Mike Tannenbaum was talking with agent Drew Rosenhaus after practice the other day, and every time a member of the media passed the impromptu meeting, the Miami Dolphins executive vice president joked about having just signed guard Evan Mathis.
“So we got him for four years, right Drew?” Tannenbaum joked as the agent played along.
It was all grins and chuckles and it showed what a good mood both men were in that day — Rosenhaus perhaps because he represents a pretty good player on the open market and Tannenbaum because he’s obviously confident with Miami’s current offensive line.
Except that no one will be laughing if the Dolphins’ current relative indifference to signing Mathis backfires.
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It won’t be funny if the team’s hopes for finding two starting guards from a trio of players — Dallas Thomas, Billy Turner and rookie Jamil Douglas — does not go exactly as expected.
No one will be laughing if once again quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the face of the franchise, spends much of his time picking himself off the turf after getting trucked by defenders as he has done the past two years.
And yet here the Dolphins are.
Exactly where they have been since 2008.
The team that hired former offensive line guru Tony Sparano to be the head coach and then replaced him with former offensive line guru Joe Philbin has failed to deliver even one stable, lasting offensive line in all that time.
And so far, this training camp is no different.
Wednesday, one week since players reported, the Dolphins will take the practice field with five linemen but only two accomplished performers along their starting line.
Mike Pouncey is the center, and he’s very good there. Ja’Wuan James is the right tackle, and he was pretty good there last season.
But right guard? It is a question mark because Turner is fighting but for the job but has usually been losing (understandably) against Ndamukong Suh in practice.
Left guard? Another uncertainty because Douglas is a rookie who has yet to take an NFL snap in game competition while Thomas is a third-year player who is only good enough to be embroiled in a full-blown competition with a rookie fourth-round pick who is still learning the offense.
And then there is the left tackle position. Branden Albert is probably one of the team’s best players when he’s healthy. The problem is he is coming back from knee reconstruction and no one can guarantee he will be the same player he was before the injury.
So five offensive line positions.
What are the chances each of those get encouraging answers?
It must be said, in fairness, that nothing has gone wrong yet to think disaster is imminent. No one has flopped in practice, although Tuesday’s practice included a handful of sacks. And Albert remains on schedule to play in the regular-season opener.
But the Dolphins are eyebrow deep in a faith exercise with their offensive line.
They’re projecting Turner to be ready. They’re trusting Thomas will be consistent at guard when he has never been consistent in two previous seasons. They’re believing Douglas can come a long way in a short time.
All this trust and hopeful thinking is a formula for failure considering every expert on the subject who speaks seems to offer a corresponding “but” with every compliment.
“He’s really improved his demeanor and body control through the plays,” offensive line coach John Benton said of Turner. “Is it 100 percent consistent? No, not where we need it right now.”
And that takes us back to Mathis.
The reason he’s a topic of conversation among fans and the media is because we’ve seen how wishing and hoping players work out has not worked for the Dolphins. We saw how last year’s center experiment with a handful of players in camp failed until Miami signed Samson Satele.
The Dolphins might say they’re not ready to pay Mathis his price tag because in their eyes, he’s a stopgap player rather than a long-term addition.
But if that’s it, the question has to be how much is having a starter for even one year worth? Is it $2 million as the Dolphins might like or is it closer to the $5 million per year Mathis probably sees as his salary floor?
And are the Dolphins willing to bet their young, untested, younger, cheaper guards can play at such a level that signing Mathis is not worth the extra money?
Mathis wouldn’t solve all three of Miami’s offensive line issues, but he definitely would be the starter at left guard if he was on the team.
The Dolphins haven’t reached that conclusion yet. For now, the Mathis topic is on the back burner to be brought out only as a useful tool for repartee.
We’ll see if everyone is still laughing during the regular season.