Midway through the Miami Dolphins practice on Sunday, amid all the mixing and matching of personnel we’ve seen along the offensive line, the team might just have put its strongest foundation on display for a few fleeting plays.
Without fanfare and easily overlooked in the midst of all the other activity of an NFL practice, the Dolphins substituted both their starting guards -- slipping in rookie Laremy Tunsil on the left side and veteran Jermon Bushrod on the right side.
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And there it was, the makings of what looks like a potentially good line:
Left tackle Branden Albert. Left guard Laremy Tunsil. Center Mike Pouncey. Right guard Jermon Bushrod. Right tackle Ja’Wuan James.
The picture of that line came and went without any grand upgrade in the offense’s level of play. Production didn’t instantly multiply.
The clouds did not clear.
Birds did not sing and turn everything to gladness.
It was seemingly another set of players checking into the lineup. It was just a glance at another combination of players coach Adam Gase and his staff are running through the competition wringer this camp.
But to my untrained and inexpert eyes, that group looked … right somehow.
The Dolphins have been searching for the right mix of players to put on that offensive line for years. The team has been searching for the right amount of strength and physical acumen, the best communication among teammates, the right chemistry.
And that search has so far yielded nothing.
It hasn’t been right. It hasn’t been good. Ryan Tannehill has been able to accomplish nothing notable behind those lines except getting sacked an NFL high 184 times.
So this search has to produce in three more weeks what those past searches for a good line failed produce over the span of six or seven years.
That’s a tough assignment. And because time before the Sept. 11 regular-season opener is so precious, the only way to do that now is settle on one set of players that look right and go with them.
Coach Adam Gase wants a great line more than anyone. He wants the right guys with the right chemistry. But he is intent on picking his guys based off what he and his coaches see and measure.
Not what I see. Not what you see. Not what the armchair scouts see.
“I know everybody is really itching to fire everybody and bench everybody,” Gase said of his line’s performance in the preseason opener. “We ran seven plays. I understand everybody’s concern about every little thing. [I know] certain people have history with guys that have been here in the past, but I said this right when we started this thing – everybody has a fresh start with this crew.
“Our job is to evaluate what we see. Anything that happened in the past is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to me. It does not matter. Every guy is going to get a true evaluation and we’ll make our final decision [for] the first game of the season. That’s what we are going to do. This is going to be the process that we go through.”
The logic is unassailable. Gase wants to see with his own eyes what other people have been saying since last year -- that Dallas Thomas is not acceptable as a starting left guard.
The coach also wants to see Tunsil earn his job before giving it to him.
It makes sense.
But this also makes sense: History does matter.
Nick Saban, who helped Gase get started in coaching, used to tell me over and over that “past history is the best predictor of future performance.”
So Gase is ignoring Thomas’s past because he wants to give him a fair assessment. But Saban and history say Thomas, in his fourth season, isn’t going to suddenly grow into a great left guard when he hasn’t been that before.
Bushrod, meanwhile, is another matter.
Bushrod has never been a right guard. And projecting him ahead of Billy Turner is almost borderline crazy because he is not only moving from tackle to guard but from the left side to the right side.
Except … did you watch the veteran against the Giants? He seemed effective.
Bushrod admits he’s thinking. He admits he’s not totally comfortable. At times he sounds even reluctant about the whole right guard thing. But none of that changes the fact he could be the team’s best right guard already.
“I’m fighting to embrace it,” he said Sunday. “I’m fighting to get over the rough patches and fighting to learn. It’s been a learning experience, that’s for sure. But it’s just a part of what we’re doing.”
Bushrod says the last time he regularly practiced on the right side of an offensive line was 2001. Later on he played right tackle in a Pro Bowl but wasn’t thrilled with the experience.
“It’s completely one of the most awkward things I’ve ever done,” Bushrod said. “You know, once you get past that awkward stage, then you have to change your movement pattern. I’ve been a left-sided person for the last 14-15 years if you want to date back to college.
“So it’s not easy. It’s trying to get your whole body pattern to move a whole different way. So I have to think about the way I move now. On the left side, I’d just go out there and know where I would be because it’s just natural to me.”
So Bushrod is not a natural on the right side. But I believe he can get as close to natural as necessary to be productive if he get a lot of repetitions and opportunities at right guard with the starting unit.
That hasn’t been happening to any great degree.
“Keep getting reps is the way to get better,” he said. “Continue to get in the playbook because your assignments are different at guard from the left to the right. It’s just different. It’s about going through the whole mental process and fighting through the whole physical process and working every single day.”
“With that comes reps. I’m not thinking about how our offensive line is going to shake out. I’m really fighting and not even thinking about it. Every single day it’s about grinding and finding one single thing I can work on and improve on. And hopefully over time I put that together so I can do what I need to do to contribute and help this team win.”