It was the first time the 2015 Dolphins lined up on practice field. It was offense against defense, man against man. It was the prelude to the 2015 NFL season on that field.
And on this day of fresh starts — with Ndamukong Suh’s first practice with his new team and Ryan Tannehill’s first huddle with all his new weapons — coach Joe Philbin surely had one eye on this beginning …
… And another eye on how the coming season will finish.
Finishing, you see, is a big deal for Philbin and his Dolphins this season because it has been such a glaring problem the past couple of seasons.
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The last couple of seasons the Dolphins have been good enough, long enough to be close to winning at the end of multiple games. And somehow they’ve failed to finish and lost in the last few seconds to Detroit, Denver, Green Bay and others.
The Dolphins have been good enough, long enough the past two seasons to be within a win (2013) or two (2014) of making the playoffs and competing for a title. And somehow they have wilted late in the season, losing two in a row in ’13 and two of three last season.
The Dolphins have failed to finish.
And so even as this season’s full roster — minus a couple of injured guys — gathered for on a practice field for the first time in 2015, there was perhaps more talk of finishing.
“One of the things we’ve spent a lot of time on, more time than ever, is answering the question how are we going to finish better,” Philbin said during a private moment after practice.
“Everything we’re doing is looking at that. During OTAs we’ve started a four-minute cool down, stretch period. I’ve been incorporating [sports performance director] Wayne Diesel, [strength coach] Darren Krein, and [assistant strength coach] Dave Puloka, and that’s probably a little piece of it — hey, maybe we haven’t been as fresh at the end of the season.
“We have to look at how we’re practicing. We have to look at the game week and maybe make some subtle changes to the game week we haven’t done in the past. We’ll make some subtle changes to training camp — different than we’ve done before.”
Philbin, sometimes accused of being intransigent or bent on doing things his way, is looking at everything, including changes, to solve a problem that has separated the Dolphins from contention.
“I’m looking for way to be more efficient with our guys, keep our guys fresher, not wear them out,” he said. “I’ve got to believe some of that, it’s all cumulative, and so even with training camp, it should make a difference for us in December and January.
“As background, as a football coach, what’s your natural instinct? Let’s get one more rep. I’ve been relying and listening to a lot of different perspectives.
“We’ve already talked how we’re going to handle Thanksgiving. How we’re going to handle Christmas. How we’re going to handle post London. How are we going to handle the Monday night game and the West Coast trip. We’re already knee deep in those discussions, and we’ve already got three or four different scenarios. We’ll get together and kick it around. We’re close to nailing that down. It’s a real important part of what we’ve been doing this offseason.”
This is not a superficial look to a pesky issue. This is a full-blown study-every-option-because-jobs-are-on-the line approach.
“A lot of time has been spent on, ‘Look, we got in position for a couple of years to have a chance to compete for a championship, a playoff spot.’ But we haven’t done it,” Philbin said. “So we have to understand some of the reasons why. That’s one piece of the equation.”
The Dolphins must address this issue because it seems this offseason they have addressed many of the other issues that kept them from rising above mediocre.
They have better tailored the receivers to quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s abilities. Perhaps that’s one reason Tannehill said Tuesday this is “the most athletic group” he has seen since he joined the Dolphins in 2012.
“I think especially in our skill positions, guys I’m throwing the ball to, guys are natural pass catchers,” Tannehill said. “They catch the ball with their hands and are athletic. It is definitely the most athletic group we’ve had.”
It can be argued this is the most talented team Philbin has had in his tenure. This team might easily have six Pro Bowl players in Brent Grimes, Reshad Jones, Ndamukong Suh, Mike Pouncey, Braden Albert and Cameron Wake.
But will that guarantee success?
Only if they can learn to finish.