Miami Dolphins, like topsy-turvy NFL season, hard to figure out

09/25/2012 12:00 AM

09/12/2014 7:09 PM

There is great news for the Dolphins, but as usual it’s in the History Division. It is that in the NFL today only three unbeaten teams remain, fewest ever three weeks in, and so the unique distinction of Miami’s 1972 Perfect Season — the franchise hallmark on merit, and because nothing lately has even remotely challenged — seems safer than ever.

The old Perfectos have never prepared to celebrate sooner. Heck, Mercury Morris, who has led the league in cocky for 41 consecutive years, might already have the champagne chilling and be working on his (toast) reply to media inquiries.

The bad news for the Dolphins is as usual in the Current Division. It is that one of those three unbeaten teams left, Arizona, is Miami’s next stop on the 2012 Growing Pains tour. The Cardinals have beaten a pretty good Seattle team, won at New England, and on Sunday routed Philadelphia. These results are bona fide. And I’d remind stubborn non-believers that Arizona is 10-2 dating to last midseason, tied for the best in the league.

That the Cards are somehow managing this with the lightweight quarterback quiniela of Kevin Kolb and/or John Skelton would be dumbfounding, except that what isn’t this season in the NFL.

Trying to figure out this strangest of seasons is as hopeless as trying to build a sand castle underwater.

This year is proof that the (apparently) mightiest opponents can be beaten, but also that even the (apparently) softest opponents offer no assurances.

It’s enough to fill a team of modest expectations, like Miami, with equal parts hope and dread.

I have said in print I thought the Dolphins have a chance to compete for playoff contention, to a reaction of howling laughter, mostly. I have not stopped thinking that, even after Sunday’s overtime heartbreak of a home loss to the Stinkin’ Jets.

Can Miami beat Arizona on Sunday? Sure. Beat New England in December? Yep. I thought San Francisco was the best team left on Miami’s schedule. Those would be the same Niners who just got handled by (supposedly) lowly Minnesota.

Conversely, though, Miami could also lose to the lambs on its schedule.

These Dolphins, like this season, are impossible to predict.

There are such extremes of good and bad here.

The run defense has been terrific, shrinking every featured back presented: Arian Foster, then Darren McFadden, then Shonn Greene. The run offense has been even better. Reggie Bush is performing like a premier back (with his knee injury not being serious a huge break for Miami). The offensive line has been stout, good enough to win with.

The bad? Start with the pass defense, which has been inconsistent if I’m being generous, and smacked-around if I’m being real. When you allow 945 passing yards in three games, you have major problems. The pass rush hasn’t been good enough. And the receiving corps isn’t good enough. Brian Hartline or Davone Bess alternating decent games once or twice a month isn’t enough to disguise Miami’s glaring lack of a premier, playmaking wide receiver.

Miami’s NFL ranks in run offense and defense are fourth and third. In pass offense and defense, it’s 24th and 29th. That’s a team out of balance.

I like something coach Joe Philbin said Monday in his Jets postmortem. Yes, maybe Miami “should” be 2-1 because surely kicker Dan Carpenter “should” have made that winning 48-yard field goal in OT.

But even if he makes that kick and a glow is buoying Dolfans today, “We still have all the same problems that occurred” as Philbin put it. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we would have had a lot of work to do if the kick went through.”

I like that because it is measured. It conveys an understanding that all is not well after a win, and all is not hell after a loss.

Running effectively and stopping the run consistently will give Miami a chance to win most every game, as it did Sunday.

To get over that hump, though, we’ll need to see something of a fast-forward on the metamorphosis of rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, on his path from “raw” and “learning” to “comfortable” and “arrived.” He is severely hamstrung by the lack of an outstanding deep-threat receiver. Nevertheless, the imperative on him to be a playmaker will grow by the week.

Philbin was asked Monday how he’d like his offense to be seen.

After he mentioned no turnovers, the first thing he said was, “We’d love to be an explosive offense that can make big plays.”

Well, you need a quarterback for that — one you trust.

You need Tannehill to be more accurate, and you need his receivers to give him more opens looks, but it starts with a commitment and creativity by Philbin and offensive chief Mike Sherman to give Tannehill an expanded role.

As Miami continues to run well, play-action passes will increasingly blossom for Tannehill. As defenses stack up to limit that run, the kid will see more and more one-on-one coverage. If defenses smell anxiety, they’ll blitz and dare him to beat them.

All of those situations present a pulsing opportunity, and Tannehill’s readiness and ability to take advantage will ultimately define a Dolphins season that is still finding its shape.

About Greg Cote

Greg Cote

@gregcote

Greg Cote has been a Miami Herald sports columnist since 1995 and also writes the Random Evidence blog and NFL predictions along with his notorious sidekick the Upset Bird. He has covered Hurricanes football (1984-88), the Dolphins (1990-91) and major events including Super Bowls, NBA Finals, World Series, Stanley Cup, Olympics and World Cup.

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