The third preseason game? It’s reality-check time for the Dolphins.
Among the questions to be answered Saturday night against the Atlanta Falcons in the soft re-launch of renovated Sun Life Stadium:
▪ Can the offensive line function with Dallas Thomas at left tackle? (Branden Albert, knee, and Jason Fox, concussion, are both expected to sit.)
▪ Is Walt Aikens the answer at safety? (Kevin Coyle this week all but named Aikens the starter with Louis Delmas out for the season.)
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▪ Will Caleb Sturgis show enough to be Miami’s opening day kicker? (He has been solid, but the Dolphins could be tempted to look outside the organization.)
▪ Do the Dolphins have enough depth at corner? (If not, soon-to-be unretired Cortland Finnegan has interest in returning to the Dolphins.)
For engaged Dolphins fans, most of this is ground long-covered.
So let’s go next level. Here’s a new way of looking at these exhibitions games, which this year has become real life Survivor — but instead of getting booted off the island, contestants suffer season-ending injuries:
Is Joe Philbin ready to truly gamble — both with in-game management and, on a macro scale, his career?
Even with a league-wide commitment to analytics, there’s still a deep chasm between the decisions that coaches have traditionally made, and the ones that the stat geeks say they should make to maximize their chances of winning.
But perhaps Philbin, in a win-or-else season, is coming around. Already this preseason, the Dolphins’ first-team offense has twice gone for it on fourth-and-goal. And each time, Philbin’s bravery was rewarded with a touchdown.
Granted, rolling the dice in the preseason is completely different than doing so when the games count, but Philbin already has shown a predisposition to pushing the envelope.
Only two teams — Chicago and Detroit — last year went for it on fourth down more often than the Dolphins. Philbin kept the kicking team on the sideline 19 times a year ago, the franchise’s most fourth-down attempts since 2009.
And in both word and deed, Philbin has suggested an openness to doing so even more.
“We’ve studied everything, every scenario, and we’ve done a pretty comprehensive look at all fourth downs in the league last year and studied them — when teams are going for it, what the success rate is based on if it’s the first quarter, the second quarter, the third, the fourth,” Philbin said this week. “We’ve looked at run-pass ratios within the down and distance. So we did a really comprehensive fourth-down study. I would say we’re analyzing it, but I think that changes game to game.”
Those weekly decisions are made each Friday, based on the matchup. If, for example, that week’s opponent struggles in third-and-short, the Dolphins would be more emboldened to go for it on fourth-and-short.
On the flip side, if the opponent struggles to drive the length of the field, the Dolphins would be more prone to punt, pin them deep and expect decent field position when their defense makes a stop.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a blanket approach where, hey, this week on fourth-and-2, every fourth-and-2 inside the five we’re going for [it].” Philbin added. “I don’t see that being the scenario. I think everything’s a game-specific situation.”
The folks who run the New York Times’ popular 4th Down Bot blog disagree. Based on a decade of data analysis, they argue that teams should almost always run an offensive play on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-2 — even when on the wrong side of midfield.
The logic behind it: Teams average more than 4 yards a play, so the risk associated with failure is less than whatever field position gains are made by punting.
Kevin Kelley, the coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, believes in the math. he has built a cult following for never, ever punting. Kelley’s views earned him a spot as a panelist at the prestigious Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Philbin knows all about Kelley, and joked the Dolphins might hire him away from the prep ranks.
“I’m sure there’s some,” Philbin said when asked about the logic behind Kelley’s strategy. “I’m sure there is some. He would obviously, I would guess, have some evidence to back up why he does it so often. It’s interesting, that’s for sure.”
But let’s just say Philbin hasn’t drank the Kool-Aid completely.
Asked if the Dolphins might go for it on fourth down on every occasion this year, he smiled and responded:
“Probably not. Probably not.”