Greg Cote

In great disconnect on Dolphins' expectations, these factors will tell us who's right

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill's return from injury and coach Adam Gase's gamble on "culture"-motivated personnel moves are two of the eight key factors that will determine whether the Dolphins can exceed modest 2018 expectations.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill's return from injury and coach Adam Gase's gamble on "culture"-motivated personnel moves are two of the eight key factors that will determine whether the Dolphins can exceed modest 2018 expectations. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The smart guys in Las Vegas who set the odds and betting lines for sports are not often wrong to the extreme. They're human, yes. Right under their noses, they failed to see the expansion Vegas Golden Knights being any good this season, let alone reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. But for the most part, when they say your NFL team's projected over/under on season victories is 5 1/2, you may officially begin to curb your enthusiasm.

One year ago, for example, the Miami Dolphins were coming off a 10-6 playoff season and happy days were here again. (Remember?) Coach Adam Gase was talking about swagger. But then Vegas cast a soggy blanket across South Florida by setting the team's 2017 over/under at 7 1/2 wins, a steep drop-off and not a playoff number. And this was before Ryan Tannehill's season-ending injury, mind you. "No way!" cried Dolfans.

Way.

Miami cascaded to 6-10. Hapless days were here again. Vegas was right. And it caused a rebooting Gase to get rid of biggest stars Jay Ajayi, Mike Pouncey, Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh in the name of a "culture" makeover.

To Vegas sportsbooks the falloff was foreseeable and, in retrospect, it also was explainable well beyond Tannehill's injury.

One year ago in a column I listed eight things that had to happen for the Dolphins to prove Vegas' pessimism wrong. Well, Miami would fail on six of the eight, with two inconclusive:

1. Improved run defense: Limited success. Miami's numbers went from near rock bottom in 2016 (140.4 yards allowed, 4.8 per) to mid-pack in '17 (110.5, 4.1). Thanks largely to the now-gone Suh, of course.

2. Impact from then-rookie DE Charles Harris: Didn't happen. In situational use, Harris had only two sacks and one fumble recovery.

3. Better cornerback play: Limited success. Xavien Howard (four picks, 13 passes defensed) looked like a star at times, but there was a sharp drop-off after him.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill speaks to the media about his knee injury and being back to play football this year.

4. Improvement at outside linebacker: Nope. Kiko Alonso didn't provide much impact, and it was largely a patchwork mess after him.

5. The full bloom of DeVante Parker: Didn't happen. The former first-round receiver missed three games injured and had a career-low 11.8 yards per catch and only one TD.

6. Solid interior offensive line play: Not so much. Although the center Pouncey played all 16 games, none of last year's three opening-game interior starters (Pouncey or guards Anthony Steen and Jermon Bushrod) remains with the club.

7. The right Julius Thomas showing up: He didn't. The now former Dolphins tight end averaged only 27.7 yards per game as a failed reclamation and major disappointment.

8. Ajayi taking the next step: Um, he wore out his welcome and was traded to Philadelphia by midseason.

Fast forward one year, to right now, and the dichotomy on the Dolphins — the disconnect — is repeating itself. There is great, palpable internal optimism, much of it pegged to the return of Tannehill. But the outside view of Miami is one of very modest expectations. The betting wins over/under fluctuates in the 5 1/2 to 7 range. Just this week, ESPN's latest Football Power Index (FPI) ranks Miami 30th of 32 teams, with the victory projection at 6.3 and the playoff likelihood at 13 percent.

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase speaks to the media about quarterback Ryan Tannehill

Once again it will depend on key, major "ifs" going Miami's way for the Fins to prove the skeptics wrong. Here are our eight for 2018:

1. Tannehill staying healthy: Knee injuries the past two seasons mean that is no longer a given. "We're going to go as far as he takes us," said defensive end Andre Branch — accurately.

2. The "culture" makeover paying dividends: Maybe there was something to it. Branch called last year's team attitude "kind of complacent." Cornerback Bobby McCain said, "We lost a bit of fire." Players have noted an increased intensity during offseason practices. Attitude and effort are no substitute for talent, but they matter.

3. Replacing Mr. Suh: Miami plans to emphasize depth and rotation across the defensive line, but it's primarily Davon Godchaux, Jordan Phillips and Akeem Spence who will be called upon to fill the void left by Suh.

4. A second wind for Amendola and Gore: The culture makeover saw the import of two aging veterans in receiver Danny Amendola, 32, and running Frank Gore, 35, the Old Cane. Will they prove to be a lot closer to smart signings than busts?

5. The play at cornerback: Howard has shown flashes of being elite-capable, but can he do it consistently? And will Cordrea Tankersley rise to that level? And can Tony Lippett return successfully from major Achilles surgery?

Miami Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain gets friendly with newly acquired and former New England Patriot receiver Danny Amendola during OTAs.

6. Raekwon McMillan being all that: He missed his entire rookie season injured, but he's healthy now and much is expected from a man filling the storied middle linebacker position in the franchise footsteps of Nick Buoniconti, John Offerdahl and Zach Thomas.

7. Minkah Fitzpatrick's fast impact: Fins will have one of the NFL's best safety trios, on paper, if Pro Bowl fixture Reshad Jones and unsuspended T.J. McDonald find an immediate running mate in team's No. 1 draft pick.

8. Impact at tight end, please: Mike Gesicki, the 6-5 second-round pick from Penn State, is Gronk-sized, but will he apprroach that kind of offensive impact? No Dolphins tight end has caught 70 passes since Randy McMichael in 2004, or made a Pro Biowl since Keith Jackson in 1993.

Figure at least half of these eight key factors will have to fall Miami's way — unlike last year — for the Dolphins to prove their most hopeful fans right — and prove Las Vegas wrong.

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