The Miami Dolphins started this season as an outside zone running team because that’s what Kenyan Drake does well and that’s what Jay Ajayi loved to run before him. But Frank Gore isn’t too fond of outside zone run plays, preferring plays that haven’t been at the front of Adam Gase’s playbook before.
So the Dolphins offense evolved.
The jet sweep type plays were a big threat early in the season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill could hand the football to Jakeem Grant or Albert Wilson streaking past him and that would threaten defense’s perimeter with sheer speed.
Better, yet, Tannehill could flip the ball to either of the two electric receivers and it counted as a pass. And when Grant scored on one from 19 yards and Wilson scored on another from 74 yards, the mundane tosses became stirring passing touchdowns!
Except Wilson injured a hip and went on injured reserve.
And Grant injured his Achilles and went on injured reserve.
And the plays that made hearts skip a beat earlier in the season were seemingly shelved.
That’s how it is with this Miami Dolphins offense.
Dolphins fans hoped for revolutionary production from Gase’s unit because that’s what happened in Denver when he was the offensive coordinator and there’s all the quarterback-whisperer reputation he brought with him.
But circumstances have derailed all those plans and hopes. Instead of revolutionary, Gase has had to reach for evolutionary.
This fact says it all: The only offensive players who have played all 13 Dolphins games this year are right guard Jesse Davis, reserve tight end Mike Gesicki and four running backs — Gore, Drake, Brandon Bolden and Senorise Perry, who has neither carried the ball nor caught a pass.
In and out of the lineup due to injury or lack of performance.
Shifting positions forced by injuries or performance.
Or out for the season.
And some folks in the media and others in the stands wonder why the Dolphins’ offense hasn’t settled on an identity?
The Dolphins should name their offense Eve — because it has been burdened with multiple identities.
“I think we talked about this a couple of weeks ago or after the Bills game, just what the identity was,” Tannehill said. “Yeah, we’ve kind of had to change and shift and maneuver throughout the year on who is in the game and who is available.
“One guy goes down and it kind of shifts a little bit. Another guy goes down and it shifts back the other way. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to do, but you have to give credit to coach Gase and his ‘evil genius’ mind of just figuring out ways to keep the advantage and keep moving guys around, and use guys to the best of their ability.”
Tannehill himself was part of the shifting and moving and rethinking of the offense because he missed five games in the middle of the season due to a throwing shoulder injury.
Backup Brock Osweiler didn’t necessarily like the same plays Tannehill likes. So there came one shift.
And before the injury the Dolphins averaged 25.8 throws with Tannehill. Since his return he’s averaging 22.6 throws per game. That is not coincidence.
Gase is managing games differently when possible.
There are fewer deep passes.
There’s more play-action passing that wasn’t present before.
The bubble screens have declined.
The running game similarly has undergone significant change. Remember when Drake was going to pick up where he left off a year ago?
He led the NFL with 444 rushing yards the final five weeks of the 2017 season.
And then this season began and the Dolphins couldn’t convert on third-and-long. It was so bad that if someone had a false start or a holding penalty, or Drake lost any sort of yardage on an early-down run, the Dolphins would not convert on third down.
For weeks the Dolphins had the worst third-down percentage in the NFL. They were 3-1 at one point but third down was a wall they could not climb.
That’s when Gase dialed back on using Drake as a ball-carrier and increased his use in the passing game.
“This season has required some major adjustment by me,” Drake said insightfully.
The adjustment has worked and Drake leads the team in touchdowns — four rushing and five receiving.
Gore, meanwhile, has settled nicely into the lead running back role in which he rarely losses yardage, which keeps the Miami offense on schedule for first downs. And he does that with running plays that weren’t necessarily supposed to be part of the offense.
“We kind of tailored some things to make sure that he was comfortable, and he’s able to run the plays that he’s run his whole career,” Gase said. ““That’s why you see some of the stuff look a little different.
“When he gets an opening, he hits it and he gets to that second level fast and it’s hard for those guys to bring him down. He’s still Frank Gore. He has a powerful lower body, runs through arm tackles. Multiple guys have to tackle him to bring him down.”
The Dolphins still struggle on third down. But they’re 30th in the category now instead of last.
The look of the Dolphins offense has changed other ways. The Wildcat package has been employed in multiple games. The Dolphins have used Nick O’Leary as a tight end as well as an H-back.
The Dolphins have even lined up in the I-formation with two running backs — often a different set of guys — in what sometimes looks like a play out of the 1970s or ‘80s NFL.
“We think it’s advantageous to give us a two-back look because when you look at the league, all these defenses, they just get used to fitting one gap,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said.
“It’s easier to fit a one-back defense, because each guy is responsible for one gap. And all of a sudden when you put a two-back thing in there and they have to fit it … “
It’s all done with the hope of gaining an advantage or disguising a flaw. It’s all about trying to put different and often new players in good positions to maximize their abilities.
“We’ll keep doing it and growing that package a little bit,” Loggains predicted. “We have more than we’ve shown with that tying in some of the play-actions and [bootlegs] off of it as well.”
So, yes, the Dolphins have no identity on offense. Because the identity of the Dolphins offense has had to evolve.