likely to improve as the season goes on.

Suddenly, fans who have been merely cautious about this team would become believers. Suddenly, the idea of breaking a four-year skid of losing seasons would become a real and even attainable possibility.

But if the Dolphins head to their bye weekend on Oct. 13 with a 1-4 or 2-3 record, the final 11 weeks would require heroic work to reach the postseason. Even a winning season might seem remote.

“It’s huge,” Dolphins new starting tight end Dustin Keller said. “Just speaking from where I played in previous years [the New York Jets], when you start out behind or have a slow start, coming back is tough duty right there.”

Young team

The Dolphins might be better suited for the difficult early season schedule if they were a veteran team that had been together a year or two. Frankly, this team would have a better chance against this early schedule next year, after another 12 months of seasoning.

But the Dolphins are not a meat allowed to marinate to just the right flavor. They are admittedly young and mostly new to each other. On offense, the starting running back, starting left tackle, starting right tackle, starting tight end and two of the three starting receivers are new to the team or their positions.

“We have new faces and new parts, and we’re trying to find our identity, and it takes some time,” guard Richie Incognito said. “You have to find rhythm, you have to find balance, you have to find out how to attack teams, and that takes time.

“But with this extra time in camp, I think that will play to our benefit.”

Coach Joe Philbin asked to play an extra exhibition game to have more time to bring this team together this preseason. That’s not all he’s counting on. After starting 1-3 last year, he and his assistants know they have to start fast and are stressing that to players.

“We have to get out of the gate better as a football team this year, there’s no question about it. That’s something we’re going to focus on,” Philbin said.

Philbin says the Dolphins are currently in the installation and teaching phase of training camp. The pace is not fast. The work is more focused on technique and corrections and simply teaching.

But on July 31, before the Aug. 4 preseason opener against Dallas, the tempo will increase as will the expectation that players know their assignments and execute them quickly as they’ve been taught.

Crisis situations

And, oh yes, that’s when Philbin will begin putting his team in crisis situations so those won’t be unfamiliar at the start of the season.

“At the start of practice we’ll say, ‘Hey this is the opening possession of the game.’ We’ll set up the ball in a certain spot, maybe a difficult spot for the offense and say we had a kickoff return and say we had a penalty so the ball is at the 15,” Philbin said. “We’ll crank the crowd noise up and play a possession or two there.

“There are a number of scenarios at the end of the game that we have to do a better job also. We’ll insert them into practice at different times to create a different tempo. As you know, in training camp at times it gets tedious for players, so we want to keep them off balance.”

If the plan works, the sting of early season games at Indianapolis and New Orleans could be dulled. If the plan works, maybe that early schedule won’t look like such a monster after all.

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