A day after owner Stephen Ross gave Joe Philbin an endorsement and told him he would return to coach the Miami Dolphins next season, Philbin was asked by reporters whether he was ready to do the same for embattled defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.
Philbin, whose contract gives him autonomy over which coaches he hires and fires, declined to follow his boss down the endorsement trail.
And one person within the organization said this week the reason for that is because Philbin is going to give the problems the defense encountered this year a good evaluation once the season is over and Coyle’s status will be part of that study.
So Philbin, whose history has been one of resisting change within his staff, could stick with Coyle or try to upgrade with someone else. The difficult decision has apparently not been made.
Sunday’s game against the New York Jets will probably be part of that evaluation, but Philbin must be careful because no matter how good the Miami defense plays against a weak New York offense, everyone with eyes recognizes this season as a whole has been disappointing for Miami’s defense.
This unit, once the team’s backbone, has shown stress fractures all around. The unit is in obvious need of repair at one cornerback, at linebacker and along the interior defensive line.
The Dolphins’ defense, in other words, is broken.
To deny that is to ignore the fact 2014 was not a year of regression but more of full-scale retreat on multiple fronts.
The most worrisome problem is that with one game still to play, the Dolphins have already given up more points this year than last year. The team is 17th in the NFL in points allowed, the lowest ranking a Miami defense has posted since 2009 when it was 25th.
(For the record, defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni was fired following that 2009 season.)
Last year the Dolphins were eighth in the NFL in points allowed. In 2012, the first year Philbin and Coyle were in Miami, the Dolphins were seventh in points allowed.
So, 17 this year.
Eight last year.
Seven the first year.
This would be fine if we were counting down to a rocket launch. What we’re counting down to is the window closing on this unit’s better days.
Philbin made the point last week that the Dolphins were a top-10 scoring defense the first two years he and Coyle came to Miami. But what was not mentioned is the Miami defense was No.6 in scoring the year before Philbin and Coyle arrived.
So being in the top 10 was not a reflection of any improvement or fix. Indeed, the Dolphins regressed in those two seasons the coach is holding up as successes.
None of this is opinion. The facts are the facts. This also is a fact:
The Miami defense got fat against poor quarterbacks and bad teams — Jacksonville, Oakland, the Jets in the first meeting — but with the exception of the San Diego game, it shrunk in big moments and against quality opponents.
The Miami offense scored 24 points against Green Bay. But the defense gave up 27 points, including a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.
The Miami offense scored 36 points at Denver. But the defense gave up 39 points, including 22 in the fourth quarter that evaporated an 11-point lead.
The Dolphins led 16-13 at Detroit with 3:13 to play. And then the Lions drove 74 yards for the winning touchdown.
In games the Dolphins needed to win to stay in the postseason hunt, the defense vanished. It yielded 28 points to Baltimore and 41 points to New England. Even rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater lit up the Dolphins last week in a 37-35 Miami win.
So in the past three weeks, the Dolphins have allowed 104 points.
“One of the things we were doing better earlier in the season was points off of turnovers,” Philbin said. “We were the best in football originally. That’s fallen off a little bit.
“We have to do better in the red zone. We haven’t played as good. Our first two years we were playing outstanding red zone defense. We haven’t played as good in the red zone. Third down, our situational football … our situational football has to improve starting Sunday, and this is the last [game] we have.”
Coaches have not figured out how to best use the freakish abilities of Dion Jordan two years into his career. Maybe he’s a defensive end (wrong); maybe he’s a strong-side linebacker (correct). Coyle said that is a project for the coming offseason.
Two years after they were drafted, cornerbacks Will Davis and Jamar Taylor are still question marks to these coaches.
“I wish by this point we’d have a better feel,” Coyle said.
Let me help: If Cortland Finnegan is cut for salary-cap space or retires, general manager Dennis Hickey must get cornerback help because it is a bad idea to count on it coming from the inconsistent pair.
Randy Starks, a good player in Miami since 2008, regressed this year to the point he might have to take a pay cut to stay. The Koa Misi middle linebacker experiment did not work as hoped. Philip Wheeler, good in Oakland two years ago, once again could not regain that level. Dannell Ellerbe, good in Baltimore two years ago, was saved from further regression by an injury this year but 2013 was such a disaster he is likely to be cut in the offseason, anyway.
Meanwhile, Karlos Dansby, Vontae Davis and even Sean Smith are playing better elsewhere than they ever did for Coyle.
It is obviously not all on the defensive coordinator but it will be interesting to see how much Philbin, heading into a make-or-break season, is willing to bet the defense can be fixed by someone who undoubtedly helped break it.