The first play of this Dolphins training camp had a chance to set the tone and send a message to the capacity crowd that trekked to watch 2013’s first practice. Mike Wallace, the newly minted deep-threat receiver, was running behind a defender along the right sideline and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the franchise’s greatest hope for a return to prominence, spotted him and flung the ball downfield.
A chorus of sighs filled the humid morning air.
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“It wasn’t our cleanest day,” Tannehill said afterward. “We definitely have rust we have to knock off.”
None of this means failure for the Dolphins’ grand offseason plan. That plan of paying Wallace $60 million to join Tannehill and become the big-play combination that has been absent in these parts for a decade is still on track.
But success might take a while, folks. That’s the conclusion to draw after the Dolphins’ first practice of 2013.
Not only did Tannehill and Wallace fail to connect on that first throw, but the second and third throws also were incomplete. Tannehill was more effective throwing to the familiar Brian Hartline. He was even seemingly more comfortable (and effective) throwing to newcomers Brandon Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller.
Anyone who came to this practice expecting lightning bolts from Tannehill to Wallace had to wait until practice was two-thirds over to see the two finally hook up on an out-cut route.
That pass netted about8 yards.
So, yes, this day was more fizzle than fireworks.
But neither Wallace nor Tannehill despised the small beginnings because they recognize one practice will bleed into another and another for the next seven weeks before the Dolphins open in Cleveland on Sept. 8. Tannehill may throw 500 practices passes and Wallace might catch 100 of those before the regular-season opener arrives.
So the duo has some time to get acquainted.
“It does take a little bit of time,” Tannehill said.
But the Dolphins are hopeful it doesn’t take tons of time because football is played on a clock, and it is already ticking. That’s why Wallace, a proven veteran of four NFL seasons, is taking these practices as seriously as when he was a rookie third-round pick in Pittsburgh.
“We don’t have time for a lot of jokes,” he said. “We have to be focused out here. When we walk inside we joke a lot, but out here we’re trying to learn each other right now. I think once we start making some plays we’ll have time to joke, but right now we’ve got to be a little bit serious and get on the same page.
“Once we’re on the same page, then we can crack some jokes.”
The Dolphins chased Wallace in free agency because last season’s offense showed little ability to connect on big pass plays. A typical Dolphins touchdown drive took 12 to 14 plays.
“That was like giving birth,” offensive coordinator Mike Sherman famously said after one such marathon drive.
Miami was 26th in the NFL in passing yards per game and 22nd in passing yards per play. The team had only three pass plays of 40 yards or more.
Wallace alone had four pass plays spanning 40 yards or more last season in Pittsburgh. And that’s the kind of defense-wrecking work the Dolphins hope to see him bring.
“We definitely have to have more explosive plays in the passing game,” coach Joe Philbin said. “No question about it.”
Philbin shows no sign of doubt those plays will come. But until they actually manifest, their arrival is only a hope. Their arrival is uncertain.
The truth is the Dolphins have questions they must answer before anyone knows if they can threaten a defense from any spot on the field. Yes, Wallace has proven that he can be a threat, so that’s not an issue.
But the Miami offensive line, along with backs and even tight ends at times, must show they can block well enough, long enough to allow those long, deep pass plays to develop.
Hartline and Gibson must show they’re enough of a threat so that defenses don’t simply eliminate Wallace with coverage.
And Tannehill, well, he has to prove his accuracy on the deep ball is better than last year. That’s because there were at least a handful of plays (maybe more) in which Hartline, a deceptively speedy receiver, got open behind defenses and those never ended with a touchdown.
With one notable exception against Arizona, Tannehill misfired on several of those deep passes. Some throws were too long. A couple of the passes were underthrown. One time, Hartline had to stop running to catch the ball as if it had been a punt.
That pass was completed, but it didn’t result in the touchdown it could have been if Tannehill had hit the receiver in stride.
That has to be resolved this season. And it would be nice if it could be resolved by the season opener.
“We’re a football team; it’s not about two people around here,” Wallace said. “But we’re a big part of this team, so we definitely need to be on the same page. Not midseason, not Game 3 or Game 4. We need to be on the same page from Game 1 on.”
So don’t be surprised if the Dolphins try Sunday’s practice-opening, deep-pass play again.
“Hopefully, we get it again [Monday],” Wallace said, “and we’ll hit it.”