Miami Dolphins’ identity remains unclear

The Dolphins, their fans and much of NFLdom could not disguise their Quarterback Envy on Sunday as Andrew Luck demonstrated why it can be really good to be really bad. The Colts’ 2011 misery has been supplanted by the question, “Peyton who?”

Luck was phenomenal, converting 13 of 19 third-down predicaments to progress and passing for a rookie-record 433 yards. The No. 1 draft pick can throw and, even more impressive, he doesn’t flinch when the pocket is collapsing like a black hole.

Indianapolis is no pushover, as the Dolphins learned in their thud back to the reality of a 4-4 record at the halfway point of the season. The 23-20 loss was a costly one in terms of the AFC race, but this team still has plenty of chances to exceed expectations and two of them are coming up in a five-day span against Tennessee and Buffalo.

You hear Mike Shanahan conceding that the Redskins have a promising future, Jerry Jones expressing disappointment with his Cowboys and you know it’s separation time on the schedule — time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Where do the Dolphins belong? Probably not in the playoffs until they acquire a couple more chess pieces, like for example, a Brandon Marshall at receiver.

However, anything can happen in the wild and crazy NFL. Teams at or one game above .500 have made the playoffs. It’s hard to get a handle on these Dolphins, playing under a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback. They will have to answer some tricky questions in the critical coming weeks to establish their identity.

Wherefore the running game? Reggie Bush’s electric touchdown run deserves NFL Films documentation. The late Steve Sabol would have edited the footage to show how Bush made that impossibly sharp cut against the grain without leaving his knees on the 12-yard-line.

Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said Monday that he wants Bush to get more than 12 carries per game, but defenses have responded to the Dolphins’ early-season rushing success with counteractive schemes. If the Dolphins get more than the 58 snaps they had against the Colts and if they’re leading rather than trailing, he plans to call more running plays.

“We should respond better than we have responded and we should be better than where we’re at right now,” Sherman said. “We should be well over 100 yards rushing per game.

“So we’re going to push the envelope this week and try to get back to the way we were running the football.”

What’s wrong with Jake Long? The left tackle who has been lauded as one of the best ever at his position has not been himself lately, and his performance against the Colts was one of the worst of his career. Dwight Freeney spun or freight-trained by him to sack and harass the quarterback. Long was called for false start and holding penalties. He has been so out of sync observers wonder if he’s stoically hiding an injury. Sherman insists Long is essential to his offense.

“He was going against one of the premier rushers in football,” Sherman said. “When I was with Houston [Freeney] just gave us fits. But I think Jake Long is going to be fine. We just have to settle him down. He takes things so personally. But I think when all is said and done at the end of the year we will be pleased with Jake.”

Can the secondary keep up and cover receivers against a strong quarterback? The Dolphins’ defensive backs relinquished huge plays exactly when the Colts’ backs were against the wall. They were outleaped by former FIU star T.Y. Hilton.

It was a regression game for Sean Smith and Jimmy Wilson.

On three crucial third-down plays, Indianapolis converted and went on to score a field goal, a touchdown and the winning field goal.

“I don’t know if there’s anybody that hasn’t had a game where you come off and say, ‘How did that happen?’ ’’ said defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle. “Well, this is one of them, and I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m disappointed. I’ve never seen us get in a situation where we had a team in third-and-long and weren’t able to cash in.”

The Dolphins lead the league in pass attempts against them with an average of 44.5. It’s a high risk-reward scenario. They have to create more turnovers when they force the opponent to go airborne.

“It’s a combination of we’ve got to do a better job in coverage and we have to continue to do a good job in the rush and against the running game,” Coyle said. “I think when you make teams throw the ball as much as we are, usually good things are going to happen sooner or later.”

Can Ryan Tannehill avoid a second-half slump? No one expected Tannehill to be as good as Luck, but hardly anyone expected Tannehill to be as poised and accurate as he has been so far. He has thrown zero interceptions in his last 98 attempts. Against the Colts, he showed he can throw on the run with defenders in hot pursuit. He didn’t look like a rookie on his sideline completion to Brian Hartline.

“Ryan has light years to go but he has come a long way, too,” Sherman said. “I am really excited about where he’s going to end up because he is his own worst critic and very seldom does he make the same mistake twice.”

At the pivot point of the season, the Dolphins are in good hands with calm, thoughtful coach Joe Philbin and his staff. They could finish what was supposed to be a rebuilding year way ahead of schedule. After all, a dozen more points and Miami could be 7-1 instead of 4-4.

“My wife had to remind me of this [Sunday night] because I wasn’t feeling too good,” Coyle said. “It kind of dawned on me that, yeah, we’re making progress but we’re not where we want to be. I believe in these guys and we’re going to go out and take the second half of the season.”

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