Branden Albert is back.
No, not the guy who started the season opener against the Washington Redskins after a breakneck rehabilitation from a career-threatening knee injury. That guy was solid but not great. That player was not the same as the one the Dolphins signed in 2014 to be an elite blindside protector of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
And, no, Albert on Sunday is not the same guy who started the second game of the season against Jacksonville and promptly injured his hamstring. That player missed most of that game and the next three weeks while rumors swirled he was in decline.
That guy was worried. Discouraged. Maybe a little afraid.
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“It was dark, it was dark, it was dark,” Albert said in a private moment last week. “I didn’t think I was ever going to be the same player again. I got injured and then got injured again. I didn’t feel like myself.
“I can go out there feeling like that and I’m probably better than most tackles in the league. But that’s still not how I feel when I’m right. To be dominant is what I focus on, and that’s what my teammates and my team needs me to be — to be a dominant force. That’s what I came here to be. And that’s what I’m paid the big bucks to do — help my team, protect the quarterback and be dominant.
“I didn’t feel that way. So I did have doubt creep in. I listened to what people were saying. It was dark.”
Are you getting the picture here?
A big man with a big heart, big paycheck and big expectations was starting to believe his circumstances were bigger than him. He questioned his ability for perhaps the first time in his career. And that kind of thinking seemed to block out the sun.
“There’s been a lot of dark days the past 12 months,” Albert said.
But with all things Dolphins the past two weeks, this is a tale of victory, optimism and light. Some people will credit new interim coach Dan Campbell for the new vibe around the team. Some people will credit the overdue ending of the Joe Philbin Era.
It is more than that.
The resurgence of these Dolphins is about a new passion. New aggressiveness. New strategy. And, yes, perhaps a new left tackle.
The old Branden Albert.
“I know everybody started questioning and asking if I could be the same player I’ve been in the past,” Albert said. “I questioned myself a little bit. I just needed a little confidence, a little spark, and I got it on Sunday. And now I know I can do it still at a very, very high level, and that’s all I needed.”
Albert was outstanding against the Titans last week. He played better than he had in the season opener. He performed better than he had in practice the previous two weeks.
He was good enough to trust in one-on-one blocking. He was good enough that if J.J. Watt or Jadeveon Clowney or anyone else comes at him Sunday when the Dolphins play the Houston Texans, Albert will more often than not take on the task by himself.
“Me [last] Sunday, playing the way I did, I shocked myself a little bit,” Albert said. “I really questioned if I still could play football. I kept being hurt, and even after I played the first couple of games, I didn’t feel like myself. But Sunday I felt like myself, and now I know I can do it still.
“Coming off my hamstring, my knee, and all that stuff, and me having doubt creep into my head, I didn’t know what to expect. But I felt strong. My legs were under me, man. I felt like myself again. I even got better towards the end of the game.”
This is all great news for the Dolphins, of course, because they are simply a better team with a healthy Albert in the lineup. Indeed, the difference in the team is as stark as the difference between a playoff contender and a loser.
The Dolphins are 7-3 in the 10 games Albert has started and finished since he joined the team in 2014. That includes a 2-0 record this season. But Miami is 3-8 in the 11 games Albert has either not played or not finished because of an injury, including the loss in Detroit last season when he tore multiple tendons in a knee to end his season.
That doesn’t even take into account the fewer number of sacks and greater number of yards the offense typically turns in when Albert plays compared with when he does not.
“I think two things — [first] is the proven player he is, you get his production,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “Number two, I think because of the player he is, the veteran he is, there’s a sense of confidence with everyone when he’s there.
“I’m not in the huddle with them, but even on the practice field or just watching, you get a sense that there’s a presence he brings. And every good team I’ve been on, the offensive line brings some presence; either a real toughness, a confidence, whatever, and you know I think having Branden in the huddle adds to that.”
Albert rejects the notion he’s the most important player on the team. “I’m not,” he said.
But he accepts that when his old self returns — “And it has. It’s come like it’s supposed to,” he said — the Dolphins are a far better team.
So, yes, the news is good for the Dolphins. Branden Albert is finally back.