Are the 2014 Dolphins better than the 2013 team that failed (again) to make the playoffs?
That’s the only question that matters from now until December.
It matters because the answer could decide whether Joe Philbin is coach beyond this year. The answer could decide whether Ryan Tannehill continues to be the face of the franchise. The answer could decide whether the team makes the playoffs.
Is this team better?
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Is there improvement?
The answer is subjective now without the benefit of actual game results to measure owner Stephen Ross’ new product.
All we have is opinions. And the range of those opinions ran the gamut from cautious hope to testosterone-fueled certainty at Dolphins camp Friday.
“I would like to think we’re better but I’m one of those guys that believes the proof is in the pudding,” defensive end Cameron Wake said, choosing caution. “It doesn’t matter what I think, what you think or any of those bloggers and tweeters say. Whatever.
“Once you step on the field and you slap someone in the head with pads on and you do it better than last year, then you can say you’re better. To come out here and make predictions and say this and that … it’s to be seen.”
This time of year on the football calendar is, like it or not, about predictions. Coaches are in part projecting ability to set their rosters and lineups. Players are expecting the best possible outcomes because, well, what do you expect them to do? And media is predicting winners and losers before any game even begins.
Receiver Mike Wallace had a message for anyone thinking the Dolphins are not going to be better and indeed could be much worse this year:
“They sleepin’ on us,” he said. “We gonna wake they’re [butts] up, though.”
From my vantage point there are areas the Dolphins have addressed that will show definitive, undoubted improvement over last season.
The team with troubling offensive line questions is nonetheless vastly improved at left tackle. No question. Branden Albert over Jonathan Martin or Bryant McKinnie is inarguable.
But it’s also inarguable the loss of center Mike Pouncey for up to half the season as he rehabs from hip surgery is a retreat not an advance.
The question becomes whether Dallas Thomas will be any better than John Jerry. Whether Ja’Wuan James will be better than Tyson Clabo. Whether Daryn Colledge will be better than Richie Incognito.
There is no way to say any of those are certain improvements. One cannot say the Dolphins got worse at the spots, either, but there is simply no way to be certain of the improvement the team is selling.
(Colledge, by the way, may or may not be better on the field, but he likely isn’t going to be sending teammates the kind of texts Incognito did, so that’s good).
The receiver corps is likely going to be better collectively. The return of Brandon Gibson from injury is encouraging and the Dolphins have high expectations for rookie Jarvis Landry. There is so much talent in this group the Dolphins may be forced to cut one or two receivers who will play elsewhere in the NFL this season.
That’s good for the passing game.
But to say the running back corps, and thus the running game, is definitely better is a stretch. Knowshon Moreno adds a fine third-down blocker but as a runner he may or may not be any better than Lamar Miller once he stops seeing defenses that are more worried about containing Peyton Manning than him.
Defensively, the Dolphins must stop the run to stop the bleeding.
And losing Paul Soliai, one of the better run-stuffers on the roster last season, is not likely to make things better. The opposite seems possible even with the addition of Earl Mitchell to the defensive tackle corps.
Is Koa Misi going to be an improvement over Dannell Ellerbe at middle linebacker? I doubt Misi will get trucked by a Jets quarterback like Ellerbe did last year. But until Misi actually plays his first NFL game as a middle linebacker, suggesting he’s an upgrade seems silly.
Is Cortland Finnegan an upgrade? Well, 2010 Finnegan would be but 2013 Finnegan probably wouldn’t be. So which player is he?
Is Louis Delmas an upgrade over Chris Clemons?
Clemons was quiet on and off the field. He rarely said a word. He rarely made a big play. He rarely made a big mistake in coverage.
Delmas has a big personality, is a big hitter, and has a reputation for making big plays. But he also has a reputation for giving up big plays.
So is the switch a net gain or loss?
The team has improved at the offensive coordinator position. No, new coordinator Bill Lazor will not catch a pass or score a touchdown.
But just one day of training camp suggests a more diverse offense. This offense will utilize motion. It will move players, especially receivers, around. No one will be lining up in the same place an entire game as happened last season.
The first practice that featured poor execution nonetheless included end-around plays, screens of multiple varieties, and the spread option in which the quarterback both handed off and ran with the football.
Oh, and I didn’t hear Go and Go-Go once during the practice.
“I’m very excited about Bill Lazor and what he brings to the team,” Ross said. “I think that’s probably a major improvement that I think we did.”
Lazor will be an upgrade. But when one of the team’s biggest improvements never gets on the field, that begs the question whether the Dolphins have improved enough or at all on that field.
We’ll see. Did I mention the left tackle spot is definitely improved?