With the NFL preseason about to start, I spent midday Wednesday out at Dolphins camp, peering through the haze of humidity trying to see if I saw a playoff team. The Las Vegas betting over/under on Miami victories is eight — not a playoff number — but I keep hearing vague local references to high expectations, as if the franchise is destined to bust free of its 7-9 purgatory and finally matter again.
I tire of hearing the Dolphins’ fortunes tethered to the Patriots, as if the good times can’t roll here again until Bill Belichick retires or Tom Brady turns old. I looked up the rules: Two teams from the same division are allowed to both be good at the same time.
The question is how close Miami is to being good. The answer is very. I see the Dolphins as improved, capable of postseason contention. But I also see something rather important missing, or rather someONE missing. Looked around for him Wednesday but he wasn’t here. He was elsewhere …
I looked for the familiar, towering figure of left tackle Jake Long, but he’s in St. Louis now. Miami could have re-signed the fixture of its offensive line, the guy who made four Pro Bowls in five years here. All it would have taken was a little more money or maybe more so a little more love. But they let him go.
Never miss a local story.
I looked around for left tackle Branden Albert, but he’s still in Kansas City. He would have been such a nice, logical replacement for Long that Miami tried to trade for him during the offseason, but wouldn’t up its offer. And the Chiefs wouldn’t blink.
I looked next for the rookie Lane Johnson, but he’s in Philadelphia. After failing to hold on to Long or trade for Albert, Miami had a chance to make amends in a tackle-rich draft. When it traded up to the third pick, most experts were sure it was to get Johnson. Instead, the mouths of Dolphins pundits fell agape (well, figuratively speaking) as Miami chose defensive end Dion Jordan. Johnson went next to the Eagles.
Albert, no deal.
Those three strikes have left Miami with left tackle looking like the biggest hole anywhere on its starting lineup, and a significant hole that could be.
The Dolphins also made a spring offer to free agent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, the ex-Cane, but it wasn’t good enough for him.
What’s troubling is that Miami’s actions — the pursuit of Albert, the interest in McKinnie — verified it knew left tackle was a crucial position that needed immediate help, but that need went unresolved.
The path general manager Jeff Ireland chose might prove smart if current left tackle Jonathan Martin surprises doubters by quickly playing up to that key role, or if Jordan turns out to be a prolific sacker for a lot of years.
Right now, though, that path is wrought with risk.
Short term, the Dolphins leaving left tackle to chance is ripe for second-guessing — even as I admit Aug. 1 is beating the rush on second-guessing.
(Let me also second-guess Miami possibly using top pick Jordan on special teams. That’s a 2-for-1 Early Bird Special on second-guesses!)
The Dolphins defense should be very good this season and would be even if Jordan hadn’t been drafted. Not nearly as sure the offense will be as good with left tackle pulsing as a weakness.
The Dolphins are relying on a second-year quarterback in Ryan Tannehill and a second-year running back in Lamar Miller to make huge strides this season. A premier left tackle sure would have aided the process.
It is great they brought in a top receiver in Mike Wallace. I only wish they would have attached the same emphasis to the position most protecting Tannehill’s blind side and giving him that extra second or two to find Wallace deep.
Miami has three solid offensive linemen in left guard Richie Incognito, center Mike Pouncey and right tackle Tyson Clabo. But injuries have forced shuffling and dishevelment. Martin has been a constant on the critical far left — but still a question.
“Right now we’re experimenting a little bit just seeing what we have,” Incognito said Wednesday.
Coach Joe Philbin, asked Wednesday about Martin, mentioned “his technique is improving,” and that, “we like his development.”
Those are things you hear said about a project player more than about someone being counted on right now as your starting left tackle. Especially when that same player last season, as a rookie, was ranked 76th of 80 NFL tackles by Pro Football Focus.
Martin was drafted as a right tackle but was switched last year when Long was injured. Martin allowed the most quarterback hurries (47) in the NFL. He seemed outmanned at left tackle when facing the top teams, the 49ers and Patriots.
An uneven camp for Martin thus far has not chased away many of the doubts about him, and there is no Plan B. All Miami can do at this point is pray the player teammates call J-Mart is better than K-Mart quality at the line’s most important position.
The young player is aware of the responsibility thrust on him and plies it as motivation. Athletes tend to do that. What choice do they have?
“I like having the pressure on myself,” Martin said.
He has his wish.