Armando Salguero

Dolphins midseason report card: Don’t make playoff plans just yet

Running back Jay Ajayi (23) is carrying the Dolphins’ offense now, and that big jump Ryan Tannehill (17) was supposed to make under coach Adam Gase has not manifested.
Running back Jay Ajayi (23) is carrying the Dolphins’ offense now, and that big jump Ryan Tannehill (17) was supposed to make under coach Adam Gase has not manifested. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The Miami Dolphins have the feel of a playoff team now as they make the turn on the midway point of their season. But here’s a friendly warning:

Be hopeful.

But also be wary.

I suggest caution because even as the Dolphins have won three consecutive games to hit the midseason mark at 4-4, history has proved that a solid or even a good start by this franchise doesn’t mean all that much.

Consider:

▪ In 2012, the Dolphins were 4-4 at the midpoint of the season and finished 7-9.

▪ In 2013, the Dolphins were 4-4 at the midpoint of the season and finished 8-8.

▪ In 2014, the Dolphins were 5-3 at the midpoint of the season and finished 8-8.

▪ Last year, the Dolphins were 3-5 at the midpoint of the season and turned in an equally disappointing 3-5 record the second half.

So if Adam Gase’s Dolphins are going to blossom the second half of this season, they have to do something Joe Philbin’s Dolphins never did.

These Dolphins have to actually get better as the season moves along.

And that brings me back to the season’s first half because what we saw was often exciting and frustrating, troubling and promising. The first half felt like 4-4.

To that end let’s examine how this roster and these coaches did the first half of 2016.

Quarterback

That big jump Ryan Tannehill was supposed to make under Gase? That hasn’t manifested. Everyone knows that by simply looking at Tannehill’s statistics.

A deeper look, courtesy of sources within and outside the organization, suggests Tannehill is doing a great job getting the offense out of bad play calls. He has been much better connecting on deep passes than anytime in his career. All his problems have not all been his doing because oftentimes receivers run wrong routes, or the offensive line didn’t protect him earlier in the season.

Having said that, Tannehill still needs to improve his pocket mobility. His instincts and awareness are still suspect. And, although he’s playing faster than in the past, he needs to play faster still.

▪ Grade: B-minus.

Offensive line

Throw out the Tennessee game. That offensive line doesn’t even exist anymore. Ja’Wuan James was bad earlier in the season, which surprised everyone because he hadn’t been a problem his first two seasons. But that seems somewhat fixed lately.

The only question about Mike Pouncey’s ability is durability. When he has been in the lineup, he has been very good. Branden Albert has been excellent and he has taken on the added responsibility of helping rookie Laremy Tunsil learn to be a professional.

Tunsil? He has had some cringe-worthy moments off the field that included slipping and falling in a shower, forcing him to miss a game because of an injury. But when he’s on the field, he has shown consistent improvement.

Jermon Bushrod struggled earlier this season but there was improvement as the career left tackle learned to play right guard.

▪ Grade: A.

Running backs

Jay Ajayi is carrying the offense now and that’s excellent but one cannot dismiss the fact he didn’t finish strong in the preseason and started the regular season poorly for various reasons. The rest of the cast has done its job, with Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake filling roles well enough and promising improvement in the future.

▪ Grade: A-minus.

Wide receivers

Jarvis Landry plays with swag. That a 206-pound player is so physical that it inspires teammates is amazing. Landry is also on course for a 98-catch, 1,200-yard season. But he has only one touchdown.

He needs to run the routes he’s supposed to run every time. And he needs to cut down on penalties. Otherwise he’s an A-plus player.

DeVante Parker hasn’t been that. Parker has been an enigma on the offense. Despite his great gifts, he hasn’t made the jump he promised after finishing his rookie year as the team’s most explosive receiver.

And he’s never healthy. He hasn’t been 100 percent all year, according to the Dolphins. Very frustrating.

Kenny Stills is Miami’s deep threat and when he’s not in the lineup it is obvious something is lacking. Defenses react differently. He leads all the receivers with three TDs.

But the Dolphins wish he had four because that one he didn’t get in Seattle still stings.

▪ Grade: B-minus.

Defensive line

Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake are having Pro Bowl seasons a year after neither played at a Pro Bowl level in 2015. Andre Branch, promoted to a starting job the past month, is hoping to get a good contract after this season and he’s playing like he deserves one.

Mario Williams has been good at times; not good at other times. Same with Jordan Phillips. And all these guys need to play the run better.

▪ Grade: A-minus.

Linebackers

Kiko Alonso has earned his individual A. He communicates well. He is the leading tackler. He figures in practically every official defensive statistic and one unofficial statistic — hurting other team’s players.

The rest of the linebacker corps is a mix-and-match set that is often fighting injury or fighting to stay on the field. This group needs to get better in the second half.

▪ Grade: C.

Cornerbacks

Xavien Howard has been injured, both Byron Maxwell and Tony Lippett were benched and then thrust back into the starting lineup and Bobby McCain has been both good and bad — as shown against the Jets when he got beaten for a touchdown and then had an interception.

Coaches are doing it with smoke and mirrors at cornerback.

▪ Grade: C-minus.

Safeties

Reshad Jones was having an All-Pro season before he got injured. The team is trying to overcome the loss by using a safety-by-committee approach, and so far, so good — although not great. Isa Abdul-Quddus has been as good as advertised when he signed.

▪ Grade: C-plus.

Special teams

Matt Darr was arguably the team’s best player in September. The dropped snap last week was a mirage. Andrew Franks has been reliable enough and perfect on extra points, Jakeem Grant and Drake are rookies but have already figured prominently on special teams. This unit has to cut down on penalties and improve its punt coverage.

▪ Grade: A-minus.

Coaching

It took this new staff awhile to learn the players and what they do best. It took them awhile to understand Wake needed to start and Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner needed to go. It also took them awhile to explain to the defensive line that “Go get the quarterback” does not absolve linemen from defending the run.

But these guys get it. They’re changing the culture. The team practices hard and now starts faster. The calls from the sideline are generally very good. The communication with players is great and Gase has the pulse of the locker room.

▪ Grade: A-minus.

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