The NFL’s conference championship matchups are set, so optimistic Miami Dolphins fans have begun lying to themselves.
The final four this postseason is a curious mix aside from the New England Patriots and their GOAT quarterback Tom Brady, because the teams that will play Sunday for a chance to go to Super Bowl LII have unorthodox quarterback situations.
And by unorthodox I mean horrible.
The Philadelphia Eagles will host the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship game and that will match Philly’s Nick Foles against Minny’s Case Keenum — two career backup quarterbacks no one would have predicted could get their teams this far.
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The AFC Championship game will match the Patriots and Brady against the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars and their unimpressive quarterback Blake Bortles.
So two backup QBs and an also-ran QB in the conference championship games.
And now Dolphins fans are thinking, “Hey, maybe we don’t need an elite quarterback to get to the Super Bowl,” because the NFC representative won’t have one and the AFC representative might not have one, either.
And this where Uncle Mando puts his arm around your shoulders, pulls you over to the side where no one else is listening, and tells you to pull your head out of your, well, you know.
Look, every year NFL fans and even some teams looking for clues how to get to the championship round try to draw lessons from the teams that actually made it.
But I tell you that if the lesson you’re drawing this year is that you don’t need an elite QB to get to the Super Bowl, that is the wrong lesson to learn.
It’s a terrible lesson.
It’s a lazy substitute teacher lesson.
Having been an education minor at the University of Miami, let me give you the right lesson:
The lesson to be learned this year is you better have an outstanding starting quarterback.
An elite defense.
An outstanding running game.
And an outstanding backup quarterback.
If you don’t have at least a couple of these, you have zero chance.
(The Dolphins, by the way, have none of these right now).
Let’s run through these and see how the Dolphins compare, shall we?
The New England formula: So forget New England. They are the lone remaining team that has an elite quarterback. And, by the way, their defense was fifth in the NFL in scoring and they had the 10th best rushing attack.
But that is all beside the point because Brady is a legend and so is head coach Bill Belichick. So forget them, because that combination teaches us nothing about new avenues to Dolphins success.
How the Dolphins stack up: The Dolphins don’t have an elite quarterback. Their defense was trash and so was the rushing attack. There are reasons the Dolphins finished seven games behind New England in the division. Seven games!
The other three conference finalists, meanwhile, might teach us stuff.
The Jacksonville formula: The Jaguars teach us that a team with perhaps the NFL’s best defense can do things as long as the offense has a running game. Yes, that bypasses the quarterback position somewhat and that’s not smart, but the Jaguars have simply found the way to do that this year.
The Jacksonville defense finished second in the NFL in scoring, allowing 16.8 points per game. The Jaguars couldn’t throw the ball consistently but they mitigated opposing quarterbacks because they had the NFL’s best pass defense. And they also finished second with 55 sacks.
On offense, the Jaguars had the NFL’s top-rated rushing attack.
So their formula? Run the ball better than anyone, allow fewer points than all but one team, allow the fewest passing yards in the NFL, and get after the opposing quarterback better than just about anybody.
How the Dolphins stack up: Start with the fact Jay Cutler was a worse quarterback than Bortles in 2016. Now forget that because Cutler is gone.
The Dolphins believe Ryan Tannehill, their anointed starter for 2018, is a better quarterback than Bortles. On some days, Bortles is better. On some day Tannehill will be better. But over his career, Tannehill has been better.
The problem here is the Dolphins defense compared to the Jacksonville defense is a Yugo versus a Ferrari. The Dolphins gave up a touchdown more per game than the Jaguars this season and that’s the reason the Jags were No. 2 in scoring and Miami was No. 29 out of 32.
The Jaguars got after the quarterback with their high-priced defensive front. The Dolphins did not consistently get after quarterbacks with their high-priced defensive front.
Miami finished 26th in the NFL in sacks. The Jaguars had almost twice as many sacks as the Dolphins.
Oh, and while the Jaguars led the NFL in rushing, the Dolphins were 29th in the NFL in rushing.
So compared to the Jacksonville formula, the Dolphins must turn the defense almost completely around and find a running game that goes from bottom of the heap to top of the hill.
