The decision facing Adam Gase seems simple enough to comprehend: Put his players on the field Thursday night at Hard Rock Stadium and let them compete and get better while realizing this participation also risks injuries in a meaningless exhibition.
Or Gase can sit his key guys and keep them healthy understanding that costs added chemistry, improvement and experience.
It is the decision every head coach and his staff make before every NFL preseason game. So in that regard this is a routine thing.
But these decisions, for this game, are hardly routine for Gase because he’s dealing with a unique set of circumstances that make these calls difficult.
The Miami Dolphins, you see, are reeling from injuries. They’ve already lost their starting quarterback for the season. They’ve already lost their starting middle linebacker for the season. Their starting left guard is headed to the injured reserve list because he tore the bicep in his right arm and won’t be available until sometime in November. The starting and backup running backs are either in the NFL concussion protocol or have just emerged from it. A backup cornerback is out for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. The starting center is being managed carefully because he’s had multiple hip injuries the past couple of years and hasn’t played a full season since 2011.
All the injuries make for one long, long paragraph.
Oh, and did I mention the turf at Hard Rock Stadium is awful?
That’s right, players complained to their coaches during and after the preseason opener last week that the footing was treacherous and more likely to cause an injury than if it was in good condition.
So Gase has tons of stuff to consider. Tons.
Let’s go through it on a case-by-case basis:
Quarterback Jay Cutler ... He is the new starter and will start tonight against Baltimore. That is decided. The question is how long does he go? And the answer to that question may depend on the relative health of the offensive line. The line is banged up. So a little care is required but ultimately, Cutler has to protect himself, too.
Matt Moore? I would only play him a couple of series if at all. He doesn’t need it. I’d play David Fales and Brandon Doughty a majority of the game.
The offensive line ... Starting left guard Ted Larsen is out with that biceps tear. So do the Dolphins play Anthony Steen there? Or Kraig Urbik? The only way Urbik plays there is if center Mike Pouncey starts at center. He wants to play. Gase is less inclined to play him. If Pouncey does not play, Urbik starts at center. By the way, Urbik has been nursing tightness in his back so his status might depend on how well he warms up.
Ja’Wuan James has been nursing a shoulder injury and hasn’t practiced all week. Don’t count on him playing tonight. Obviously, the team has to find a :LG so Anthony Steen might work in there if Urbik starts at center. If Pouncey starts at center tonight, Urbik can move to LG.
By the way, if Pouncey plays tonight one has to wonder why? Why? Why, why, why?
What do the Dolphins want to prove? What happened to bubble wrap?
My guess, my hope is Pouncey does not play until maybe next week.
Laremy Tunsil and Jermon Bushrod are expected to play. Tunsil missed last week’s game so he needs the snaps.
Running back ... The question is do the Dolphins put Jay Ajayi out there? He emerged from the concussion protocol on Monday. The day before, he had to leave practice because he was dehydrated. So it makes sense to keep him sidelined and get him fully immersed next week in dual practices with the Philadelphia Eagles before playing him some against the Eagles.
The Dolphins, however, might see value in playing Ajayi so he can get some preseason-speed repetitions with new quarterback Jay Cutler.
The Two-Jays are going to be a thing this season if the Dolphins are going to succeed, so coaches may decide it’s necessary to get them on the same page with handoffs and pass protection and Ajayi running pass routes.
This is solid football thinking. Except, again, Ajayi is coming off a concussion. His backup Kenyan Drake is in the concussion protocol. You’re going to hand him the ball 1,537,038 times this season. This game is meaningless. There are good dual practices next week to help the Two-Jays get chemistry -- and then a game, and then two more weeks of practice after that before the regular-season opener.
The risk versus reward of playing Ajayi tonight doesn’t seem to weigh evenly.
So which way does Gase lean? Decisions like this is why he gets the big bucks.
Me? I get the tiny bucks. I don’t have a say. But I would hold Ajayi out.
Receivers .. Everyone’s healthy. Everyone should play as long as Cutler plays. This group, including the starting tight ends and wide outs, need to catch up to Cutler and vice versa. They need work together. They need to play.
Defensive line ... No major injuries here. Everyone should play. I wouldn’t exactly burden Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake, Andre Branch and William Hayes with many snaps. They really do not need it. But I’d play Davon Godchaux and Jordan Phillips a long time, if not the entire game -- one, because he needs the experience to be better as the starter in the regular season; the other, because he needs to mount a rally to get his starting job back or prove he can’t do it.
I’d play first-round pick Charles Harris a lot. He needs the experience. He needs to get rid of the butterflies he suffered in the preseason opener. He needs to get used to this stage because the stage gets much bigger Sept. 10.
Linebackers ... Everybody plays. I’d be careful with Kiko Alonso and Lawrence Timmons. They don’t need a half of football. I’d let starting middle linebacker Mike Hull play plenty. He needs to show if he’s capable of being the guy in the middle or not. Obviously, all the backups have to play a lot, including on special teams.
Defensive backs ... Everybody plays. We don’t need to see a ton from Reshad Jones and Byron Maxwell. But Xavien Howard needs work. Bobby McCain needs work. T.J. McDonald needs work.
Nate Allen has been nursing a groin injury, hasn’t practiced in over a week and isn’t going to play unless somebody loses their mind.
If you’re arguing that Jones needs to play more to get chemistry on the back end with McDonald, I remind you McDonald is suspended the first eight games of the season. So chemistry between him and Jones isn’t a thing. McDonald does, however, need to play a lot because he’s going to get two months off pretty soon.
All the backups in the defensive backfield should play.
The goal tonight is not to win this game. The Dolphins will play the Ravens in the regular-season on Oct. 26. The goal is to win that game. One way to help do that is by staying healthy tonight.
And that’s the chief objective: Stay healthy.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero