Late last season when the Miami Dolphins were bleeding rushing yards and points on defense, coaches had a heated debate about what to do with the hemorrhaging linebacker position.
On one side, the argument was made that Kiko Alonso should be moved from middle linebacker to an outside linebacker spot and second-year backup Mike Hull should take over in the middle, thus making Miami’s injury-plagued linebackers more physical and productive.
On the other side of the debate, some argued the move would hurt Alonso because it would take him out of a position he was familiar and comfortable playing. And, furthermore, players around Alonso might not be ready to react and play as fast as they had because a new player at one spot and a displaced player at another was too much for everyone to handle mentally.
Ultimately, the side advocating no change won. Alonso stayed in the middle and Hull, a middle linebacker throughout his college days at Penn State, got some snaps outside where he was obviously out of position.
Knowing this, consider the difference today as the Dolphins are weighing almost constant change at linebacker.
New defensive coordinator Matt Burke recently said he doesn’t know where any of his linebackers will be playing and the trio of Alonso, and newcomers Lawrence Timmons and Raekwon McMillan might actually play one position one week and another the following week.
So how could such a stark difference in approach be possible when it was rejected months ago?
The Dolphins believe they have a smarter team this year than they did in 2016.
We’re not talking about Albert Einstein split-the-atom intelligence here. We’re talking football smarts.
We’re talking don’t run out of bounds with a minute left in the game when your team is clinging to a three-point lead. Don’t score a go-ahead touchdown and give up valuable yards on the ensuing kickoff because you lost your head and taunted the defender after the score, drawing a flag.
The Dolphins coaching staff was happy with last year’s 10-6 record. But the same coaches were bitterly frustrated because they’re convinced the Dolphins could have been better if they’d been smarter.
That’s why one of this offseason’s primary goals in adding talent was also adding football smarts.
So this is what executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum said recently when discussing some of Miami’s additions:
“I think we got good players, good people,” Tannenbaum said. “They’re smart. They’re tough. I think they’re really good culture fits for what [general manager] Chris [Grier], [head coach] Adam [Gase], [owner) Steve Ross and myself believe in, and what you need to put a winner together.”
This is what defensive coordinator Matt Burke said he likes about first-round draft pick Charles Harris:
“We thought he was one of the more polished pass rushers in the draft,” Burke said. “We liked his make-up, his intelligence; he’s a really bright kid.”
This is what Grier said about second-round pick Raekwon McMillan:
“He is highly intelligent,” Grier said. “We love his football intellect. We loved talking with the kid. This guy really understands football...Raekwon is that quarterback on the defense. It’s been that way his whole life. The expectation is that he’ll prove that he can handle that here at this level.”
This is Grier on seventh-round pick Isaiah Ford: “He’s a very smart kid when you talk to him, so he really understands leverages, coverages, running routes, finding the open spots in zones.”
The Dolphins liked fifth-round pick Isaac Asiata’s grit and toughness. But they also liked this:
“He’s very smart with a passion and a love for football,” Tannenbaum said.
The team traded for Julius Thomas and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen recently raved about how the tight end “asks all the right questions.”
Do you see a pattern here? You should because it isn’t a coincidence. It’s a necessity.
The Dolphins, in the same division with perhaps the smartest team in football in the New England Patriots, decided after last season they needed to improve something beyond athletic ability. They needed greater football smarts to compete with the Patriots.
They believe they’ve added some of that this offseason.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero