There’s no good news coming out of this exhibition game that overshadows or even alleviates the knee injury and possible season-ending loss of tight end Dustin Keller.
Daniel Thomas running hard and pushing for the starting running back job doesn’t.
The hopeful return of right guard John Jerry next week that will push struggling reserve Josh Samuda back to the bench doesn’t.
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Even the apparent newfound chemistry between quarterback Ryan Tannehill and deep-threat receiver Mike Wallace doesn’t.
The loss of Keller on Saturday night after a frightful and low hit to the right knee by Houston’s D.J. Swearinger is a terrible, derailing blow for which the Dolphins have no answers currently on the roster.
If Keller is out for the season as feared, or even if he’s out for a significant amount of time as the most optimistic folks were praying early Saturday night as a best-case scenario, the Dolphins will be without the roster’s only accomplished and proven seam-threatening tight end.
Charles Clay has never done what Dustin Keller already proved he could do this preseason — namely earn Tannehill’s confidence and the game-plan respect of the defense.
Rookie Dion Sims, full of promise and playing better than advertised because he’s already a good blocker and an improving receiver, is nowhere near ready to replace Keller despite starting against Houston.
Michael Egnew, a terrible disappointment last year but something of a pleasant surprise to coaches this training camp, was merely fighting to make the squad before this game.
He’s not ready to be as good as Keller now.
Keller, meanwhile, was on course to be Tannehill’s best friend. He was the only starting pass catcher that already had a touchdown catch this preseason and was leading that group in receptions, as well.
It was apparent to anyone with eyes that with Keller’s ability to get open quickly, his obvious mismatch against linebackers and safeties, and the troubles the Miami offensive line is having protecting Tannehill, the tight end was going to be a target of necessity throughout this coming season.
It was apparent Keller was likely going to catch more passes than anyone else on the team.
“He stretches the field down the middle, and that is exciting for me,” Tannehill said last week about his new teammate. “I have a big target who can use his body, go up separate from linebackers, from safeties and catches the ball well. That is what you want from a guy moving down field as a tight end.”
That is what the Dolphins will be missing if Keller is missing.
Obviously, the Dolphins can go into the scrap heap left in free agency and search for a replacement. Kevin Boss is out there. Chris Cooley is out there, albeit in retired mode. Same with Todd Heap.
Translation: That’s likely not the route to provide answers.
There’s also the possibility of picking up a tight end on waivers when teams trim their rosters. But that is an exercise in picking up someone else’s trash and hoping he becomes a treasure.
So the tight end position the Dolphins worked so hard to improve this offseason suddenly seems to be a weak link. The upgrade from Anthony Fasano that seemed so certain suddenly looks unlikely.
Keller’s injury looked bad — so bad the player was administered an MRI exam even as the game continued rather than wait until Sunday back in South Florida. Those who watched saw a hit that had Keller’s upper leg pointed in one direction and his lower leg pointed at an angle human legs were never meant to bend.
So what can the Dolphins do now?
The Dolphins would be wise to hang their hopes on the void Keller leaves being picked up by Wallace or slot receiver Brandon Gibson.
Wallace had not caught a pass in preseason action before Saturday. He missed the opener against Dallas and didn’t have a catch against Jacksonville.
This game against Houston was different. And much better.
The light bulb on the Tannehill-to-Wallace battery seemed to light up midway last week. For several days afterward, the quarterback and receiver made plays in practice they hadn’t made for weeks before.
That carried over to the field against the Texans.
Wallace caught a beautiful comeback that had Houston cornerback Johnathan Joseph too busy guarding against a deep ball to worry about the comeback. Then he followed that with a 33-yard, over-the-shoulder connection that needed just a little more air to end in a touchdown.
No matter, because Wallace was open for a 9-yard touchdown on an in-cut a few plays later. The series was a hopeful sign that Tannehill and Wallace have solved their early camp search for chemistry.
Maybe that will carry the passing game with Brian Hartline and Gibson also playing key roles.
Maybe the Dolphins can find other answers that will bring light to their passing game.
Because losing Dustin Keller on Saturday night cast a giant shadow.