The Dolphins knew there would be growing pains with a lot of their rookies and inexperienced second- and third-year players this season.
They didn’t necessarily believe there would be lapses from some of their veterans.
Fact is, some of the returning veterans the Dolphins thought would be their best players have so far fallen short of their past standards, a group including linebacker Jerome Baker, cornerback Xavien Howard (had his worst game in more than a year Sunday against Dallas) and receiver Jakeem Grant.
Two others — safety Reshad Jones and receiver Albert Wilson — played less than usual in the opener and missed the past two games with injuries. Both said they’re ready to play Sunday against the visiting Los Angeles Chargers. Receiver DeVante Parker has made a few nice plays (six catches for 131 yards this season) but also has two drops.
Which leads to the question: Are the veterans being dragged down by the poor play around them?
Or more specifically: When a team stinks, how hard is it for an individual to play at the highest level?
“It really depends on the player,” Baker said. “I always say great players always come out and play great. That has been my mentality since I was watching LeBron James as a little kid. No matter what team he was on, he was a great player. You could see it. I don’t want to make that excuse of, ‘our team isn’t playing as well and I can’t be great.’ I’ve got to be great. I’ve got to do more. That’s my mentality.“
No Dolphins veteran wants to use the sad state of the franchise as an excuse for lapses in his play, nor should it be one. But it’s fair to ask this: Is the concentration of veteran players not as sharp when a team is trailing big?
Some of the lapses by veterans have happened in close games, including Howard being beaten on most of the five completions caught by Amari Cooper and Parker allowing a potential touchdown to go through his hands in the first half against the Cowboys.
But some errors — such as two fumbled punts by Jakeem Grant and his dropped deep ball in the opener — occurred when the score was lopsided, though Grant said the score doesn’t affect his focus.
Baker is still only a second-year player, but as a defensive captain, play-caller and one of the defensive leaders in snaps, he has the responsibility of a multiyear veteran. And he’s not happy with his play.
Asked this week why he typed an “I have to play better” tweet on Tuesday, Baker said: “Self-evaluation. I like to do the little things. I can make a tackle and still not be up to par. There’s a lot of things that I could have just — it’s not really a problem, but I could do better. I’d rather say it than anybody else. Our defense is not playing up to par. It starts with me.
“No matter what, I’ve got to play better, and me being a leader, I’ve got to start with me first. I can’t say something about someone else. I don’t need a coach, I don’t need anyone to say it. I can say it myself.”
Baker has 23 tackles so far this season, but no tackles for loss or quarterback hits or interceptions. Pro Football Focus ranks him 76th of 81 linebackers.
The early season has also been a struggle for Grant, who showed great promise as a receiver last season before being sidelined the final seven games with a lower leg injury. He has eight catches for 46 yards in three games and has just 6 yards on five punt returns, an area he was excellent last season (16.3 average on 14 returns).
“I’m my worst critic,” Grant said Thursday. “Just got to do better. Got to concentrate a little more. I’m definitely going to get back to doing it.”
And PFF ranks Howard just 93rd of 107 cornerbacks this season — uncharacteristically low for a player who last season finished No. 1 in the NFL in passer rating against at 62.9 (minimum 50 targets) and was tied for the league lead with seven interceptions despite missing the final four weeks with a knee injury.
This season, Howard has allowed 8 of 11 passes thrown against him to be caught, with two for touchdowns. His passer rating against is 140.5.
The other issue is whether the losing is sapping the spirit of the veterans.
“There is no reason for me to be Debbie Downer and buy into what everyone wants to say about this team,” center Daniel Kilgore said. “All I can do is come in and help these guys on a daily basis where we can come out and compete on Sundays and hopefully win.
“Your career is too short to be in the dumps all day every day. I’ve been down that road before. It’s depressing, it’s terrible, it makes the season that much longer.”
Said Grant: “Me personally, I stay upbeat. We’re going to get this thing turned around.”
Coach Brian Flores said he hasn’t approached veterans, collectively, and implored them to play better.
“I think we see flashes from a lot of players: Baker, Davon Godchaux, Raekwon McMillan, Xavien Howard, Bobby McCain,” Flores said. “But... it’s about being consistent.”