Saturday was the first time the Miami Dolphins put on pads this training camp, which means things on the field started to resemble real football. That’s notable because everyone is eager to see if Miami’s rebuilt offensive line is going to be any good this season and that evaluation began when the pads finally went on.
This, by the way, is where I remind you offensive line columns can make the average fan’s eyes glaze over -- except when they involve bully scandals, I guess -- but they’re worthy here because the Miami offensive line has been such a problem in recent, well, decades.
The failures have been the reason multiple Dolphins coaches and general managers imploded the unit year after year until they themselves eventually got blown out for -- among other things -- failing to fix the offensive line.
(The last time the Dolphins put the same offensive line on the field in consecutive seasons was 1998 and ‘99).
But this season promises to be different. This season, all shiny and full of hope, could finally be the one the Miami offensive line can be a team strength.
At least that’s what the Dolphins are saying publicly as well as privately. At least that’s what we can hope because the group on paper seems constructed well enough and there’s no actual evidence to the contrary.
“We have a good room. We think we have a special group of guys,” said starting right guard Jesse Davis.
“It takes a little bit of time to gel; but I think we’ve got a good group,” said left guard Josh Sitton, who as a 10-year veteran should know what a good group looks like.
“I’m excited to be in there and I’m excited to get to work with these guys.”
And having said all this and built your hopes, I must also tell you the starting offensive line was not good the first day of padded practices.
The protection of quarterback Ryan Tannehill was spotty both up the middle and from the outside -- where no one picked up a blitzing nickel cornerback Bobby McCain on one occasion. The run blocking seemed acceptable but only because a lot of the yards Kenyan Drake and others picked up came after backs ran into a wall sealed by defenders and bounced outside and into the secondary.
“We have work to do, obviously,” coach Adam Gase said.
Despite this small yet forgettable sample size, optimism about Miami’s unit remains high.
“I do think that as we go along, we’ll get better up front,” Gase offered. “I do like that these guys are getting some good continuity going to where they’re getting used to playing with each other. With today being the first day in uppers and being able to actually squeeze out some of these holes, I thought we did a good job of picking up pressures.
“It wasn’t perfect as far as being able to be firm, but we weren’t cutting guys free. We were doing a lot of good things. We’ve just got to clean a few things up.”
And here’s the thing: I love the Dolphins plan for doing that.
In past years genius offensive line coaches would convince everyone the best way for the starting offensive line to find chemistry and work in cohesion was to, well, break them up.
So one day the center would work with one set of guards and a different set the next day. Or guys would move from one side of the line to the other from day to day. Or the center would get practice off to protect him from getting injured.
Last year, for example, center Mike Pouncey was often shelved during the week to keep him healthy. And Davis would practice at guard and tackle in any given week.
Much of that was out of necessity. But all the absences and changes and position flexibility mumbo jumbo never helped continuity.
This year, the Dolphins have largely settled on their starting offensive line: Ja’Wuan James is at right tackle. Davis the right guard. Daniel Kilgore is the center. Sitton is the left guard and Laremy Tunsil is the right tackle.
That’s how it will be, barring an injury or someone totally laying an egg.
No wonder reserve guard Ted Larsen called the training camp battles for playing time, “allegedly a competition.”
The starting jobs are settled. And I’m good with it.
The current makeup of this group promises grit and toughness and more unity than past groups. I Iike that Kilgore might not be an elite star on the field as Pouncey was, but he’s good enough and is an elite locker room guy who brings stability and a great work ethic.
I love that James, in the final year of his contract and coming off another injury plagued season, feels like he’s not reached his ceiling and wants to prove he can be outstanding. I love that Sitton, potentially the grumpy veteran, embraced the job of mentoring Tunsil.
I love that Tunsil was somewhat embarrassed by his work last season -- his first as the starting left tackle -- and wants to prove he’s every bit the outstanding player the Dolphins said he was when they drafted him in 2016.
And I love that Davis is a big, strong, hungry man who takes absolutely nothing for granted, is a nice guy off the field, but not so nice on the field.
It’s an interesting group. It can be a good group.
“We definitely have a lot of work to do,” Davis said, “but we have quite a bit of time to get ready and get it right.”