Greg Cote: Miami Dolphins preseason opener can offer hint of offense to come

08/07/2014 5:00 PM

09/08/2014 8:03 PM

Points, please, and lots of them. Touchdowns. Explosiveness. Excitement. How about an offense that regards field goals as a disappointment, not a staple? An offense where a short series means long plays and a quick score instead of a three-and-out punt.

These things have been beyond the Dolphins’ reach, too much to ask, for a long time. As the NFL has gone attack-mad and set scoring records, this team, with the ball, has for years retreated to some combination of dull, predictable or ineffective.

That is why the most critical eye is trained on Miami’s new and purportedly improved offense as the light on the 2014 season snaps on with Friday night’s first exhibition game, in Atlanta. How new coordinator Bill Lazor’s blueprint works and how well quarterback Ryan Tannehill operates with it will be what determines whether the Dolphins finally rouse from their franchise torpor and get back on the national radar.

A few simple, sad facts provide a framework here.

The last time Miami finished in the top 10 in the league in most points scored was 2001, and the last time the team was in the top 10 in most offensive yards was 1995 — the second-longest droughts in both categories, with only Tampa Bay being worse. Defense is not the reason the Fins have not played a season that included a playoff victory since 2000. In the 13 years since, Miami has been top 10 in points or offensive yards only one time (in ’01) but has been in the top 10 defensively in those categories 12 times, including the past three consecutive years in fewest points allowed.

Downright offensive

The longest-serving Dolfans must be especially frustrated at how tepid and meek the offense became because they remember how it was.

The early, championship-era 1970s Dolphins dominated offensively with brute force, with you-can’t-stop-us ball control. Snapshot: Fullback Larry Csonka, a thundering rhinoceros in cleats, kneeing through linebackers and carrying safeties on his back.

The later, high-octane-era ’80s and ’90s Dolphins dominated offensively with fireworks, with a passing attack that shot through opponents like shrapnel. Snapshot: Dan Marino, with a release as quick as an Old West gunslinger on the trigger, finding a Marks Brother. Deep. And often.

Topping 30 points in a game, that mark of potent offense, was so routine for Marino and has become so standard for so many teams, but Tannehill’s Dolphins have accomplished that only once in the past 25 regular-season games.

Fixing the offense is why Miami hired Joe Philbin as head coach. A Packers offensive coordinator under whom Aaron Rodgers flourished lights up a résumé pretty good. But Philbin and former offensive chief Mike Sherman disappointed on the scoreboard the past two seasons.

Enter Lazor, the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterbacks coach last year who made a star of quarterback Nick Foles.

Lazor has installed an offense that is up-tempo, full of movement, and seeks to stretch the field to create mismatches and space. It will see Tannehill throwing on the run more. It requires timing passes (i.e., throwing not to a receiver, but to the spot where the receiver is supposed to be).

It is a work in progress. Expect no miracles Friday night, when the first-team offense will see limited action. Also, receiver Mike Wallace (hamstring) might not play, and recently activated running back Knowshon Moreno almost certainly won’t.

“I think our tempo can still improve,” Tannehill said after a practice this week. “We should be able to get the plays in quicker, break the huddle quicker, get to the line and play faster all around.” He estimated it would be two or three more weeks before running the offense became “second nature.”

Talking points

Tannehill’s attitude was right, though, when asked of his mindset entering the preseason opener.

“Score,” he said. “That’s our whole goal as an offense. It’s live football. It’s a preseason game, and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, but it matters to us. What we go out there and show, that represents what kind of team we are.”

Most of Tannehill’s excuses have fallen away as he enters his critical third season. There is proof Lazor’s offense can succeed. An above-average corps of wideouts led by Wallace and Brian Hartline added impressive rookie Jarvis Landry. Charles Clay is an emerging star at tight end. A healthy Moreno and Lamar Miller’s further development give the ground game a chance to be much better.

Oh, and the offensive line. Last year it imploded under the weight of the Bullygate scandal, and Tannehill was sacked a franchise-worst 58 times. It can’t only be hugely improved this season after adding top left tackle Branden Albert in free agency and then spending a No. 1 draft pick on tackle Ja’Wuan James.

Might the Dolphins end their long drought this season and finally have a top 10 NFL offense again?

Don’t expect an answer in Friday’s night exhibition debut.

Starving Dolfans would settle for small signs, a crumb or two of hope.

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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