Two first-half plays Sunday perfectly captured Brian Hartline’s strange sixth season with the Miami Dolphins.
Each time, he ran a deep route.
The first time, he was wide open, but Ryan Tannehill didn’t see him.
The second, Sam Shields covered him like a book, but Tannehill threw it anyway. The predictable result: Another interception, and another disappointing outcome for Hartline.
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After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Hartline has become the forgotten man on the Dolphins’ offense. He’s fourth on the team in catches (16) and third in receiving yards (161). Hartline is on pace for his worst statistical season since 2011.
Based on stats alone, it would be easy to say Hartline, who is in the second year of a $31 million contract, has underperformed. But a deeper dive suggests factors beyond his control have played a significant role in his slump.
Put simply: The Dolphins have stopped throwing him the ball.
That was never more evident than in Sunday’s loss to the Packers. Despite seeing the most action of any Dolphins receiver, Hartline was targeted just twice, and went without a catch for the first time in some two calendar years.
When asked why Tannehill hasn’t much thrown his way, Hartline replied: “I really don’t know, to answer bluntly. I think that’s not really a question for me. I’ve always prepared the same, whether it be Year 1 or Year 6. I’m always going to go out there and do what they ask me at a high level. When the opportunity is there, make a play.”
Sunday’s stat line was an extreme, to be sure. But it was also not surprising, considering how his year has gone.
Hartline has had the most snaps by a Dolphins receiver in every game this season, but only once – against the Raiders in London – did Tannehill target him more often than Mike Wallace.
But from a season-long perspective, the disparity is even greater. Despite being on the field for 56 more snaps than Wallace in 2014, Hartline has had 16 fewer passed thrown his way.
Wallace has been targeted on 18 percent of his plays; Hartline, meanwhile sees a pass just once every 11 snaps.
That’s despite both players having identical catch rates (57 percent of attempts), and the same number of drops (two).
“I think we have to get him involved,” Tannehill said. “I think some of that is unlucky just in the way the plays have worked out. Some of it is just me not getting him the ball when he’s had the opportunity. Whatever it is, I think we have to get him involved, and consistent.”
Added Dolphins coach Joe Philbin: “Sometimes teams commit, whether they play cloud, whether they double-cover, there are multiple different coverages. We are a progression-based passing game. Sometimes it’s just the way the ball rolls and the snaps are thrown, it just hasn’t been [there]. He hasn’t been targeted quite as much, but I’m sure he is going to have his days.”
Hartline, meanwhile, said he hasn’t seen more two-high safety coverage than in previous years. Rather, teams have played him man-to-man plenty, preferring to drop a safety into the box to counter the team’s resurgent running attack.
Granted, there are only so many passes to go around, especially now that Jarvis Landry has emerged. Landry led the team with six catches for 75 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown against the Packers.
All this would be palatable to the hyper-competitive Hartline, if the team is winning. But since the Dolphins have lost three of their last four.
“I think he’s doing as good as he can with it,” Wallace said. “Obviously, he’s going to be frustrated.”
Wallace continued: “When things like that happen, it’s easy to start getting aggravated, go into the tank. But you’ve just got to block it all out, continue to fight. You can’t worry about what anybody says.”
Hartline added: “I’m more frustrated that we’re 2-3. If the role I play helps us win football games, I’m all about it. But if we’re not winning more than we’re losing, there’s all kinds of different mixed feelings about it. Even if I’m not getting the football, I’m still going to win. I’m still going to be open. I’ll just continue to do my job.”