Armando Salguero

How a late-night call changed Miami Dolphins thinking on Mike Pouncey

Mike Pouncey is one of several Miami Dolphins veterans who are no longer on the team.
Mike Pouncey is one of several Miami Dolphins veterans who are no longer on the team. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Whatever you think of this Miami Dolphins offseason — whether you buy the culture change narrative or you’re a culture change truther, whether you think the Dolphins have improved or simply let too much talent go — the Mike Pouncey departure was unlike any other.

So forget everything you think you know about that transaction.

Depending on what you believe, Pouncey was either staying with the team for 2018 ...

Or he was always going to be cut because he was too big of an injury risk...

Or he was too expensive to keep ...

Or the Dolphins wanted to upgrade at the position...

Or Pouncey was a locker room problem...

You can believe any of those. Or you can believe the truth.

So allow me to paint the most accurate picture I can, based on various conversations with sources within and outside the Dolphins organization, about the move that sent Pouncey packing after seven seasons and ultimately replaced him with Daniel Kilgore, who came from the San Francisco 49’ers:

The most important things first: There is no use being upset about the move now because Pouncey’s not coming back. He signed with the Los Angeles Chargers and if he remains healthy he could anchor what some are expecting to be one of the AFC’s best offensive lines.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, have replaced Pouncey with a solid player in Kilgore, but one who is not considered elite at his position as Pouncey was.

That’s what’s out there.

But the Dolphins would argue with some of that.

I was told last week by a club source the team believes the exchange means the team loses a once elite center — “Mike was maybe the best or second-best center in the league two or three years ago,” I was told.

But notice the tense in those words. Pouncey was amazing years ago. He’s not that now. He’s still very good. But he wasn’t elite last year.

Indeed, last year the Dolphins thought Pouncey was good in pass protection, but less proficient in run blocking. Coach Adam Gase initially blamed himself for Pouncey’s run blocking struggles because of things the center was asked to do within the scheme seemed to ask too much of anyone, including Pouncey.

The coach promised Pouncey to clean those scheme issues up but I’m unclear if that happened or not.

The bottom line is this: The Dolphins don’t think they lost an elite center, a 2013 Mike Pouncey for example.

The team believes the exchange of Kilgore for Pouncey will bring them better run blocking from the center spot while the pass blocking may suffer a bit.

In other words, an upgrade for the running game but not necessarily in pass protection.

The Dolphins believe Kilgore brings a little more power and girth to the position. He’s easily a 305-310-pounder and Pouncey last year struggled to keep weight on. I’m told he finished the season at 293 pounds.

I made the comment to one source that Pouncey was more “athletic” than Kilgore and was quickly rebuked and told Kilgore is deceptively athletic as well.

Also, Pouncey has never been a weight room addict. Kilgore apparently digs the weight room.

Remember as you consider the tweet above, the Dolphins’ weight and conditioning program does not start until until April 16. Except, obviously, one has already begun for Kilgore.

Kilgore, you should know, was rated 23rd of 35 centers for all of 2017 by ProFootballFocus.com. That grade was brought down by Kilgore’s pass protection.

But before you think the Dolphins’ new center is a mess in pass protection, consider that when the 49’ers got an upgrade at quarterback with Jimmy Garoppolo starting the final five games, Kilgore did not allow a sack or quarterback hit and his grade was among the NFL’s top 10 centers for that span of games.

“I think there’s a special relationship between the center and quarterback,” Garoppolo said last season. “We spend so much time together. Me and him got on the same page almost instantly when I got here. He made my job a lot easier in the run game.”

Does that mean the Dolphins feel they have upgraded?

The truth?

No.

But do they believe their move made sense for a variety of other reasons?

Yes.

So you want to know the reasons, as in the real reasons?

Look, suggesting the Pouncey move was part of the culture change is not correct. The Dolphins didn’t see Pouncey as a problem in the locker room. No, he wasn’t Branden Albert wise. But he was nonetheless an offensive line leader. The team saw him potentially as part of the solution.

Gase counted Pouncey as one of his prized players to the extent he still doesn’t like thinking about the idea of replacing Pouncey.

“That’s a tough one because I think Pouncey … It’s a tough word to use, ‘replace,’ “ Gase said. “I think when you have a guy that’s done as much for this organization as Mike has, I don’t know if you can really replace him.”

That’s real. Gase saying he appreciated Jarvis Landry’s contributions when he left was not quite real. This is different.

Amid postseason speculation Pouncey might be a salary cap casualty, Gase told multiple people close to him that his center for 2018 was going to be Pouncey.

Executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum made salary cap plans for 2018 that included Pouncey.

Did the team discuss moving on from Pouncey after the season? Sure. But that conversation was similar to the one the team’s brass had about at least one third of the roster.

And once the team checked in on the possibility of signing free agent Ryan Jensen and learned his asking price was through the proverbial roof (he ultimately got a four-year deal worth $42 million from Tampa Bay) that all but solidified Pouncey’s status with Miami for 2018.

As part of their initial decision about Pouncey, the team checked on his chronic hip injuries with doctors and was told the hips would not be problematic other than to cause Pouncey significant discomfort and even pain.

Pouncey’s level of play, doctors said, would possibly be tied to his level of pain tolerance.

That wasn’t good news but neither was it a deal breaker for the Dolphins.

Gase then worked out a plan to change Pouncey’s practice regimen for the coming year. Remember that last year Pouncey practiced only one day per week during the regular season until late in the season when he went two days a week.

So Pouncey’s fate seemed tied to the Dolphins for ‘18.

And then at 11:20 p.m. on March 14, the first day of free agency, the Dolphins got a call from the San Francisco 49’ers. They had just signed center Weston Richburg to a five-year contract worth up to $47.5 million with $16.5 million fully guaranteed.

So the Niners, who in February signed Kilgore to a three-year extension to be their starting center, were now looking to trade Kilgore.

At 11:30 p.m. Tannenbaum called Gase and presented him with the “opportunity” San Francisco had just presented to him.

Yes, it was a long night after that.

The Dolphins had to study Kilgore. That hurdle cleared, the Dolphins had to make sure Kilgore would report to them if they made the trade because there were other teams involved, so he had leverage which one he would allow himself to be traded to.

“I appreciate how (49’ers head coach) Kyle (Shanahan) and (general manager) John Lynch got me in a position where I can be successful,” Kilgore said. “They could have traded me anywhere but I think they did the right thing by putting me in a position that they know I can be successful, and putting me with a staff that loves the game and that are good people.”

Notice nothing has been said about compensation. The truth is the Niners never made a big deal about that part of the deal. They needed to move Kilgore. They needed him to report to a team he was comfortable going to.

The exchange of seventh-round picks was almost an afterthought.

But, I’m told, the Dolphins are nonetheless proud of the fact they got what they consider to be a bargain in the trade.

With that trade agreed to, mostly overnight and into the next morning, the Dolphins then had to move on from Pouncey. Why?

Because for all the talk you hear that salary cap doesn’t matter, and the hip injury could be managed, and Pouncey was an elite player, the problem presented by all those when considered in unison gave Miami its answer on what to do.

Making the trade would allow Miami to:

Cut Pouncey and save cap space that was used to sign Josh Sitton.

Erase the possibility if not probability that Pouncey’s hip injury would keep him from practicing all the time (best case scenario) or cost him games during the season (worst case scenario).

And Pouncey had been elite but was now something less than that with the chances of him being better in a year or two diminishing with time.

All those factors conspired to make the decision for the Dolphins. All of them together. And the decision was made for what the team hopes is the collective improvement of the offensive line.

“We’re just going to have to get that cohesiveness we need,” Gase said. “I know that we’ve talked about that a lot, where we’re always trying to figure out what’s the best thing to do.

“Practicing together, does that matter? If it’s every day for three months, what’s that going to do? I think we’re all in the same boat when we’re saying ‘Yes, that’s going to be a major factor.’ If we can keep guys healthy and practice together and get those reps together, that’s going to be important.”

Finally, some confusion exists so let’s clear things up: Although the Dolphins announced the Pouncey release first and then the Kilgore acquisition afterward, it was not the actual chronological order of things.

The Dolphins traded for Kilgore, then moved on from Pouncey.

Pouncey also wasn’t released after asking for a longer term contract, as he told one media outlet. The Dolphins offered Pouncey a pay cut, knowing he would decline and knowing he would then be released.

So maybe there is still some sting from this move because, again, Mike Pouncey is a good player. And no one has seen Kilgore take a snap in a Dolphins uniform.

So this could all go sideways for the Dolphins.

But the team did what it did because despite their initial plans to “roll with Pouncey,” as someone told me, the reasons to move on started mounting to the point a different path was ultimately taken.

“I know Daniel will come in here and really put his spin on that position,” Gase said. “He probably has some different traits that are strengths to him. We’ll just see how everything goes and how that group gels together, because really that’s what we’re looking for: To see if we can get those three interior guys working well together and see how well we can play this year.”

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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