Today I want to discuss some basic beliefs the Miami Dolphins use for building a football team.
I do this days after I wrote an unspectacular 4-7-type-column following the team’s 35-17 loss to New England Sunday. That piece (good description of the work) said the Dolphins need to rethink their roster, assistant coaching staff and philosophy for team building.
Tuesday I expanded why I think coach Adam Gase’s coaching staff is failing on several fronts.
Today I want to expand on what I meant by the philosophy for team building.
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Some of the more publicized beliefs the Dolphins worked off of the past year are:
1. We can make due with substandard guards.
2. Our defense will be built around the defensive line that will attack the quarterback and take over games.
3. We’re going to keep our own free agents.
All of these -- every single one -- has roots in sound football thinking. Every one.
The problem comes when these otherwise solid tenets for team building become strict rules that get adhered to so blindly that they make no sense.
Take the guards thing. The Dolphins last offseason didn’t put a premium value on guards. It’s right to refuse paying between $8-$12 million per season for a grunt who never touches the football, never scores or prevents points, and doesn’t have a say in the outcome of the game.
I get that.
The problem is the Dolphins took this philosophy to the extreme. They thought they could pay cheap for Ted Larsen and Jermon Bushrod and get a third-day draft pick in Isaac Asiata and that was the way to go.
And now that the Dolphins have an offensive line that performed like a turnstile to the quarterback on Sunday and has struggled to run-block much of the season, we understand maybe this wasn’t such a great approach because of the ultra orthodox approach the Dolphins took.
This philosophy needs rethinking, as I wrote. But it probably merely needs some fine tuning.
The Dolphins should not pay for big-money free agent guards. They’re way too expensive. But that doesn’t mean resources should not be spent on the position.
Good guard play is vital to having a good running game, which in turn helps the offense stay on the field longer, which in turn helps the defense. So guards are not unimportant.
But the way to address the issue is through the draft. And I’m not talking picking guys as afterthoughts in the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds. I’m talking good, viable, gifted guys in the second, third and fourth rounds. I mean guys that are going to play right away. Guys that don’t need, ahem, a redshirt year.
That, friends, is how you address the position with quality players while not spending a mint on a grunt.
By the way, I expect the Dolphins will address the offensive line in the offseason by picking up at least one guard out of at least two starting-caliber players added to the offensive line. My hope is this player comes in the draft.
As to the defensive line being the cornerstone of the defense and perhaps even the team....
Hey, I get that. Great defenses have historically been amazing up front and helped teams win championships.
The Steel Curtain.
The Ravens of the early 2000s.
The Tampa Bay defense of the early 2000s.
They were scary. And good. And all won.
So the Dolphins approach makes sense.
Except that after telling us they were going to do major damage with Ndamukong Suh, and Cameron Wake, and first-round pick Charles Harris, and big-money free agent Andre Branch, and two good rookie draft picks including Davon Godchaux, who is very promising, and second-round pick Jordan Phillips, I’m still not seeing a ton of damage.
The Dolphins are 30th in the NFL with 18 sacks.
And they’re 25th in the NFL in run defense.
So this all-star, high-priced defensive line is today great at ... nothing
Put another way, the Dolphins are spending $40 million of salary cap space on their defensive line this year. And that group is just kind of mediocre so far.
Yes, Suh is very good, or at least he was until he injured a knee a few weeks ago. But everyone else on that line has been inconsistent and rarely spectacular.
And the Dolphins billed this group as spectacular.
Wait. That’s wrong. The Dolphins billed this group as spectacular until they weren’t spectacular and then I started hearing excuses ...
They’re not going to be spectacular if they don’t have the lead.
It doesn’t matter if they don’t get sacks. Sacks are overrated.
My head wants to explode when I hear this stuff.
Suh and Wake both shook their heads in disbelief two weeks ago when the idea that they need to have a lead to be good was presented to them. Even they weren’t buying that excuse and they’re the ones who would benefit from it.
As for sacks being overrated, I once spoke with a very savvy NFL man who told me his team views sacks as worth half-a-point each. They stop or stall drives, they lead to turnovers, they kill momentum. Sacks do things to an offense that a pressure or hurry or hit on a quarterback alone do not.
So I believe sacks are good to have, folks.
Anyway, assuming the Dolphins know more than everyone else on Earth who values sacks and consistent play all the time, I ask this question: If sacks are not that important and your line has to rely on the offense to give them a lead so it can be great, why are you spending so much money on that line?
If your line cannot take over a game, then you’re over-spending resources of draft picks and salary cap dollars on it.
That is a Dolphins problem today because that defensive line hasn’t taken over a game this year. (And hitting Tom Brady often but allowing 196 rushing yards is not taking over, in case you’re wondering).
So this team building around a defensive line is fine. But your line better kick butt and take souls. And this one has not.
Finally, let’s look at the “keeping all our own” approach the Dolphins adopted last offseason.
It’s not wrong.
A team that has players it either drafted or has gotten a really good evaluation on while that player is on the team for an extended time is probably going to limit its liability on a big new contract because the player is a known quantity and quality.
That, of course, assumes the team doesn’t go crazy overpaying for the player and has a sound plan for that player’s use going forward. So what happened in Miami?
Receiver Kenny Stills was good to re-sign for $8 million per year. We know this because, so far, he’s productive at the same level he was before he got paid.
Long snapper John Denney was good to re-sign because he’s still got the same velocity on his snaps, doesn’t miss, and gets downfield on punt coverage.
Guard Jermon Bushrod was a desperation re-signing because the guard market blew up and the Dolphins didn’t want to pay and didn’t want to use a high draft pick on the position. Bushrod is 33 years old and a stabilizing locker room presence. But this is his last year with the team.
Defensive end Andre Branch got $8 million per year for three years. And the Dolphins happily paid that for five sacks a year. And Branch is more or less on a five-sack season arc right now. But me? I don’t pay $8 million for five sacks. Sorry.
Kiko Alonso was re-signed even though the team didn’t have to because it had tendered as a restricted free agent for about $4 million. The new contract pays Alonso about $7.2 million over four years and that’s a good deal for the Dolphins. But after seeing Alonso play well at middle linebacker, make plays that won games (San Diego, San Francisco) in 2016 and be responsible for nine turnovers, the Dolphins paid Alonso and then promptly changed his position.
And Alonso hasn’t been the same. He’s not as good in coverage. He’s not making game defining plays.
So somewhere along the line, the plan went awry and it wasn’t in the contract department.
The Dolphins also increased safety Reshad Jones’s salary by $4 million per season. And that one hasn’t been great. Jones is good. He might be the best defender on the team. But he’s not making $4 million more worth of big plays this season.
And my question to the Dolphins would be did you expect to pay $4 million more to get the same player who was already under contract for $4 million less?
If the answer is yes then someone doesn’t understand value.
Cameron Wake got a one-year, $9.125 million contract extension as well. Look, the Dolphins obviously need him to play until he’s 46 because he remains their best pass rusher. But is he as good as he was back in 2012 when he was making $8.3 million per season?
And here’s the point, the reason teams sign their own players is to limit mistakes and maximize value. Yet based on what I just outlined, the Dolphins got it right with Stills, Denney and probably Wake. The contract for Branch is not holding up. The football plan for Alonso is not holding up. The Bushrod move was someone just plugging a hole.
The batting average has to get better.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero