Branden Albert labored into the Dolphins’ locker room Monday, a cane helping with his balance.
Yet his reconstructed right knee, which could carry the weight of the Dolphins’ 2015 season, was bare. No protective brace, just weeks from surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL. And it was a point of pride.
“I don’t wear [a] brace,” Albert said. “Rehab coming along well. Knee coming along well.”
The Dolphins desperately hope that doesn’t change. With apologies to team MVP Ryan Tannehill, there might not be a more valuable player on their roster.
When Albert was healthy, the Dolphins’ offensive line worked. It allowed just 17 sacks in its first eight games, and with a 5-3 record had all of its goals still within reach.
But that all changed late in the second quarter in Detroit when Lions defensive tackle Andre Fluellen inadvertently fell on Albert’s right leg.
“I kinda knew right away something wasn’t right,” said Albert, who called it one of his worst days as a professional. “I’ve been through a lot of stuff, people fall on me before. But I knew from the get-go something wasn’t right.”
Albert was carted off the field. An MRI the next day confirmed the team’s worst fears. Albert was out for the season, and there was really no good backup plan.
Rookie Ja’Wuan James, a career right tackle, switched to the left side in a pinch. And for the last half of the season, he looked like a guy playing out of position.
Through eight games, James had allowed two sacks, eight quarterback hits and nine hurries.
His stats the last eight: four sacks, four hits and a staggering 29 hurries — including 18 in the last four games.
But he was practically an All-Pro compared with Dallas Thomas, who started six of the last eight games at right tackle. Thomas surrendered seven sacks in those six starts.
“It was big,” center-turned-guard Mike Pouncey said. “A major loss for our football team. Ja’Wuan was playing really good over on the right side, and Branden does what he does. He’s a great left tackle in our league, and losing him really hurt our football team”
The stats prove it. The Dolphins lost five of their last eight games with Albert sidelined. The offensive line allowed 29 sacks in the last half of the season — a rate of 3.6 per game.
Here’s a sobering stat: In 2013, when the Dolphins’ offensive line crumbled beneath the weight of its bullying scandal, Ryan Tannehill was sacked a team-record 58 times. Fifty-eight sacks through 16 games comes out to an average of 3.6 per week.
So a strong argument can be made that the offensive line that finished the 2014 season was no better than the one that finished the 2013 season.
“It was rough,” Albert acknowledged. “Watching the games and knowing you want to help your team and you can’t do nothing about it, it took a toll on me.”
All this illustrates just how badly the organization needs Albert to make a full and swift recovery. Of course, there’s his on-field impact. But the financial side should not be ignored, either.
Albert signed a five-year, $47 million deal to come to Miami last spring. His cap number in 2015 is $10.7 million — whether he’s on the roster or not.
Albert, who plans to spend his offseason rehabbing in South Florida, doesn’t have a time line to return, although the hope internally is he will be ready for the 2015 season opener.
But he has “every confidence” that he will return to the level of play he displayed before getting hurt.
“Things happen in football, and I couldn’t be there to help my team,” Albert said. “I’ve still got a future ahead of me to help this team out, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
▪ The Dolphins signed six players to futures contracts: G Mark Asper, QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, DE Emmanuel Dieke, LB Jake Knott, CB Lowell Rose and TE Jake Stoneburner.