The red zone was the dead zone for the Miami Dolphins in 2011, the place where promising drives too often grounded to a halt.
A possible fix in Joe Philbin’s first year: Take to the air.
If Philbin’s time in Green Bay – not to mention Monday’s practice – is any indication, the new-look Dolphins could be frequent fliers this fall.
The focus of Monday’s padded practice was offense and defense execution inside the 20, and while the sample size was just a few dozen plays, the days of three-runs-and-a-Carpenter appear to be over.
First-and-10 from the 15? That was a passing down, at least on this day. Second and third downs were more of the same.
“Diversity really helps in the red zone. It keeps teams guessing,” said guard Richie Incognito. “[Last year,] it always seemed like when we’d get down there we were one-dimensional.”
Predictability (along with execution issues) resulted in the Dolphins finishing 24th league-wide in red-zone efficiency last year, scoring a touchdown on just 47 percent of possessions inside the 20.
That futility was a big reason why the club averaged a shade over 20 points per game – eighth-worst in the NFL. Five of Miami’s 10 losses last year were by three points or fewer – meaning one more successful trip into the red zone would have won each of those games.
“We were awful last year,” said tight end Anthony Fasano, who had three of Miami’s 15 red-zone receiving touchdowns. “That was probably the worst part of our offense, at least early on in the season.”
Meanwhile in Green Bay, with Philbin as offensive coordinator (although not calling plays), the Packers were nearly unstoppable close to the goal line, scoring on 65 percent of red-zone possessions. In turn, the Packers led the league in scoring, averaging two more touchdowns per game than Miami.
Granted, having the MVP (Aaron Rodgers), Pro Bowlers at fullback and receiver and power-forward-on-grass Jermichael Finley at tight end surely helps. But the Packers were also successful because they took conventional football wisdom and turned it on its ear. The closer they got to the goal line, the more it seemed they threw.
Of the Packers’ 42 red-zone touchdowns last year, 31 were through the air, including 15 from five or fewer yards – situations in which other coaches would often run. And Rodgers spread it around, connecting with Finley for eight red-zone scores, Jordy Nelson for seven and Greg Jennings for five.
The Dolphins played more to their script inside the 20 last year, with 40 percent of their red-zone scores coming on the ground.
“You can try to look at Green Bay and see what to expect, but we’re a totally different team,” Fasano added. “We look to have the same or better red zone efficiency. However we can get it in, running or passing, I think we’re going to do that.”
On Monday, quarterback David Garrard again got the majority of snaps with the first team, with mixed success. While Philbin showed a willingness to trust his quarterbacks with the ball, Garrard and Matt Moore at times struggled to shed the pass-rush and connect with open receivers. On more than one occasion, free-running blitzers met the Fins’ quarterbacks before they could even plant their back feet.
Moore did score on a quarterback draw, and Garrard hooked up a couple of times with Davone Bess for touchdowns, a few bright spots in an otherwise trying day.
The Fins also need to decide who gets the ball when they run in short-yardage. Monday, like much of last year, both Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas got their shot.
Bush scored four red-zone rushing touchdown in 2011 but averaged just 3.0 yards per carry in such situations. On Monday, he fumbled inside the 20. Thomas, who at 233 pounds is considered a more physical, between-the-tackles runner, managed just 1.4 yards per attempt in the red zone in 2011. He found little daylight in Monday morning’s session.
“We’re still not real crisp yet,” Philbin said. “I’m not panicking yet because we’ve only been in pads for two days.
“Offensively your space is restrictive, so you’ve got to be a little more precise, especially when you’re throwing the football.”