The Dolphins’ phrase for this week is “not sustainable.”
Joe Philbin used those words to make sure his players, stung by a blowout loss to New Orleans, understood giving up sacks at a team-record pace and yielding turnovers, including four last week, is “not sustainable” over an entire season.
“We are 3-1 at the present time,” Philbin said, “but some of these things aren’t going to lead to continued consistent success.”
Well, here’s something else that is “not sustainable” for the Dolphins:
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Using Mike Wallace as he is currently being used — which is to say not nearly enough and, indeed, often misusing him to the point he is disappointed and worried about his first four regular-season weeks with his new team.
“I’m definitely worried about it because it’s Game Four,” Wallace said. “I’m not paranoid or anything, but in Week 4 it’s not the way I imagined my first four weeks going. Definitely not. I’m pretty sure it’s not the way anybody imagined it going.”
When the Dolphins signed Wallace to the biggest free agent contract they ever have offered, the idea was to have the proven deep-threat receiver bring a dimension to the offense that has been lacking since Irving Fryar in the early 1990s.
The Dolphins correctly believed they were getting a player who could blow the top off the defense, as people in the league say, and would do that consistently because he had done it for the Pittsburgh Steelers the previous four seasons.
But these first four games haven’t quite gone as planned. Wallace, a career 17.2-yards-per-catch receiver before he arrived, is averaging 11.7 yards now. The man who averaged eight touchdowns per season from 2009 through 2012 is on pace for four touchdowns this season.
“I know one thing — we’re not going to be able to go through a whole year like that,” Wallace said. “We have to make big plays. We have to back defenses up. That’s what we have to do. Extra film work, different plays, extra practice, whatever it is, whatever it’s going to take, we have to do it to get it done. We have to make big plays.
“I got to make big plays. That’s my main thing. I’ve been used to making big plays. And I definitely, definitely can make big plays. That’s what I do. That’s why I came here. That’s why they signed me. It just hasn’t happened so far for one reason or another.”
There are a handful of reasons the Dolphins are not maximizing Wallace, and everyone involved is responsible for the problem. That means coaches, Wallace, quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and some other players.
Start with Wallace. He dropped a couple of passes against New Orleans, including one that might have been a long gain, if not a long touchdown. He acknowledged that.
“That’s me,” he said.
But that one opportunity for a long play aside, it’s otherwise not on him. Some is on the protection, because Tannehill, often under an angry rush, doesn’t have time to let deep plays develop.
Some is on Tannehill and Wallace as a battery because they have not developed a chemistry to rival that of Tannehill and Brian Hartline or even Tannehill and Brandon Gibson.
And a lot seems to be on Miami coaches, who simply are not tapping into Wallace as the resource he previously has proved to be.
When Wallace had his great seasons in Pittsburgh, then-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians moved him around the formation, sometimes placing him outside, sometimes in the slot, sometimes bunched near the line of scrimmage. Arians also put Wallace in motion ostensibly so defenders would have to chase the speedy receiver even before the play began.
The Dolphins rarely have put Wallace in motion in any game other than the one against Indianapolis. And, curiously, they line him up in the same place practically 90 percent of the time — out wide on the right side of the formation.
“Primarily, when we are in our quick tempo and moving things around, we want to get guys in a position where they can line up a little bit faster, get the play entry in and get the clock moving,” Philbin said. “That’s the primary reason.”
That’s a solid reason, but there are ramifications to that approach, the most obvious of which is it helps the defense, too.
“There will not be a lot of mysteries to what side to where we line up,” Philbin said before launching a defense of the strategy. “ I can’t speak to how much of an advantage it is [for the defense].
“There’s different ways of doing it. I don’t know if there is any downside. That’s just a decision we made, and that’s how we do it. I don’t know if there is a specific downside to it.”
Here’s a downside, Coach: The Dolphins line up Wallace to the right and ask Tannehill to connect with him deep, although Tannehill is not all that effective throwing deep toward the right side.
Stats tell the story
According to the football metrics website ProFootballFocus.com, Tannehill has so far in his career completed 28 of 56 passes (50 percent completion rate) for 504 yards, with seven touchdowns and only one interception throwing passes of 10 yards or more in the air to his left.
Seven touchdowns, one interception throwing deep left.
On his throws of 10 yards or more to the right side in his NFL career, Tannehill has completed 34 of 75 passes (45 percent) for 799 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions.
One touchdown, three interceptions throwing deep right.
That’s not a coincidental statistic, as it spans 20 games. And the numbers for this year’s four games are more startling.
This season, Tannehill has completed 10 of 15 passes for 168 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions throwing passes beyond 10 yards to his left.
He has completed only 4 of 14 attempts for 84 yards without a touchdown or interception throwing to his right beyond 10 yards in the air.
“I don’t even think about it,” Tannehill said.
Perhaps he should start, because the facts are screaming at full throat, demanding that Tannehill improve his deep throws to the right and suggesting to coaches that if they want Tannehill and Wallace to connect more consistently, occasionally putting the receiver on the left side might help.
It also might help if Tannehill and Wallace grew closer. Although both say the right things about their professional relationship, it’s obvious to anyone with eyes Tannehill has a stronger bond with Hartline, who, by the way, almost always lines up on the left side.
Tannehill and Hartline clicked almost instantly last season even though the receiver missed most of the offseason and the entire preseason with an injury. The two come out early before games and toss the ball together. Often they sit next to each other on the bench.
Hartline is Tannehill’s go-to guy.
“I would say so,” Wallace said. “Maybe it’s because they played a whole year together. I don’t know. That’s they’re thing. They do what they do. They prepare how they prepare. I prepare how I prepare. I don’t know what they do together. Honestly, that’s their relationship.”
Dolphins coaches suggest time and hard work is the cure for this issue. That is interesting as both Wallace and Tannehill work as hard as anyone. The quarterback puts in long hours and the receiver regularly catches 250 passes each day, including 100 on the JUGS passing machine.
But those long hours and countless passes are not paying dividends yet.
Something has to change. And, in his mind, Wallace has marked the midway point of the season as his personal zero hour. He wants to see better results by Miami’s eighth game or he’s going to start getting “paranoid,” as he said.
“Then definitely something’s wrong,” he said. “And we’re almost there. We only have four more games before that. We’re already four games in. We don’t have too much longer to figure it out. We got to make it happen. I don’t know what we have to do
“We all got to do a better job and find a way to make it work.”