The Minnesota formula: This is interesting because the Vikings, like the Dolphins, lost their starting quarterback this season. And like the Dolphins, the Vikings lost their best running back — obviously under different circumstances in that Miami traded Jay Ajayi while Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook was injured.
The Vikings didn’t go quarterback shopping when Sam Bradford was injured after two games. They handed the reins to Keenum and he played well.
Keenum threw 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions in making all but two of Minnesota’s starts. He had some ups and some downs but he stayed healthy and turned himself into part of the solution rather than a problem.
It obviously helped the Vikings had the NFL’s best scoring defense, allowing only 15.8 points per game and had the NFL’s second-best run and pass defense.
So the Vikes got solid backup QB play and great defense and, oh yeah, they were seventh in the NFL rushing the football despite losing Cook.
How the Dolphins stack up: I believe this will show the Dolphins greatest mistake of the last year and that is they decided the quarterback situation was solid when it was more like a house of cards.
The team decided that it was comfortable with Tannehill coming back from a partially torn ACL without surgery and it was fine with Matt Moore as the backup. And both decisions proved wrong.
Tannehill injured the same knee again a week into training camp. And as soon at that happened, the Dolphins knew they needed to get help because Moore couldn’t stay healthy for 16 games. And he didn’t.
So knowing their starter was coming off an unorthodox ACL treatment and his backup couldn’t last the season if something went wrong, the Dolphins did nothing last offseason to address the QB room.
When the worst happened, the team had to beg Cutler to come out of the TV booth for $10 million.
That’s not a plan. That’s flying by the seat of one’s pants.
Also, the Dolphins defense stunk. So there’s that.
The Philadelphia formula: The Eagles fully intended to have the orthodox formula with a complete team and an emerging and possibly elite quarterback. And then Carson Wentz got hurt in December and they had to go to Nick Foles.
Well, Foles is a guy.
But the rest of the Eagles roster is stacked — thanks, in part to the Dolphins by the way, but also because of the team’s acumen for drafting and signing vets to one-year prove-it deals that work out for both parties.
The Eagles finished the season as the NFL’s third-leading rushing team. Indeed, all of the teams still alive finished in the top ten running the ball.
The Eagles finished the season as the NFL’s best run-stopping defense.
And the Eagles defense was fourth in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 18.4 points per game. All four of the teams in the conference title games finished in the top 5 in scoring defense.
How the Dolphins stack up: More of the same.
Miami’s rushing attack is an afterthought. The defense gives up a ton of points and had to improve dramatically to be middle of the pack (14th) against the run.
And, again, Matt Moore was not the backup we all thought because the Dolphins didn’t trust him enough to hand him the team when Tannehill went down. And that decision was correct because Moore was fragile and he lost both his starts.
Conclusion: Look, the Dolphins will not have an elite quarterback in 2018. Can we just be honest about that?
Tannehill has been a good, improving quarterback since he was drafted in 2012. But his play year over year has never suggested he’s going to be in the company with Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, or even Ben Roethlisberger.
His ceiling, which we don’t know if he’ll ever reach, looks to be more like Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins or Andy Dalton.
So it is incumbent on the Dolphins to bulk up the team around Tannehill. The Dolphins tried to fix the defense in the 2017 offseason but that work needs to continue because, obviously, it fell way short.
The Dolphins must stop the run better. They must figure out how such a high-priced defensive front doesn’t consistently pressure the quarterback.
The Dolphins don’t pay enough attention to the running game to take pressure off Tannehill even when doing exactly that in 2016 is what helped the team succeed.
And, finally, the team has a significant backup QB problem. It’s bigger than the starting QB problem.
The Vikings and Eagles are on the precipice of a Super Bowl berth because their backup quarterbacks played well when thrust into duty.
The Dolphins can no longer expect that from Moore, who will be 34 next season, got beat up and lost both his 2017 starts.
The Dolphins need to draft (preferable) or sign a backup quarterback who can stay healthy and play well if Tannehill is hurt again.
And did I mention the Dolphins defense stunk in 2017 and this team must turn that around before it can hope to be relevant?
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero