Most, if not all of the work is complete for the Miami Dolphins’ starters this preseason. If they play Thursday’s exhibition finale it would constitute the biggest upset of the season. So this is it until the team opens its 50th anniversary season on Sept. 13.
And what does that mean?
What do we have cooking in Davie?
Well, having watched the three preseason games, having gathered reams of information and tons of anecdotes from players and coaches, and having seen with my eyes every single practice the team has opened to the media, I truly believe this is a playoff-good team.
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(Confession: I thought the Dolphins’ roster was playoff-good last year and, you know, they didn’t sniff the postseason.)
But this team has a different vibe.
It has a different feel.
It also has a scary-good defensive line that stoned the Atlanta Falcons’ first-team offense on seven rushes for zero yards while the starters were in the game. This could be the best defensive line we’ve seen in aqua and orange since Vern Den Herder, Bob Baumhower and A.J. Duhe were playing up front in the late 1970s.
Those late ’70s Miami teams posted records of 10-4 in 1977, 11-5 in 1978 and 10-6 in 1979.
And that’s about where I expect these Dolphins to be after this regular season is over.
This is a 10-6ish team we’ve seen this training camp and preseason.
Now that I’ve offended the entire Dolphins fan base — half because I’ve been too generous so I’m obviously a homer, and the other half because I haven’t given the Dolphins enough credit and I’m obviously a hater — let me tell you why my prediction is subject to so many caveats that it really means very little.
The first caveat starts at the very top with coach Joe Philbin.
Let’s face it, we don’t know if this good but enigmatic man is really a good coach or not. His career 23-25 record that lacks postseason credibility suggests he is what his record says he is: mediocre at best.
He’s a great organizer. He’s a great decision-maker on replays. He’s great at knowing what the opposition is likely to do.
But he has not been good as an innovator. He hasn’t shown himself to be a great leader. And his players have liked him but haven’t loved him to a degree that they would extend themselves to unexpected heights — especially not late in the past two seasons.
So, is Philbin, handed a good roster, going to milk it for every single win it has in it like a Bill Belichick might?
Philbin has made an effort to build relationships with his players these past eight months, so maybe that pays dividends late this season. That has yet to be seen.
Another issue the Dolphins must manage because it threatens to determine to a significant degree whether this offense is solid or very, very good is the health of left tackle Branden Albert.
You’ll recall when Albert went down with a knee injury last November, the reverberations felt along the rest of the line seemed to cause earthquake havoc. Sacks went up, rushing yards went down.
Well, the news on Albert has been good this preseason. He has been on course to return to the lineup for the season opener at Washington, and the team privately continues to insist that is the target date to see him back on the field.
That despite a report by ESPN on Saturday that stated Albert might not be back until the third week of the season.
If Albert comes back and stays back, this team is playoff-good. If not, the picture dims significantly. Also, if Mike Pouncey, who left Saturday’s game with a knee injury, is not healthy, the picture dims significantly.
Finally, if the unproven guards play like unproven guards … the picture dims significantly.
The point is the offensive line is an epicenter of worries. A lot of things have to go exactly right for the Dolphins’ playoff hopes to remain intact.
There are other worries. Whereas the defensive line is an A-plus unit, the linebacker corps behind it is a C-plus group right now. Koa Misi is a question mark because we don’t know if he can stay healthy. Kelvin Sheppard is a question mark because he has been a journeyman his four previous seasons. Jelani Jenkins is probably the best of the group, and he has not exactly been a big-time playmaker.
So why am I telling you all that might go wrong?
Because I can balance with a lot of things that might go right.
Ryan Tannehill this preseason has been simply outstanding. He has completed 80.5 percent of his passes and has a quarterback rating of 121.8. That’s Peyton Manning in his prime orbit.
Tannehill has put up those numbers without perhaps his most dynamic receiver DeVante Parker. If the rookie can get up to speed, this group will be better than last year’s group.
If Parker can’t get healthy, Jarvis Landry, Greg Jennings and maybe Kenny Stills or Rishard Matthews are going to be pretty good in their own right.
Running back Lamar Miller is expecting a big season. Strong safety Reshad Jones is going to have a huge season. Tight end Jordan Cameron promises he’s healthy, which means he’s going to be pretty good.
The pieces are in place for a run at 10-6.