The NFL is a passing league so when the Dolphins made one of free agency’s biggest splashes by agreeing to a contract with offensive tackle Branden Albert, it was widely assumed the move was about plugging the offensive line that leaked a franchise-record and NFL-worst 58 sacks last year.
That’s only part of the story.
Albert was Miami general manager Dennis Hickey’s target ahead of Eugene Monroe and Jared Veldheer and others not just because of his pass blocking but because he’s the more complete player and better run blocker by the Dolphins’ judgment.
And that leads to this:
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Even as the Dolphins continue to search for help in free agency along the offensive line and defensive line, and perhaps even at linebacker, don’t limit the focus to the passing game.
Think running game.
That’s where the Dolphins were pitiful last season on both sides of the ball.
The defense could not stop the run with any consistency.
The offense could not run the ball with consistency even when former coordinator Mike Sherman wanted to try — which, by the way, wasn’t nearly often enough.
So in the coming days of free agency, think run-blocking guard. Think run-stopping defensive tackle in addition to Earl Mitchell.
Think running back, folks.
That’s right, running back.
Think running back!
The Dolphins need to end the experiment with former-junior-college-quarterback-turned-NFL-running-back Daniel Thomas. He’s a career 3.6-yards-per-carry back in a 4-yards-a-carry-is-merely-average league.
The Dolphins also need to make starting tailback Lamar Miller their complementary second option rather than continue the mistake of having him as their first option.
The Dolphins need to get back to some good, old-fashioned football basics and run the ball and stop the run.
If they don’t, they’ll continue to be mediocre at best and as irrelevant as they’ve been since January 2001, which happens to be the last time they won a playoff game.
If the Dolphins solve the rushing attack and run-stopping problems, they can be something coach Joe Philbin and Hickey need them to be to solidify their job status: The Dolphins can be contenders.
That’s right, the Dolphins could not only be a playoff team in 2014, but they could be contenders if they figure out that running the football and stopping the run is a good 45 percent of the game even in a passing league.
The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks figured it out. They were the NFL’s fourth-best rushing team and the league’s seventh-best run defense. And so it didn’t matter their second-year quarterback was at times inconsistent and not always spectacular.
The NFL’s next best team — no, not Denver, but San Francisco — also ran the football and stopped the run like gangbusters. The 49ers were No. 3 rushing and No. 4 against the run last season and went to their third consecutive NFC title game.
The New York Jets, a team with a bad rookie quarterback and no play-making receivers to speak of, managed an 8-8 record — same as the Dolphins — because they could generally run the football and stop the run.
The Philadelphia Eagles rose from the mire of a last-place finish in the NFC East in 2012 to win the division last season. For all the buzz surrounding Chip Kelly’s fast-break offense and quarterback Nick Foles having a breakout season, it is no coincidence the Eagles improved significantly at running the ball and stopping the run.
Philadelphia went from No. 13 to No. 1 running the ball. They went from No. 23 to No. 10 in run defense.
What does that mean to the Dolphins?
Well, their search for good run-blocking offensive linemen must continue. Zane Beadles would have been a good addition the Dolphins wanted to make but he got more money in Jacksonville. Several other guards also went off the free agent board early Monday.
Keep trying, Mr. Hickey.
At defensive tackle, the addition of Earl Mitchell might or might not be an upgrade compared to the loss of Paul Soliai and likely loss of Randy Starks. Yes, the Dolphins got a younger and cheaper player.
But Mitchell is going to need to adapt quickly to a scheme change from the 3-4 to the hybrid 4-3. Only time will tell if the younger, cheaper player is also the better player who can help the defense improve on last season’s disappointing No. 24 ranking against the run.
That brings me back to the running back position.
Running backs have become the unwanted runts of the free agency litter in today’s NFL.
No one values them. They all want to get paid and oftentimes they disappoint.
That’s a fair reason to tread carefully. But it’s no reason to ignore them all as if by rote, because not all free agent running backs are made the same.
Darren McFadden was and remains a pulled muscle waiting to happen. Ahmad Bradshaw was and remains unable to shake his foot injuries.
Ben Tate is a starting-caliber player. He is big. He is an upgrade. He can change the look of the Dolphins offense by adding a consistent running threat in the backfield.
Is he going to be expensive? The market might have been set Monday when McFadden signed a one-year deal for $4 million with Oakland. That sum of money is not expensive when you’ve just invested $47 million, or $9.4 million per year for Branden Albert.
The Dolphins have to sign a running back. Or they need to draft a running back and hope he’s very good very quickly.
Failing to do that is a glaring mistake. It shines in neon. It’s like hanging a sign outside the Miami locker room door that reads: “Not a contender.”