From the moment the Dolphins began this 2016 adventure I've pointed to the secondary as an area of concern. And even as the team slapped my finger away as I pointed, and coach Adam Gase called me out in press conferences about my pointing (he knows I'm not wrong ... I hope) the fact has remained the secondary has been …
An issue. Yeah, an issue.
Not a disaster.
Definitely not as bad as I thought it would be because this coaching staff -- defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, and defensive backs assistant coach Daronte Jones in particular. Those guys are hiding the warts of the unit.
But the unit is still an issue.
Some of those?
The benching a high priced cornerback (Byron Maxwell) then bringing him back because they had to.
Losing perhaps the team's most impactful playmaker (Reshad Jones) for the season and the team's most promising youngster (Xavien Howard) for all of training camp and much of this season so far.
But here's the thing about the NFL: Players either get better or get worse.
And cornerback Tony Lippett is so far in the group that is improving.
I've said for months that Lippett was put in a tough situation this year. He was forced to start when he really wasn't ready. And the Dolphins seemed to admit as much when he was benched at the beginning of the season after starting all offseason, training camp and preseason.
When the fire went live, the Dolphins initially shielded Lippett from the bullets.
That was smart because Lippett at the time looked and played like a three-year project cornerback who played wide receiver in college and was still making the conversion to NFL corner.
He was a three-year project that was only in its second season.
But because Maxwell struggled early and Howard went down, Lippett kept getting opportunities. The team couldn't shield him anymore. He had to do it.
He's doing it. He had two interceptions against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.
Clearly, that was Lippett’s most productive game as a professional.
"Tony Lippett, the game is starting to slow down for him," Maxwell said Monday. "You can tell. He's going to be a good player."
Maxwell and Lippett are both big corners. Although the rest of the secondary only refer to Maxwell as "The Big Corner," Lippett at 6-3 more than qualifies.
Anyway, those two big corners have gravitated to each other.
"We sit by each other in meetings and he's talking to me, he's telling me things," Maxwell said of Lippett. "You could tell he does his homework. He studies at home.
"He definitely asks me questions and sometimes he's telling me things. 'Watch out for this. Watch out for that.' He's a second-year player and he's doing that already. That's why I say the game is starting to slow down and he played at receiver so he understands splits and stuff like that. "
Lippett definitely is making progress. He's looking more and more like a keeper. He's becoming a student of the game as well as a player of the position. So ask where he's made the most progress from last year to this year?
"I’d probably say being more patient and really understanding what the offense is trying to do, really understanding how our defense works and how every phase of our defense is basically helping each other," Lippett said. "I’m understanding that a little bit more, and I still have a lot of understanding to do, so that’s what I try to do in practice, and hopefully it transfers over to the game."
And this is where the coaching comes in. Joseph and Anarumo are constantly telling their corners they cannot maximizes unless they understand how the defense is constructed and how it helps them.
Lippett is starting to get that clear in his mind.
"…Knowing where our other defenders are going to be on defense can help you," he said. "You knowing where your help is at helps you. That’s what we just try to preach – knowing where your help is at, knowing where everybody is going to be at and knowing what you can give up and what you can’t give up in certain coverages."
So, yes, the game is starting to slow down for Lippett. He's improved.
But he's still a work in progress.
"I have a lot of room to go, and that’s what I’m focused on," Lippett said. "I’m not focused on where I’ve been or how far I’ve come. It’s not about that. It’s about grinding every day and persevering through everything, and that’s what I try to do. I don’t try to focus on that."
If you missed the ProFootballFocus grades for Sunday’s game, I’ve got them for you here.
If you missed my column on the state of the Dolphins football operations as seen through the eyes of owner Stephen Ross, I’ve got that for you here